Prosper d'Épinay was responsible for some of the most beautiful and elegant marbles of female subjects made in the 19th-century, a point that was underscored in 2015, when his Bonne renommée sold for a record £800,000. Sylvie is the most significant marble by the sculptor to come to auction since, and the only life-size marble version of this model recorded on the art market in recent memory.
One of Prosper d’Épinay’s iconic female nudes, Sylvie dates from the sculptor’s mature period, when his fame was at its zenith. In 1874 d’Épinay presented La Ceinture dorée (The Golden Belt) at the Salon, an ‘ideal representation of the modern woman’ (Roux Foujols, op. cit., p. 36) that would become his most celebrated marble. Beginning with Ceinture dorée, d’Épinay created his very own, Second-Empire interpretation of the Greek ideal in his female nudes. Reverting to the Roman elegance of Antonio Canova, he imbued his marble maidens with a languid softness of form, developing the néo-grec current cultivated by predecessors such as James Pradier. D’Épinay’s unique style, which combined Italian and French artistic traditions, was summarised by the critic Thiébaut-Sisson in his 1887 article on the sculptor’s work as 'L’art élégant'.
Sylvie was modelled in 1876, two years after the first exhibition of Ceinture dorée. The girl represented here shares the older model's contrapposto stance, sensual line of form, and classically idealised features, with a Greek profile. With Sylvie, however, d’Épinay lends added movement to his nude, capturing her in the act of braiding her long tresses, which she holds up with her left hand while gazing downwards over her right shoulder. Freed from the constraints of complex coiffures à l’antique, Sylvie’s hair cascades in Romantic waves from her fingers and down her back.
Prosper d’Épinay’s composition relates closely to contemporary depictions of Venus that fetishised the Goddess of Love’s abundant hair. Notable among these is William Bouguereau’s magnificent painting, The Birth of Venus (1879), which shows the nude goddess braiding her hair in a manner similar to the present sculpture. D’Épinay himself later developed the model of Sylvie into his own version of the long-tressed goddess with his Vénus Astarté of 1900.
Though imbued with d’Épinay’s classicism, Sylvie’s subject is thoroughly Romantic. It most likely references the novella of the same name by the French Romanticist Gérard de Nerval, first published in 1853. Filled with poetic imagery, Nerval’s Sylvie recounts its hero’s hopeless quest for love, and his effervescent experience with three young women – each an ideal of feminine beauty – who are unattainable to him. The first of these is Sylvie, a peasant girl with ‘classic features’, who represents a timeless ideal. This synthesis of the humble and every-day with a perennial idealism is captured perfectly in d’Épinay’s statue, which seems to elevate the peasant girl to the status of a goddess.
Sylvie was commissioned by James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, though his version of the statue had not been located at the time Roux Foujol’s catalogue of d’Épinay’s oeuvre was published (op. cit., p. 105). The life-size plaster of the model remained in the artist’s atelier until 1912 and was later in the collection of the Duc de Gallèse, Italy. A marble version of unknown size is in the Museum of the Mauritius Commercial Bank, Port Louis, while a marble reduction, just over a metre tall, appeared in a Hotel Drouot sale in 1993. Two further marble versions of this size were sold at Christie’s; one in New York, 11 November 1998, lot 43, and the other, dated 1881, in London, 29 September 2005, lot 105. The present, impressive example is therefore of considerable importance, as it is the only life-size marble version of Sylvie known to remain in private hands.
Prosper d'Épinay was born in Mauritius in 1836, the son of the prominent lawyer and politician, Adrien d'Épinay. In 1857 he moved to Paris to study caricature under the sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan, and, from 1861, he worked in Rome for Luigi Amici. A British subject, he was active in London during the 1860s and 1870s, and, despite eventually settling in Paris, he continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy in London until as late as 1881.
F. Thiébault-Sisson, “L’art élégant, Prosper d’Épinay”, in La nouvelle revue, 9, vol. 49, Nov. Dec. 1887, pp. 830-849; P. Roux Foujols, Prosper d'Épinay (1836-1914): Un mauricien à la cour des princes, Ile Maurice, 1996, pp. 36-39 and pp. 104-105