After a tour to Rome between 1653 and 1659, Etienne Le Hongre – a pupil of Jacques Sarrazin – was admitted in 1667 to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, having presented his St Mary Magdalen as his morceau de reception. He became assistant professor and then professor of the Academy in 1670. From 1660 onwards, as the Sculpteur Ordinaire du Roi, he was involved in all the great building projects that were carried out during the reign of Louis XIV. He contributed to the decoration of the façade of the Louvre, sculpted several figures for the Château de Fontainebleau and had a hand in the decoration of the Porte Saint-Martin. At the end of his life, the Estates of Burgundy commissioned him to make a bronze equestrian monument of Louis XIV, intended for the Place Royale in Dijon. Reductions survive in Dijon, the Prado and in the Château de Versailles.
Le Hongre devoted the last years of his career to the sculptures in the gardens of Versailles. The Grande Commande project was to include the Four Parts of the World, the Four Hours of the Day, the Four Seasons, the Four Elements, the Four Humours of Man and the Four Forms of Poetry. Under the direction of François Girardon, Le Hongre was responsible for Air, the River Seine and the River Marne, as well as the term figures of Vertumnus and Pomona. Air was well-received from the moment of its creation, receiving praise from the Marquis de Louvois, Superintendent of the King’s Buildings. The marble sculpture was distinguished from the three other statues by the high price paid to the artist.
Using as his reference Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, published around 1555 – an important source of inspiration for the iconography of works at Versailles – Le Hongre followed Charles Le Brun’s drawing closely in his marble carving, while retaining a certain freedom. Le Brun’s drawing shows a chameleon lurking among the folds of the drapery, which can be seen in the marble, but not in the present bronze. According to an enduring legend that originated in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the chameleon is the only animal that can survive on nothing but air.
Air from the Maurice and Humbert de Wendel collection is an important discovery. The bronze is distinguished by the quality of the casting, the fine chasing and its prestigious provenance. The rather slender and delicate figure stands in a contrapposto pose, as though on a cloud, with an eagle at her left. With a graceful gesture, she lifts the veil wrapped around her form in order to cover her head.
Only two other versions from Le Hongre’s lifetime are known today: one in Dresden, (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, inv. no. H4 155/30) and another in a private collection, formerly in the Feray collection (sale in Paris, Drouot, 20 December 2006, lot 58). Another slightly smaller example (height 55.5 cm) can be considered a later casting (Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, inv. no. OAP658).
The Dresden bronze is mentioned in 1765 in the inventory of the collections of Frederick Augustus I (‘the Strong’) of Saxony, with the title Juno and the Eagle, followed by another bronze depicting Leda and the Swan by Corneille van Clève (1646-1732). The Feray bronze was also displayed with a Leda and the Swan, adding weight to the hypothesis that the two subjects formed a pair.
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