Corneille van Clève was born into a family of goldsmiths of Flemish origin that settled in Paris in the early 17th century. It is thought that he first trained with Michel or François Anguier before moving to the Académie Royale and then to the Académie de France, Rome, in 1671 where he closely studied the works of Gianlorenzo Bernini. He extended his stay in Italy by four years, remaining in Venice, before finally returning to France in 1678. He was finally accepted by the Académie in 1681 with his marble figure of Polyphemus, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, that was inspired by Annibale Carracci's fresco in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome. For the following 40 years he enjoyed a highly successful career working for royal, as well as private, clients and the church.
The two principal repositories of his work in France are Versailles, where he worked for Louis XIV from 1680, and the Hotel des Invalides between 1690-1705. Simultaneously, van Clève was an assistant professor at the Académie from 1691, then director in 1711 and finally Chancellor in 1721. His versatility as a sculptor was demonstrated by his ability to work in wood, stucco, marble and bronze, but with a clear preference for the latter two media, which he used with great dexterity to create complex yet elegant compositions on both monumental and intimate scales. His multi-planar relief of an Angel Carrying the Oriflame in the Dome des Invalides, Paris, or the ethereal Sanctuary and High Altar of the Chapel, Versailles, demonstrate his skill in working on a large scale, while his groups of Diana and Endymion and Bacchus and Ariadne, versions of which can be found in the Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden, and in a private collection New York (New York exhibition catalogue, op. cit., nos. 111 and 112 respectively), show him using the tensile strength of the bronze to create complex and almost weightless seeming arrangements of figures.
Thus it is to van Clève's production of small bronzes that one must turn to in order to consider the bronze Cupid offered here. Despite his substantial commitments to the Académie, church and crown, he maintained a flourishing business supplying private patrons with small-scale bronzes - as the pieces acquired by baron Leplat for Augustus II of Saxony, now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlung, Dresden, testify. Van Clève operated out of his apartment where he felt he could 'show them to the public and sell them more easily' (quoted in ibid., p. 368.) and it is within this context that he would have shown agents like Leplat his works such as the Cupid. Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that van Clève may have even shown this very bronze, the only signed and dated version of the model, to Leplat who acquired two versions of it for the Elector of Saxony, one of which is still on view in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden.
The Cupid is a masterful work of sculpture and exemplary of the art of modelling, casting and finishing in bronze which van Clève, unusually, did entirely himself. With this piece he created a work of art thes dynamic composition of which was perfectly complemented by the exceptional cold-working and rich, vibrant, patination. The sculptor's genius is further demonstrated by the multiple textures he rendered in the metal: the smoothness of the flesh, the vigorous modelling of the feathers, the exaggerated curls of hair, the striated chasing of the tree trunk and the long, deep, flowing swathes of drapery. With this bronze van Clève seemingly strove to entice the onlooker to study, rotate and handle the piece in order to appreciate its multiple facets.
It is presently not known how many versions of the Cupid still survive and ongoing confusion over the attribution of the model has only contributed towards further clouding the issue. The Florentine late-baroque sculptor Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi has most commonly been proposed as its likely author. This is, no doubt, down to the fact that these casts have a very Florentine-looking patination and a highly worked Soldani-like surface. The misunderstanding is compounded by the reference in correspondence between Soldani and Johann Adam Andreas, Prinz von Liechtenstein, to a Cupid which seems to describe the present model (for transcripts of this correspondence see Lankheit, loc. cit.). In a letter of 1707 Soldani wrote to the Prince: Mi trove le forme fatte sopra alcuni Putti originali del fiammingo, e dell'Algardi, d'altezza di due palmi l'uno, chi siede, chi vola e chi in atto di tirare l'arco (I have made models of some putti by Fiammingo and Algardi, which are two palmi [about 45cm] high. One is seated, one is flying, and the third is drawing his bow. Lankheit, op. cit., p. 337). However, while the description of the latter model has previously been interpreted as referring to the present composition, it is only known that Soldani proposed to cast these bronzes. There is no evidence that he ever executed them and no firm documentation to link that reference to the present composition. Thus the signature on the Cupid offered here must finally put to rest the enduring debate over the attribution of this model in favour of van Clève.
The signing and dating of this bronze is also important since it appears to be the only signed small-scale work by his master. One can only hypothesise as to why this is the case but, in this instance, it is possible that van Clève was so satisfied with this work that he felt compelled to engrave it with his name. It would also be reasonable to assume that since this seems to be, by far, the finest known cast (compared to the two versions sold by Christies, London 10 Dec. 1996, lot 120 and 13 Jun. 2002, lot 104 and the one in the Grünes Gewölbe, Dresden) it may well have been the prototype that van Clève showed in his flat to win commissions.
Thus the reappearance of the Cupid is important for a multitude of reasons; it is a rare, signed work by a major French baroque sculptor, it settles an enduring debate about the attribution of the model, but above all it is a remarkable work of art demonstrating the bronze sculptor working to the best of his capabilities. One can only hope that, now, with a small body of works documented as being by van Clève and, finally, a signed piece, more unattributed works will be correctly ascribed to this French master.