The heads and shoulders of these fine busts are in galvanoplastie, a type of silver electroplate developed by the mid-19th century by Christofle & Compagnie. The rich brown colour and gilt highlights are applied as a patina on top of this silvered ground whilst the floral headdresses are cast separately and the socles are in bronze. The heads and shoulders are inserted into the solid block of onyx-marble drapery. Galvanoplastie enabled a cast to be taken directly for the artist's plaster or terracotta model thus preserving the fine detail without the need for extensive chasing and re-working after casting. This detail can be observed on the present busts in the richly textured rendering of the skin.
Widely referred to as onyx this distinct ribboned stone is more properly actually a type of alabaster called alabastro a pecorella. It is a travertine laid down by hot springs at Aïn Tekbalet in the Oran districts of Algeria. Known since antiquity and used by both the ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations the quarries near Constantine were rediscovered during the 1840s when Algeria was under French rule. The Compagnie des Marbres Onyx d'Algérie was founded in 1858 and sourced and supplied onyx to manufactures and sculptors such as Eugène Cornu (d. 1875), who owned marble and onyx mines in Algeria, and worked with the bronzier G. Viot & Cie. Cornu and Viot collaborated with the sculptor Carrier-Belleuse on numerous decorative pieces including a monumental bronze and onyx clock garniture, with female figures supporting vast candelabra, shown at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 (see The Art Journal, London, 1867, p. 112).
The use of galvanoplastie and onyx coupled with numerous stylistic similarities make repeated reference to the oeuvre of Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887). A prolific and versatile sculptor, Carrier-Belleuse's contribution to the field of 19th century decorative arts was unequalled. These busts show numerous features familiar to Carrier- Belleuse's style. The bow mouth, deep set eyes, floral headdress and face framed by curls can be compared to his 'fantasy busts' of the 1860s representing seasons and mythological bacchantes. For example 'Le Printemps, 'L'Automne', 'Réveil' and its pendant 'Le Sommeil', all echo the present busts (see J. Hargrove, The Life and Work of Albert Carrier-Belleuse, New York, 1977, figs. 182, 184, 185 and 188). It is also interesting to note that a pair of identical tinted-plaster busts of Spring and Summer, are displayed at the Ritz Hotel, Paris. Carrier-Belleuse's monumental figural torchères flanking the Grand Stairway at the Opéra Garnier are often cited as his crowning achievement. Finished in galvanoplastie by Christofle in 1873 they perfectly encapsulate all the monumental opulence and artistic purpose of the travaux haussmanniens and the Second Empire and Third Republic décors in which the present busts were conceived. Also compare Carrier-Belleuse's prestigious commissions for the interior sculpture at the Hôtel Païva, on the Champs-Elysées.
Charles Henri Joseph Cordier (1827-1905), like Carrier-Belleuse, did much to promote polychrome sculpture by combining marbles and onyx with bronze, silver and enamels. He produced a pair of caryatids in galvanoplastie for the Grand Foyer of the Opéra Garnier as a pendant to a pair by Carrier-Belleuse. Although chiefly known for his ethnographic sculpture, further examples of Cordier's interior statuary include his bronze and onyx atlantes and caryatids at the Château de Ferrières, various busts from classical mythology and figural torchères (see L. de Margerie et al., Facing the Other: Charles Cordier (1827-1905) Ethnographic Sculptor, Paris, Musée d'Orsay, 2004). Cordier also uses onyx, particularly for busts, much more frequently than Carrier-Belleuse, and often used the rudimentary construction as employed here, whereby the head and shoulders are inserted into a solid onyx body. In the absence of a signature or extended provenance it is not possible to firmly attribute these busts, however their grand scale, fine detailing and use of luxuriant and costly materials firmly credit them to a masterful sculpteur-statuaire.