Representing Eve tenderly embracing her sons, Cain and Abel, the present marble, Le Berceau primitif (The First Cradle) is a touching homage to the Biblical family described in the Old Testament (Gen. 4:1-15). Auguste-Hyacinthe De Bay’s sensitive rendering of maternal love also makes reference to Cain’s subsequent murder of his brother, visible in a dramatic relief carved to the front of the base. The model was first shown in marble in Paris at the Salon of 1845 (no. 2070), then at the Exposition universelle of 1855 (no. 4314), and was acquired by the celebrated collector, Prince Demidoff, who later sold it from the Villa San Donato near Florence in 1870. The original marble’s whereabouts are unknown.
From the first, Le Berceau primitif garnered for De Bay great fame and recognition: in his review of the 1845 Salon, Charles Baudelaire praised the sculpture, saying, 'La femme est belle, les enfants jolis – c’est surtout la composition de ceci qui nous plait’ (Baudelaire Dufaÿs, Salon de 1845, Paris, 1845, p. 71). Théophile Gautier said of it, 'Quelle idée ingénieuse, tendre et charmante […] M. Debay a manié la brosse avant de toucher le ciseau ; on le devine à un certain sentiment pittoresque que n’ont pas habitullement les statuaires.’ (Les Beaux Arts en Europe – 1855, Paris, 1866, p. 167.) Owing to its considerable popularity, Le Berceau primitif was reproduced in terracotta, bronze and marble in several sizes to meet a burgeoning demand from the art-buying public of France and beyond. The present marble is likely the result of such interest, and can be confidently attributed to De Bay on the basis of a comparison to a prepartory plaster for the finished work conserved in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers (MBA 35 J 1881S). Lilke the present work, the Angers plaster is moulded in relief to the front of the base with a scene of Cain and the slain Abel. Both sculptures also show the same carefull detailing, notably to the hair and facial features of the children. A further plaster model is in the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels.
Descended from a family of artists, De Bay was renowned for his work in painting and sculpture, and created his first important work at age 12: a bust of Louis XVIII for the city of Nantes. After winning the Prix de Rome and studying in Italy, De Bay returned to France where he completed a series of pictures for the Musée de Versailles, sculptures for one of the fountains in the Place de la Concorde and works for the façade of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The present composition, however, is one of his most famous, demonstrating a fine mastery of sculpture and artistic precedent and bold artistic innovation.