The enormously successful romance Paul et Virginie was first published in 1787 by the French naturalist and writer, Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. The story tells of the idyllic upbringing of two inseparable children living au naturel on the island of Mauritius and how their paradise is shattered by Virginie's forced journey to France, supposedly to inherit a fortune and receive a ladylike education. After years of maltreatment Virginie vows to return to her mother and beloved Paul, only to be shipwrecked in a hurricane just of the island as Paul tries in vain to swim out to save her.
Prosper d'Epinay (1836-1914) was born in Mauritius and thus the natural choice to execute a marble depicting a scene from Paul et Virginie. Commissioned by the Mayor of the island in 1881, d'Epinay's first inspiration was to depict the moment that Paul lifts the drowned Virginie in his arms. However his patrons thought this scene too melancholy, and he instead chose the moment when they are lost on the island and forced to cross a river:
'The stream, on the banks of which Paul and Virginia were now standing, rolls foaming over a bed of rocks. The noise of the water frightened Virginia, and she was afraid to wade through the current. Paul therefore took her up in his arms, and went thus loaded over the slippery rocks which formed the bed of the river, careless of the tumultuous noise of its waters'.
Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul and Virginia, trans. by George Routledge and Sons, London, 1888, p. 33.
Owing to financial reasons the completed marble was never sent to Mauritius but was instead purchased in 1886 from Prosper d'Epinay's showroom in the Boulevard Haussmann by a Portuguese nobleman, the Marquis da Foz. It was subsequently sold in Lisbon in 1901 and reappeared at auction with Sotheby's, London, 20 November 1997, lot 143 (£177,500 including premium). That example is now in the collection of the Blue Penny Museum, Mauritius.
Patricia Roux-Foujols, the d'Epinay scholar, records four marble examples in total: two executed in 1884, one in 1887 and one date unknown. That executed in 1887 was inaugurated at Port Louis, Mauritius, in 1889, and another (date and size unspecified) was sold at Hôtel Drouot, Paris in the Liane de Pougy sale 9 April 1894. It is not known if the present lot might be one of these, or a previously unrecorded example.
Although unsigned, the skill of the sculptor is self-evident in the, technically difficult pose and balance of Paul holding Virginie and in the rendering of the surface: for example the water running in the river beneath Paul's feet is given a shiny patina whilst the rock and foliage is more roughly hewn.
Propser d'Epinay divided his time between Paris and Rome. His marbles are invariably inscribed Roma and executed at his 57 Via Sistina workshop in Rome, opened in 1864 and maintained until 1912. Apprentices and technicians in the workshop would, with supervision from the sculptor, scale-up from the original plaster model and carve the marble. It is therefore possible that the inscription 'Gentil' to the present lot is not intended as a title, but refers to a sculptor in d'Epinay's workshop.