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A RARE FRENCH PATINATED-BRONZE FIGURAL GROUP, ENTITLED 'LA PYTHIE’ (THE PTYHIAN SIBYL)
A RARE FRENCH PATINATED-BRONZE FIGURAL GROUP, ENTITLED 'LA PYTHIE’ (THE PTYHIAN SIBYL)
A RARE FRENCH PATINATED-BRONZE FIGURAL GROUP, ENTITLED 'LA PYTHIE’ (THE PTYHIAN SIBYL)
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A RARE FRENCH PATINATED-BRONZE FIGURAL GROUP, ENTITLED 'LA PYTHIE’ (THE PTYHIAN SIBYL)
7 More
PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
A RARE FRENCH PATINATED-BRONZE FIGURAL GROUP, ENTITLED 'LA PYTHIE’ (THE PTYHIAN SIBYL)

CAST BY THIÉBAUT FRÈRES, PARIS, FROM THE MODEL BY ADÈLE D’AFFRY, DUCHESS DE CASTIGLIONE-COLONNA (CALLED MARCELLO) (1836-1879), LAST QUARTER 19TH CENTURY

Details
A RARE FRENCH PATINATED-BRONZE FIGURAL GROUP, ENTITLED 'LA PYTHIE’ (THE PTYHIAN SIBYL)
CAST BY THIÉBAUT FRÈRES, PARIS, FROM THE MODEL BY ADÈLE D’AFFRY, DUCHESS DE CASTIGLIONE-COLONNA (CALLED MARCELLO) (1836-1879), LAST QUARTER 19TH CENTURY
Signed 'Marcello’ and with foundry mark 'THIEBAUT FRES
31 ½ in. (80 cm.) high; 16 ½ in. (42 cm.) wide; 15 ¾ in. (40 cm.) deep
Provenance
Private Collection, acquired in the 1950s.
Thence by family descent.

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Adam Kulewicz
Adam Kulewicz

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Lot Essay

Overcome by the power of divine inspiration, this dynamic figure of the Pythian Sibyl by Adèle d’Affry, Duchess de Castiglione-Colonna, called Marcello, is one of the most remarkable and expressive sculptures produced in the late 19th century. It perfectly evokes the power of the messages given by the mythological sibyls whilst simultaneously encapsulating the expressionism and theatricality of Romantic sculpture in 19th century France. So evocative of its era was this sculpture, that its full-size version was installed in the spectacular entryway of the Charles Garnier’s Opera House in Paris.

Variously known as 'The Pythian Sibyl,’ 'Pythia’ and 'Gorgon,’ this exceptional sculpture combines iconography from a number of mythological sources. Sibyls were described by authors in antiquity as priestesses gifted with the ability to transmit the messages of Apollo in a state of hallucinatory frenzy, fuelled by vapours emitted from the ground at the sun god’s temple at Delphi. The figure’s dramatic pose and revealing garments place it well within these antique precedents as does its base: sibyls were thought to have given their messages from tripod supports. That the figure has also been called 'Gorgon’ could be explained by the writhing snakes in her hair, a reference to the petrifying sisters of Ancient Greek mythology whose heads crawled with serpents. However, despite these forbidding classical sources of inspiration, the sculpture is imbued with a strange, captivating beauty, unique to the Belle Époque, and typical of the work of its sculptress.

Adèle d’Affry was born to a Swiss noble family and displayed enthusiasm for art at a young age. In 1856, she married Carlo, Duca da Castiglione Colonna of the celebrated Roman family, who died of typhoid within a year of their wedding. Well-born, widowed and effectively un-attached at a young age, d’Affry consecrated her life to sculpture and paintings, and travelled often to Paris. There, she frequented the court of Napoleon III, participated in the era’s great exhibitions and became something of a celebrity in the most elevated social circles of the City of Light. In order to conceal her feminine identity from the chauvinist critics and juries of the Salons, she assumed the pseudonym, Marcello, with which she signed her sculptures. Marcello created busts of numerous prominent members of French society, as well as mythological figures, but the present work is, undoubtedly, her most famous.

First conceived in Rome in early 1869, 'La Pythie’, evokes Marcello’s fierce admiration of the work of Renaissance master Michelangelo, whose influence is manifest in the present sculpture in the figure’s complex – almost Manneriest – pose, dramatic out-stretched left arm and impossibly delicate position atop the pedestal. Marcello also took casts of her own body – specifically her torso – which she used to create the present work. Though based on an antique precedent, this figure has a distinctly exotic feel. Such was Marcello’s intention, as she explained in a letter to her mother, describing 'La Pythie’ as “Très, très, très chic! avec des serpents apprivoisés enroulés comme le font les devineresses d’Inde” (cited in G. Fontaine, L’Opéra de Charles Garnier, Paris, 2012, p. 20).

'La Pythie´ was shown in the Salon of 1870 (no. 4713), where it was met with mixed reviews, and seen by Charles Garnier, who was concurrently engaged in the works on his magnificent Opera House in Paris. Having seen an earlier version of the sculpture in Rome, Garnier arranged for the bronze from the Salon to be acquired by the French state for the enormous sum of 12,000 Francs. Cast by Thiébaut – like the present lot – this full-scale bronze was then placed behind a reflecting pool in a superbly carved grotto beneath the grand staircase of the Opéra, just beyond the entry specially reserved for frequent guests. It is interesting that Marcello’s bronze was not designed specifically for the Opera House, as Garnier controlled nearly all visual aspects of the building’s design. This space was originally meant to house a marble group by Dumont representing Orpheus, which was never installed. However, Garnier remarked upon the importance Marcello’s sibyl: “C’est elle [Marcello] qui a modelé la statue de la Pythie qui se trouve sous la voûte central, et c’est une justice à lui rendre que de reconnaître que c’est une oeuvre virile, robuste et loin d’être indifférente. Cette statue a été critiquée par les uns, louée par les autres ; c’est le sort des choses humaines; c’est même celui des choses divines ; mais ces discussions n’enlèvent rien à son allure énergique et à sa silhouette caractérisée” (C. Garnier, Le Nouvel Opéra de Paris, Paris, 1878, vol. i, p. 343). This magnificent sculpture remains in situ today.

It is possible that Garnier’s chose 'La Pythie’ for its prestigious location in the Opera House as a homage to the numerous artists – opera singers, dancers and musicians – who performed in the building and who, no doubt, were periodically moved by gripping creative sensations, similar to those of the Pythian sibyl. This may have also been the sculptress’ intention; Marcello explains in a letter that she sought to represent a figure in the midst of a creative phenomenon she had personally experienced: “Le sujet de la Pythie et son type répondaient à ce que j’ai ressenti du phénomène, créature bornée, indigne en quelque sorte de la grande action qui se passé en elle. Je sentais ma misère, ayant le coeur plein de richesse... ” (cited in G. Fontaine, op. cit., p. 16).

On the heels of its exhibition in the Salon and subsequent installation in the Opéra Garnier, the Thiébaut foundry produced reductions of the figure in 80 cm. (the size of the present lot) and 47 cm. However, in a departure from the 19th century practice of reproducing celebrated models, very few versions of the present model are known. A nearly identical bronze is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1973-251-1) and another in the Fondation Marcello de Fribourg, which the artist helped to establish before her death. The present bronze, therefore, represents an important, and rare, addition to Marcello’s oeuvre; a unique expression of the overwhelming power of divine and/or artistic inspiration.

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