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An Allegory of War

An Allegory of War
oil on canvas
36 1/8 x 52 1/8 in. (92.5 x 132 cm.)
(Probably) Gustav III (1746-1792), King of Sweden.
Anonymous sale; Bukowskis, Stockholm, 27 May 2008, lot 377A, where acquired by the present owner.
C.D. Moselius, Louis Masreliez: med en inledning om Adrien och Jean Baptiste Masreliez verksamhet på Stockholms slott, Stockholm, 1923, p. 207, no. 27.

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Lot Essay

Louis Masreliez was the most talented painter in a family of distinguished French artists and decorators that achieved renown in Sweden in the second half of the 18th century, working in the court of King Gustav III. He was born in Paris, the son of the ornamental sculptor Adrien Masreliez (1717-1806) and elder brother of the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Masreliez (1753-1801), and joined his family in Sweden in 1753, at the age of five. Something of a prodigy, Louis began his education at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts (‘Ritakademien’) at the age of ten. Since the Academy did not include painting in its curriculum, he trained in Stockholm in the workshop of the ornamental painter Lorens Gottman (1708-1779).

In 1769, Louis Masreliez received a study grant which took him to Paris, Bologna and Rome, where he entered a circle of young Italian, German and French artists (including Jacques Sablet, who painted a portrait of Masreliez in his studio), who together established the new international Neoclassical decorative style. In 1783, he was called back to Sweden by his father, after a twelve-year absence from the country. He was admitted as a member of the Academy shortly thereafter and, a year later, made a professor of art history. He became rector of the Academy in 1802 and director in 1805. Louis’s father and brother also assumed positions of influence within the Academy: Adrien Masreliez was responsible for the training of young artists in ornamental sculpture, and Jean-Baptiste followed in the role upon his father’s retirement in 1776. Both men held the official title of Royal Sculptor.

For over half a century, the principal occupation of Adrien Masreliez and his two sons was the decoration of the opulent palaces and country residences of the Swedish Royal family. Adrien arrived in Sweden in 1748 to oversee the decoration of the royal palace in Stockholm, a project that involved the completion of 250 rooms in anticipation of the residency of the royal family. That vast undertaking was followed by the creation of the library of Queen Louisa Ulrika in Drottningholm, a design that can be credited with introducing the French Rococo style to Sweden.

Louis Masreliez contributed extensively to the decoration of the Royal Palace, notably designing the King’s bedchamber, but it is for his creation of the interiors of Gustav III’s Pavilion, built in 1787 in Haga Park, north of Stockholm, that he is most celebrated. His elegant and imaginative neo-Pompeian rooms – painted in a cool, muted palette with the restrained carving and gilding that came to define the ‘Gustavian Style’ – are the finest surviving examples of Swedish Neoclassical decoration.

Louis Masreliez was a prolific draftsman and designer (more than 400 of his drawings are kept by the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), but his surviving paintings are rare. The present Allegory of War depicts a furious Minerva, Roman goddess of War, dismounting her horse-drawn chariot, shield in one hand, thunderbolt in the other, charging toward a distant battle. Above her flies the winged, bearded, bare-chested Boreas, ancient god of the cold North Wind, accompanied by winged zephyrs, who blow snowflakes from their mouths onto the ground below.

Masreliez’s preparatory compositional drawing for the painting (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) bears an extensive inscription (in the artist’s hand) that explains the otherwise mysterious subject of his dynamic painting. It depicts an allegory of the Battle of Narva in 1700, painted as an overdoor decoration for the bedroom of Gustav III. The historic Battle of Narva (an Estonian city on the border with Russia) was an early victory for Swedish troops in the Great Northern War (1700-1721), in which they fended off an attack by Russian military forces that outnumbered the Swedish army four-to-one. The Swedish military repelled the Russian offensive in part by advancing under cover of the terrible weather conditions: the Swedes struck at the exact moment a deep-freeze hit the region, the winds shifted, and a violent snowstorm blew directly at the Russian forces, blinding them with its intensity. The Russians, suffering devastating losses, soon capitulated.

The Battle of Narva was led by King Charles XII (1682-1718) himself, for whom it was a great personal triumph. It is possible that in painting the present overdoor for Gustav III’s bedchamber, Masreliez was flattering Gustav by drawing a comparison between the two kings and their respective military successes. In 1788, Gustav initiated an armed conflict with Russia that ended, two years later, in the greatest naval victory ever gained by Sweden, paving the way for a peace treaty between the two countries. Another painting by Masreliez, depicting an Allegory of Peace (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), although it is of smaller dimensions (30.5 x 30 cm.), might have been intended as a companion piece to the present Allegory of War.

A second study by Masreliez for the Allegory of War, focusing principally on the figure of Bellona and her horse-drawn chariot, is being offered with the present lot.

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