The 1878 Exposition Universelle was a turning point for the French nation and its innovators. Held in the capital city only eight years following France’s devastating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, French artisans used the opportunity of the fair to demonstrate their nation’s great advancements in both Industry and Art to the world. It was in this context that the leading nineteenth-century industrialist and bronzier Ferdinand Barbedienne showcased his collaboration with the celebrated sculptor Ferdinand Levillian. Together they presented model for the present pair of vases, whose precise casting and exceedingly fashionable ‘néo-grec’ designs successfully illustrated the height of French achievement in both the fine and industrial arts.
FERDINAND BARBEDIENNE—‘THE KING OF BRONZE’
One of the most distinguished bronziers of the nineteenth century, Ferdinand Barbedienne rose from humble beginnings to prominence in era of great technical advancements. Born the son of farmer in the Calvados region of northwest France, Barbedienne moved to Paris at the age of twelve to apprentice as a papermaker and by his early 20’s he had become a successful wallpaper manufacturer in his own right. However, in 1838 Barbedienne was introduced to the inventor Achille Collas (1795-1859), a man who would change Barbedienne’s entire trajectory. Collas had developed a modern form of pantograph, which allowed for the scaled reproduction of sculptures in various sizes. Barbedienne, who had always been fascinated by the arts and the evolving technologies of the French industrial revolution, quickly changed tact and entered in a partnership with Collas, thus establishing the firm Collas & Barbedienne. In its infancy the company specialised in reproducing both contemporary and ancient sculpture, making fine art more accessible to the quickly mobilizing middle classes. By 1846 the workshop began to produce decorative objects in addition to the bronze reductions, becoming equipped to perform fine metal cutting, bronze mounting, marble work, turning, enamel decoration, and crystal engraving. It was also during this period that the firm became internationally recognized, winning numerous medals at the major international exhibitions, including prizes in three different categories at the 1862 Great London Exhibition alone. When the present model was first presented at the 1878 Exposition universelle, the foundry was at its apex. As an art critic at the exhibition explained : “[Barbedienne est]… un des princes de l’industrie, le roi du bronze, le vulgarisateur de l’art ; sa maison est un temple où les dieux de l’Institut consentent à habiter….” (L. Faliz Fils, 'Industires d'art au Champs de Mars: II Les Bronzes', Exposition Universelle de 1878: Les Beaux-arts et les arts décoratifs, Paris, 1879, pp. 368). The Barbedienne foundry continued its success throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. After Ferdinand's death in 1892, the business was taken over by his nephew, Émile Gustave Leblanc (1849-1945), and later his great-nephew Jules Leblanc-Barbedienne (1882-1961), continuing production until 1953.
The term ‘néo-grec’ is specific to the period in nineteenth-century France when there was a resurgence in the discovery of and interest in antiquities and the Antique, beginning in the Second Empire under Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie,. It was initially spurred by the excavations of Pompeii beginning in 1848 and was further popularized by the Louvre’s acquisition of part of the Marquis Campana’s collection in 1861. One of the many ‘revival’ styles of the period, it is defined by a range motifs taken from the Classical world, including Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and anachronistically, some elements from the Louis XVI period, which was considered in French decorative art the purest refinement of new Classicism. Seizing on this fascination with the Antique, the Barbedienne foundry, almost from its beginning, was producing in bronze well known Antiquities from renowned collections, including the the “Borghese Vase”, from the Louvre (inv. MR 985), and the “Townley Vase” from the British Museum (inv. 1805,0703.218). When the firm began to branch out with original designs Barbedienne hired the artist Henry Cahieux (1825-1854) to design decorative objects in the ‘néo-grec’ taste, and following his death in 1853, Constant Sévin (1821-1888) continued producing new forms. However, it was Levillian who brought the greatest sensitivity to his Antique derivations. As a contemporary article described him: “M. Levillian excelle surtout dans la reproduction de scènes antiques, l’art grec, n’as pas des secrets pour lui, il y a trouvé ses plus heureuses inspirations” (A. Guerinet, ed., La Sculpture française contemporaine, œuvres remarqueable du musée du Luxembourg, des musées de province, des salons et des collections particulières, Paris, s. d., p. 11). This clearly seen in the present pair of vases.
FERDINAND LEVILLIAN – ‘THE MODERN GREEK’
As the Barbedienne foundry grew and began to produce its own decorative works, the firm commenced collaborations with leading artists of the period. One such artist was the sculptor and engraver Ferdinand Levillain, one of the most influential figures in the diffusion of the ‘néo-grec’ aesthetic in the 19th century. Born in 1837, Levillian studied under the sculptors Justin Lequien (1826-1882) and François Jouffroy (1806-1882) before he began exhibiting at the Paris Salons in 1861. However, Levillian ultimately trained under the ancient masters, whose art he meticulously studied the Louvre and the cabinet des Médailles de la Bibliothèque following his more formal education. Inspired, he particularly excelled in the copying and reinterpreting the Antique motifs found on Greek vases and Roman bas-reliefs (M. Vottero, ‘Ferdinand Levillian : un sculpteur ornemaniste au services de arts industriels’, 48/14: La Revue du Musée d’Orsay, no. 30, 2010, p. 47). Primarily occupied with Ancient Greek art the artist was soon designated by critics as the “grec modern”. By circa 1870-1871 Levillian began his work with the Barbedienne foundry, consisted primarily of Antique-inspired bas-reliefs for vases and coupes. The partnership proved immediately fruitful and both the foundry and artist were awarded a medal for collaboration at the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna. However, it was at the 1878 Exposition universelle that the prodigious nature of their work together was fully on display: “Il nous faudrait un volume tout entier si nous voulions énumérer toutes les pièces exposées par M. Barbedienne, mais nous ne pouvons passer sans rappeler tous ces beaux vases, lampes ou lampadaires, coupes et cratères, jardinières et petit vases aux formes si variées et si pures sortant du ciseau de M. Levillain,“ wrote one contemporary critic (G. Servant, Exposition universelle internationale de 1878 à Paris, rapports du jury international, groupe III, classe 25, les bronzes d’art, fontes d’art diverses, métaux repoussées, Paris, 1880, p. 31). As scholar Michale Vottero argues, with his equal success at the Salon at the World exhibitions, Levillian was the ultimate embodiment of the union between art and industry which defined the 19th century (M. Vottero, p. 47). The artist continue his association with the foundry for over two decades until Ferdinand Barbedienne’s death in 1892, but was also successful in maintaining his independence. Levillian received premier classe medal for sculpture in 1884 and a silver medal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle where he displayed his works in the stands of not only Barbedienne, but Christofle, Maison Krieger, Damon et Cie, and Maison Gagneau. Shortly thereafter Levillian was bestowed with the title of Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur. It is significant to note that it was the foundry who owned the rights to Levillian’s designs, who continued to produce works by the artist until 1910, five years after the Levillian’s death, thus illustrating the lasting popularity of his designs. Today several of their works can be found in prestigious collections, including Coupe (animaux), circa 1875, now in the Musée d'Orsay (inv. OAO1316), and Paire des vases, 1878, now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (inv. 997.117.2-3).
The pair of vases in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the present lot are both extremely similar in form, recalling a Greek amphora vase, which characteristically has a tapered neck flanked by handles above a swelling ovoid body and in Antiquity was used to transport wine, olives, or oil. The present design varies in the addition of two further handles towards the base of the body and a circular base, elements which seem to have been creative license on the part of the artist but are reminiscent to those found on nestoris vases. These handles are finely cast with sinuous grape vines and the figures to the body of the vase carry baskets of olives and fruit harvests, which are a direct reference to the original function of an amphora vase. These figures modelled in the manner of a Roman bas-relief frieze, and also carry amphora vases, illustrating a further mise en abyme, while the figures’ flattened profiles are almost certainly derived from Grecian kalyx and nestoris which often were often decorated with similar Dionysian processions and narrative myths. These Grecian vases were also often painted with anthemion, a form comprising alternating lotuses and palmettes joined by serpentine ‘S’-scrolls, which first appeared in Greek art and architecture, re-emerging in Byzantine, Medieval and Neo-Classical designs as a classicizing leitmotif, and which appear boldly on the neck and feet of the present vases.
With its fine casting, appealing form, and sophisticated references, it is no surprise that the model for this elegant vase was singled out by art critics at the exhibition—the superb artistic collaboration between the leading industrialist bronzier looking to the future and the artist inspired by the Ancient past appealing to refined tastes as much in the nineteenth-century as it does today.