Masterpieces from the court of the ‘Sun King’

Instigated and conferred by Louis XIV of France, two of the most significant bronze sculptures to come to the market in recent years, and a scale version of four marble figures created for the gardens at Versailles — offered in London on 5 July


Left: a bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback, Francois Girardon (1628-1715), circa 1690-1699. 40⅞ x 35⅜ x 16⅞ in (104 x 90 x 43 cm). Estimate: £7,000,000-10,000,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale 2018 on 5 July 2018 at Christie’s in London. Right: Portrait of Louis XIV in Royal Costume, 1701, by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Louvre, Paris, France. Photo: Bridgeman Images

Louis XIV of France and Navarre (1638-1715), who reigned for an extraordinary 72 years and 110 days, was perhaps even more interested in art than in politics. Known as the ‘Sun King’, the great connoisseur and collector envisaged a unified style in the arts — classicism — that would glorify his reputation at home in France and across the courts of Europe.

While his lavish legacy includes Les Invalides, the Place Vendôme and the Champs-Elysées, the centrepiece of his court — and the symbol of his power, wealth and passion for the arts — was the Palace of Versailles. It was at Versailles that he surrounded himself with aristocrats, tightening his grip on power in the process, as well as the finest painters, sculptors, composers and playwrights of the age.

During his lifetime, Louis commissioned more than 300 formal portraits of himself, and at least 20 statues in the 1680s alone. The latter stood in Paris and the provinces and were intended as physical manifestations of his rule.

In 1685, at the height of his powers, the Sun King commissioned a monumental equestrian bronze of himself to sit in the newly created Place Louis le Grand (now Place Vendôme). The commission, which was the idea of his war minister, was entrusted to the finest sculptor of the age, François Girardon (1628-1715). As sculptor to the king, Girardon was instrumental in the development of the gardens of Versailles and was entrusted with several grand projects, including the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre.

Well versed in the arts of antiquity, Girardon took inspiration from the antique statue of Marcus Aurelius (Musei Capitoline, Rome) that had been the prototype for most major equestrian commissions since the Renaissance. It was the sculptor’s aim, however, to challenge the dominance of Italian artists past and present in order to establish a new era of greatness in France under the rule of Louis XIV.

Among the important works Girardon created for Versailles were the Fountain of the Pyramid, the large relief of Nymphs for the Cascade de l’allee d’eau, and the large group of the Rape of Proserpina. The latter group was a direct artistic challenge to the great Italian sculptors of the past, Giambologna (Rape of a Sabine, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence) and Gianlorenzo Bernini (Pluto and Proserpina, Villa Borghese, Rome).

This version, which comes from a European collection, was almost certainly the example in Girardon’s own collection

The sculpture of Louis XIV on horseback is a sumptuous portrait of royal power and absolute authority. Intended as the prime representation of the sovereign in the heart of his capital, it depicted the monarch in Roman armour, hand outstretched in a gesture of command, astride a prancing horse.

The model was finished in 1687 and when eventually cast by Balthazar Keller in 1692 the bronze stood almost seven metres high (around 17 metres with the pedestal). It was placed in the square designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and was inaugurated in 1699. Like so many symbols of royal authority, the bronze was destroyed in the French Revolution, with only the left foot of the king surviving today (now in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris).

Due to the importance and success of the commission, Girardon made other versions of this monument in bronze on a reduced scale. There are four early references to bronze examples of this composition, and four surviving bronzes which are accepted as having been cast under Girardon’s supervision: one in the British Royal Collection at Windsor Castle; one in the Russian Royal Collection at the Hermitage in St Petersburg; one in the French Royal Collection at the Louvre; and this version, rediscovered in a European collection, which was almost certainly the example in Girardon’s own collection.

The equestrian monument to Louis XIV was Girardon’s first and only commission for the city of Paris and the ‘most important work of his later period’. He died on September 1715, within a few hours of his royal patron, Louis XIV.

A gift from the Sun King to the Dauphin

In 1681, four years before Girardon received his commission, Louis XIV presented nine bronzes to his 20-year-old son, the Grand Dauphin. For reasons of rank, it was considered necessary for the Grand Dauphin to own a collection of bronzes, as proof of his interest in the humanist achievements of the Renaissance.

This group is by Ferdinando Tacca (1619-1686), the court sculptor to the Medici, and represents a high point of Florentine 17th-century bronze casting. Hercules is depicted in a ferocious battle against the river god Acheloüs, a rival for the hand of the beautiful Deianira, who has transformed himself into a bull. The result is a feat of compositional bravado, technical brilliance and overpowering force.

The model of the present group is from a series of five bronzes of Hercules commissioned from Pietro Tacca, Ferdinando’s father, by Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany in around 1614. They were part of a gift for King James I of England, although the project never came to fruition and it does not appear that any of these models were cast during Pietro Tacca’s own lifetime.

Pietro Tacca had inherited Giambologna’s studio in Borgo Pinti on his death in 1608 and was recognised as the official court sculptor to Cosimo II de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. It is likely that Ferdinando Tacca assisted his father in his workshop as he was growing up. When Pietro died in 1640, Ferdinando took over the running of the large studio and succeeded his father as court sculptor.

When the Grand Dauphin died in 1711, these bronzes were incorporated into the royal collection by Louis XIV, where they remained until the Revolution. Three other bronzes by Tacca from the Hercules series also formed part of this gift from Louis XIV to his son. Today, two are in the Louvre and the third is in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein.

The garden of Versailles in miniature

Pierre Mazeline (1632-1708) was an important contributor to the garden sculpture at Versailles. He was part of a team under the supervision of Charles Le Brun, Louis XIV’s Premier peintre du Roi, that worked on the royal residences and gardens, including the châteaux of Saint-German-en-Laye, Marly and Meudon.

A rare survival, this set of four allegorical marble figures representing the Four Seasons is a more practical-scale version of the sculpture designed for King Louis XIV. In superb condition due to the fact that they have spent their lives sheltered inside the salons of collectors, these figures reflect, in effect, the garden of Versailles in miniature.

Up until 1994, this set was attributed to Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720), the French sculptor celebrated for the many projects he produced for Louis XIV for the gardens of Versailles and Marly. Intriguingly, there is also the possibility that the Four Seasons  could have been sculpted by Noël Jouvenet, another famous French sculptor working at the court of Louis XIV. Mazeline and Jouvenet worked on many projects together; their Paris residences were adjacent to one another, and they owned adjoining properties at Versailles.

Mazeline died unexpectedly in 1708 and did not have time to dispose of the works that remained in his studio. It is therefore possible that the works of Mazeline and Jouvenet were not clearly delineated by ownership, or authorship, at the time of his death.

Mazeline produced superb sculpture for the most discriminating audience imaginable: the Sun King, Louis XIV himself

The differences between the work of Mazeline and Jouvenet are often difficult — and, in the case of joint projects, practically impossible — to distinguish. What is beyond debate is that both Mazeline and Jouvenet produced superb sculpture for the most discriminating audience imaginable: Louis XIV himself, and his court at Versailles.

This set of the Four Seasons  group of sculptures later joined the collection of Joseph-Marie Terray, a brilliant politician, shrewd courtier, and a hugely important collector and patron of some of the most significant painters, sculptors and architects working in France during the siècle des lumières. Later owners included the celebrated 18th- and 20th-century dealers Dubois and Wildenstein, as well as the late 19th-century banker, Comte Frédéric Pillet-Will.

‘Not since the record-breaking sale of the bronze Bacchic figure by Adriaen de Vries have works of this extraordinary calibre and rarity come to the market,’ comments Donald Johnston, International Head of European Sculpture at Christie’s. ‘The offering of these works directly associated with the court of the Sun King marks a unique opportunity for international collectors and institutions, and a historic moment for Christie’s.’

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