The present monumental cast-iron groups are nearly identical in size to two bronzes from a celebrated series of allegorical and mythological reclining figures created in the late 17th century for the gardens of the château de Versailles. Some of the most distinctive sculptures in Versailles’ magnificent jardin, twenty four groups representing the great rivers and tributaries in France, nymphs and putti, adorn the angles of two immense reflecting pools on the Parterre d’Eau. This rare pair of cast-iron figures replicate their 17th century models in near exacting detail, and attest to the continued fascination into the 19th century for the art created in France under the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV.
As part of the ambitious building works undertaken at Versailles in the late 17th century in preparation for Louis XIV’s relocation of the Crown there from Paris, the gardens were greatly expanded with the addition of formal terraces, elaborate pavilions and grand alleyways decorated with sculptural groups by the leading French artists of the day. For the Parterre d’Eau, an immense terrace before the central portion of the château’s west façade which presides as a promontory over the magnificent gardens, allegorical figures were commissioned to decorate the edges of the two basins. These are based largely on masterpieces of antiquity, such as the pendant reclining marble figures of the Nile and Tiber created for a Roman temple to Isis and Serapis in the early second century AD, and today in the Musei Vaticani, Rome and the Musée du Louvre, Paris, respectively. The model for La Garonne, a river in south-western France passing through Bordeaux, was created by Antoine Coysevox while the group of the Nymph with a putto offering up pearls was realized by Etienne Le Hongre, both of whom executed additional sculptures for the gardens at Versailles as well as commissions for other celebrated French patrons of le Grand Siècle. Coysevox and Le Hongre’s compositions were subsequently cast in bronze by the Keller brothers in the fourth quarter of the 17th century, and placed on the Parterre d’Eau shortly thereafter, where they have remained.
Concurrent to an enduring interest in works created for the gardens at Versailles, the foundry, Val d’Osne produced full-scale replicas in cast iron of the sculptures for the Parterre d’Eau, as well as those created for other parts of the château’s gardens. One of the most celebrated artistic foundries of the 19th century, Val d’Osne grew rapidly from its establishment in 1835, exhibiting at the great Exhibitions of the era, creating works for an international clientele and acquiring other manufactures along the way, including Ducel, the author of the present model of La Garonne. Despite their differing foundry signatures, it is likely that this pair of figures were realized together, owing to the link between Ducel and Val d’Osne, and in the elaborate gardens at Château Balsan set before luxuriant palm fronds, they would have served as a fine Provençal homage to the grandeur of Versailles.