Ecorchés have long been a source of fascination for artists; an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the human form and its musculature. Inventions of the Renaissance, these carefully detailed figures were created based on close studies of cadavers, and appear in the œuvres of sculptors across Europe from the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries. They were prized by Renaissance humanists in the Low Countries and – as the provenance of the present bronze would suggest – also by the celebrated collectors and dealers of the early 20th century: in this case the Chabrières-Arlès family and the Duveen Brothers.
The present figure is nearly identical to a bronze in the National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, executed by an unknown Flemish artist circa 1600-1700 (KMS5509). A further Netherlandish cast of the same model was sold Sotheby’s, New York, 22-23 November 1988, lot 215. All three figures depict archers – their bows now missing – straining mid-step in the instant before releasing an arrow. The carefully articulated neck, arm and leg muscles attest to a painstaking examination of the human form in the manner of the Renaissance masters while the dramatic pose presages the theatrical expressions of Baroque sculpture.
That the present bronze was formerly thought to be Italian is not surprising given the numerous artistic interchanges between the Low Countries and Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Several Dutch and Flemish artists – including Giambologna (c. 1529-1608) – traveled to, and ultimately settled in, Italy while others sojourned there and later returned to Flanders and Holland, working in a distinctly Italian style. Examples of contemporary sculptures which relate closely to the present bronze and demonstrate the pan-European appeal of such works include a wax écorché figure of similar size by Italian painter, sculptor and architect Ludovico Cardi, called Il Cigoli (1559-1613) in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, and a series of three small écorchés in motion attributed to French sculptor Pierre de Francqueville (also known as Pietro Francavilla) (1547-1615) in the Jagiellonian Library, Krakow.
The present bronze is first recorded in the collection of the Chabrières-Arlès family. One of the grandest familles lyonnaises of the 19th century, the Chabrières-Arlès first made their fortune in the city’s silk trade. They were subsequently involved in the development of the Suez Canal in the 1830’s, and later in the expansion of the rail line from Paris to Marseille via Lyon. They assembled an important collection of sculpture, furniture and works of art in Paris and Lyon, some of which was shown at the Exposition Retrospective at the Petit Palais in Paris during the Exposition universelle of 1900.
In 1916, legendary dealer Joseph Duveen purchased the Chabrières-Arlès collection for the enormous sum of nearly $1,500,000. The present bronze is almost certainly documented in their transaction records for this collection as number “124. 32a. An old 16th century Italian Bronze Statuette of a flayed man, showing muscular conformities in the act of drawing the bow: on rectangular marble pedestal. (Circa 1550)” and was purchased for £400 (Duveen archives at the Getty Research Institute). It is possible that the bronze later sold directly to A la Vieille Russie, as the latter was known to be one of Duveen’s clients. The bronze was later acquired by André Meyer (1898-1979), a French investment banker who formed a celebrated collection of French furniture, Old Master pictures and sculpture which was dispersed, following his death, in several sales including one held Christie’s, New York, 26 October 2001. The most recent inclusion of the present bronze in the Abbott Guggenheim collection attests to its enduring appeal: a virtuoso rendering of the human form.