The present bronze is a re-discovered masterpiece of King Louis XIV of France, known as the ‘Sun King’, on horseback by sculpteur du roi François Girardon, and is believed to be the example formerly in the sculptor’s own collection and depicted in the celebrated set of engravings known as the Galerie de Girardon.
In 1685, at the height of his powers, and persuaded by his war minister the Marquis de Louvois, Louis XIV commissioned a monumental equestrian bronze of himself to sit in the newly created place Louis le Grand (now place Vendôme). The commission was entrusted to the finest sculptor of the age François Girardon, who had already worked prominently at Versailles. Girardon produced a sumptuous portrait of royal power and absolute authority. Intended as the prime ceremonial representation of the sovereign in the heart of his capital, it depicted him in Roman armour, hand outstretched in a gesture of command, astride a prancing horse. Girardon derived inspiration from the antique statue of Marcus Aurelius (Museo Capitoline, Rome) that had served as the prototype for most major equestrian commissions since the Renaissance.
The model was finished in 1687 and when eventually cast by Balthazar Keller in 1692 the bronze stood almost seven meters high (around seventeen meters 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 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:
A/ British Royal Collection (Windsor Castle, Windsor)
A cast was commissioned by Louis XIV in 1695, cast by Le Pileur in 1696, and given to the Chancelier de Ponchartrain, who had been involved in the project for the place Vendome. Following the death of Ponchartrain’s son, it was sold to de La Haye in 1747. It is thought to be the bronze in the Royal Collection at Windsor, which was bought by the Prince Regent in 1817, due to the presence of a crowned C, signalling the tax levied on all bronzes sold between 1745 and 1749.
B/ Russian Royal Collection (now Hermitage, St Petersburg)
Another cast is described in the 1699 posthumous inventory of Edouard Colbert de Villacerf, who took over from Louvois as Surintendant des Batiments du Roi. This is thought to be the example now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, which was purchased from the Hyde Browne collection in 1785.
C/ French Royal Collection (now Louvre, Paris)
Girardon owned two casts of Louis XIV on horseback, which are thought to be the Louvre cast and the present cast. One cast was exhibited at the Academie exhibition of 1704, described as: ‘the equestrian statue of the King in bronze, which is a small copy of the one that is in place Vendôme’ (Maral, op. cit., p. 224). This version has been considered by some scholars to be the version that remained in Girardon’s collection after his death and is mentioned in inventories of 1713 and 1715. The Louvre example does not have a firm mid-18th century provenance, but appears later in the collection of the Baron de Breteuil, from which it was confiscated. It is transferred to the Musée des Monuments Français in 1796 and finally acquired by the Louvre in 1818 (Bresc-Bautier et al, op. cit., p. 328). It is the only signed cast.
D/ European Collection (the present version)
Almost certainly the example in Girardon’s own collection, depicted in the central image of the Galerie de Girardon. Like bronze C above, it could be the example mentioned in the inventories of 1713 and 1715.
THE KING AND HIS BATON
In 1690 the Marquis de Louvois, who had persuaded the King to approve the original project, commissioned a second monumental version of the statue from Girardon for his own chateau at Meudon. This was to be the same as the version for the place Vendôme in almost all respects, apart from the fact that the King was to be depicted holding a baton in his right hand, rather than being outstretched. The baton was a military symbol of power and authority, and created a link back to antiquity. Louvois died in 1691, and the bronze was only cast after his death in 1694, when it was acquired by the Marechal de Boufflers. It was destroyed in 1792. The present bronze is a cast of the model for this commission, which must have been finished between the original commission of the Louvois monument in 1690 and when the present cast was exhibited in the galleries of the Louvre in 1699. This was described as ‘the Equestrian Statue of the King, in bronze, 3 pieds 2 pouces high’ and was from Girardon’s personal collection.
The present cast is the fourth known early cast of Louis XIV on horseback on this scale, but the only known reduction of the Louvois model and is almost certainly unique. As none of the four casts has an unbroken provenance, and the existence of the present bronze was unknown until 1993, it has proven difficult to ascertain the history of each cast. However, an example of the equestrian bronze with the right hand holding a baton appears in the 1708 engravings of the Galerie de Girardon, a celebrated series which depicted the sculptor’s collection in a fictional architectural setting. The bronze of the king on horseback took pride of place in the centre of the engravings and was valued at the highest price of any piece in the collection, 3500 livres. A second cast was also in the collection of Girardon, and exhibited at the Academie exhibition of 1704, which is thought to be the version in the Louvre.
A tantalising possibility regarding the history of this bronze concerns a reference to a sale in these Rooms on 16 May 1800 (see under Provenance). Although not specifically referred to as a model by Girardon, the bronze failed to sell at 150 guineas, making it the most highly valued item in the sale. It was owned by 'Van Dyck', who appears to have been a dealer based on his repeated appearances in Christie's auctioneers books around this time, when he was consigning mainly Old Master paintings. The bronze was not one of the items specifically said to have come from the French Royal Collection although Van Dyck was the owner of at least one of these so it is clear that he had access to some of the best collections of France at a very troubled time. If this bronze was the Girardon model, it could not be either of the examples in the Louvre or Hermitage as they had already been acquired by this date, and it is highly unlikely to have been the Windsor example which was purchased in France in 1817.
GALERIE DE GIRARDON
Girardon therefore owned two versions of Louis XIV on horseback in bronze, but only one version was shown in the engravings of his collection. It is argued here, and by Françoise de La Moureyre in the recent monograph on Girardon (Maral, op. cit., pp. 443-4), that the present bronze is the version depicted in the engraving as it is the only known early cast that depicts the King holding a baton in his right hand.
When inventories were taken of Girardon’s collection in 1713 and 1715 only one version of the bronze was noted in the collection. This suggests one version was sold between 1704 and 1713. The inventory of 1715 describes the remaining bronze as ‘the equestrian statue of Louis the great on its supporting base of painted and gilt wood’, appraised at 3,500 livres. Scholars have maintained that this is likely to be the Louvre version (Draper, 2008, p. 91), although due to the absence of any identification of it with the place Vendôme monument, it is also possible that it is the present cast.
The present bronze is a masterpiece of graceful design and refined finish. Included in the monograph on the artist published on the 300th anniversary of his death, Girardon scholar Françoise de la Moureyre comments on the beauty of the modelling and the excellence of the cast which she compares directly to the signed example in the Louvre. She asserts, furthermore, that it is the lost example from Girardon’s collection, depicted in the Galerie de Girardon. (ibid., p. 444).
François Girardon was the most significant sculptor in France in the late seventeenth century. As sculptor to the king, Girardon was instrumental in the development of the gardens of Versailles and in the creation of a unified style that would glorify Louis XIV at home in France and across the courts of Europe. Versed in the arts of antiquity, Girardon challenged the dominance of Italian artists past and present, in order to establish a new era of greatness in France, under the rule of the ‘Sun King’.
Born in Troyes, Girardon (1628-1715) was the son of the founder Nicolas Girardon. He began his technical apprenticeship with Claude Baudesson, the ebeniste and sculptor, and rapidly caught the attention of the Chancellor Seguier, who sent him to study in Rome in 1648. Here Girardon was to find both the abundant remnants of antiquity as well as the still vibrant traditions of the renaissance.
In Rome he met the artists Philippe Thomassin and Pierre Mignard who placed him under the supervision of the sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini. After three years in Italy, Girardon returned briefly to Troyes before establishing himself in Paris in 1651. He became the pupil of Laurent Magnier and of Francois Anguier, and was admitted to the Academy in July 1657, aged 29, following the presentation of his morceau de reception, a relief of The Virgin. He was made a professor two years later.
A RISING STAR
His artistic talents were quickly recognised and he was honoured with a number of royal ‘commandes’. In 1664 he was named Surintendant des bâtiments du Roi and worked for the Crown for the remainder of his long career. Under the protection of Charles Le Brun, Girardon flourished, and he was entrusted with several grand projects by Louis XIV, including the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre. In 1667 Colbert sent him to Toulon as head of the workshops responsible for the decoration of ships, the Royal-Louis and the Dauphin Royal.
Girardon continued to create important works for Versailles including 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).
Girardon’s achievements in bronze are particularly remarkable considering that for the first thirty years of his career he worked only in stucco, stone and marble. It was not until he received the commission for a tabernacle in the chapel of the Chateau de Fontainebleau in 1679 that he is recorded working in bronze – and yet what remains demonstrates that he had already mastered the techniques of modelling and chasing. From 1683 bronze was preferred over lead for statuary at Versailles, and with the preferment of Louis’ chief advisor Louvois, Girardon was elevated above all other sculptors, and was put in charge of everything cast at the Arsenal: ‘I want to inform the sculptors who work for the King in Paris of my insistence that they obey M. Girardon in all things, and that anyone who fails to do so will be expelled from the Gobelins’ (Louvois, 1686).
THE ROYAL COMMISSION
The commission for an 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’ (Blunt, rev. 1999, p. 238). The choice of Girardon for the undertaking demonstrates that at this time the sculptor was deemed the first in France, without equal. He was to remain as such until his old age, when he was superseded by Antoine Coysevox.
Girardon illustrated to perfection the classicism in arts envisaged by Louis XIV in creating a stylistic reference that was emulated by all the courts of Europe. Although at the beginning of his career Girardon looked towards the art of antiquity for inspiration, ‘he treated his sources with freedom in his search for ease and harmony of contour and disposition’ (ibid). He rejected the full-bodied Baroque drama of Bernini in favour of a fluid and graceful Classicism. His oeuvre bears witness to his desire to respond to the new influences of his age and it has been said that ‘from 1706 one notes the degree of perfection to which this master had brought the art of sculpture in France, which made him the equal of the most celebrated masters of antiquity’ (Brice, p. 122). He died on Sunday, 1 September 1715, within a few hours of his royal patron, Louis XIV.
GIRARDON: THE CASTING OF LOUIS XIV
The first thing that is notable about the present bronze group is its extreme weight (232 kg), and x-rays taken of the bronze reveal that the core is still intact and is filled with a complex armature of interconnected metal bars and wires. The main part of the bronze appears to have been cast in one pouring, without the usual metal to metal joins. Normally this would suggest a direct cast. However, x-rays taken of both the Royal Collection cast at Windsor and the cast in the Louvre show a closely comparable interior armature. It has been suggested that these bronze reductions may have been cast using a process referred to as the ‘cut-back core process’ (see Bassett and Bewer 2014, pp. 205-214). This relatively rare process involved creating an exact replica of the composition in core material (for the monumental Louis XIV this was a mixture of plaster and ground bricks for the body of the king, and a combination of plaster, horse hair and manure for the body of the horse; see Desmas 2014, p. 236) from the mould of the original model. This core was poured around an interior armature to give it strength and stability and then baked. This replica was then cut back all over its surface and the mould was placed around the reduced core leaving a gap between the two. This was then filled with wax and the mould was removed, thus creating an inter-model with the interior core intact. The inter-model was then encased in refractory material and the whole was heated so that the wax melted out. The re-created gap was then filled with molten bronze in the foundry. Once cooled, the casing was broken off, the surface of the bronze was repaired, fled and chased, and finally patinated.
Interestingly, the right arm of the king does not appear to have either an armature or core in its interior, and a visual examination also confirms that there is a metal to metal join at the top of the arm where it meets the drapery over the king’s shoulder. The left arm also has a metal to metal join just above the elbow. This suggests that the same mould was used for the main body of all four known reductions but that the arms were cast by the more common indirect process. This would facilitate the substitution of the outstretched right arm in the Louvre, Windsor and Hermitage examples for the raised right hand of the present model.
Apart from the obvious difference of the raised right arm, the finishing of all four bronzes differs in numerous other minor respects. The relief decoration on the king’s cuirass differs between some of the different casts, as it does on the pteruges of the armour, the saddle blanket and the plinths (for a more detailed discussion of the differences see Draper, op. cit., pp. 352-353). In terms of the chiselling, all four are of extremely high quality, with small differences of detail.
Perhaps the most notable visual difference is in the colour of the patination which, in the case of the present bronze is a relatively light golden brown colour. This makes the exquisite modelling more clearly legible and highlights the contrast between high points and those cast in shadow.