During the reign of Louis XIV, the known world was divided into four continents. Their representation in paintings, sculptures and tapestries formed an essential part of life in the royal residences, becoming a symbol of the king's power and worldwide fame. One of the most representative examples of this fashion is the staircase d'apparât in the Palace of Versailles decorated as it was with tapestries and paintings on the theme of the Four Continents. It was designed to impress noble visitors and foreign embassies alike with the extent of the king's knowledge and to proclaim Versailles as the new crossroads of the world.
Based on a set of conventions, the iconography used to represent the four continents made them instantly recognisable. Europe takes the form of a draped woman wearing an ancient helmet, usually armed with a spear and shield and flanked by a horse, a direct reference to Greece and Alexander the Great, as well as to the equestrian art form so intimately linked to the nobility and military. America was represented by a nude woman wearing a crown of feathers and a loincloth, usually armed with a bow and quiver and here accompanied by an eagle, which was then believed to exist only on this continent. Africa is represented by a black woman accompanied by a lion or an elephant, occasionally carrying a bow or cornucopia in reference to the Nile and the major rivers. Asia is depicted as a woman carrying a fragrant jar, a wisp of incense smoke rising from it into the air, accompanied by a camel or dromedary as a symbol of the desert but here depicted with an elephant head.
In the Amphitheatre in the garden of the Grand Trianon at Versailles are two marble busts depicting continents which are closely similar in detail to the present busts. These busts were likely installed during the reign of Louis XIV. They can also be related to the marble sculptures representing the Four Continents ordered by Charles Le Brun during the Grande Commande of 1674, when major works were commissioned for the gardens of the Palace of Versailles (parterre Nord, see Pincas, loc. cit.), and to two further French marble busts depicting Africa and America dating from the second quarter of the 18th century, later acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild for Waddesdon Manor.
The closest comparisons in style, iconography, scale and surface are four white-painted wood busts of the continents sold from the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé at Christie's, Paris, 25 February 2009, lot 404 (841,000 Euros). It is also interesting to note that these had similar thin, long-stemmed socles to the present busts.