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Post Lot Text
A GROUP OF PARCEL-GILT WHITE-PAINTED CARVED WOOD ALLEGORICAL BUSTS REPRESENTING THE FOUR CONTINENTS
FRENCH, 18TH CENTURY
Each figure depicted facing frontally, wearing a tunic tied at the chest and on an integral circular socle with acanthus leaf decoration and octagonal plinth; the bust of Asia with an elephant mask above her head, America with a feathered crown and an eagle, Europe with a horse's head and Africa with a lion; each on a modern rectangular tapered faux-marble pedestal; chips, cracks, losses and repairs, areas of the gilding and polychromy refreshed
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.
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, 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 is represented by a nude woman wearing a crown of feathers and a loincloth, usually armed with a bow and quiver and accompanied by a crocodile or alligator, an animal that is emblematic of the Amazonian rivers and North America.
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. She also wears a helmet shaped like an elephant's head.
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.
One of the most representative examples of this craze is the staircase d'apparât in the Palace of Versailles decorated as it was with tapestries and painting on the theme of the Four Continents. It was designed to impress visitors and foreign embassies alike with the extent of the king's knowledge and to proclaim Versailles as the new crossroads of the world.
By tradition, these busts are meant to have come from the south of France. Certainly, they can 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.). The busts presented here are also similar in size and iconography to four French marble busts of the four continents in the form of female allegories, dating from the end of the 17th century and also found in the gardens of Versailles.