Nicolas Coustou, one of the most prominent sculptors active at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, was among the most gifted sculptors in France instrumental in developing the rococo style in sculpture. Between 1676 and 1683, Coustou began his training as a sculptor in Paris under his uncle Antoine Coyzevox. At this time, Coyzevox had been working ceaselessly on sculptural commissions for Louis XIV and it is very likely that Coyzevox's debt to classical prototypes and highly naturalistic style greatly influenced the young Coustou.
In his mid-twenties, Coustou entered the Académie de France in Rome and trained his eye by methodically reproducing antique sculptures he saw in Roman collections; as his terracotta Borghese Gladiator, 1683, and marble Hercules Commodus, 1683-6 (Louvre and Versailles, Parterre de Latone) demonstrate. The influence this training had on his earlier works is unquestionable, although by the last decade of the 17th century one detects the beginnings of a style that is less antique (or baroque for that matter) in conception and contains the more naturalistic language of the rococo; consider, for example the marble relief depicting an Allegory of the Recovery of the King, 1693, and the terracotta model of Julius Caesar, 1696 (Souchal, op. cit., 1977, nos. 12 and 14 respectively).
From 1691 and virtually until his death, Coustou proved to be one of the most prolific sculptors in France. He worked on the Dôme des Invalides, Paris, the parks at the châteaux of Marly, Yvelines and Versailles, while also continuously catering to the demand he had from private patrons. It is from this area of activity that the present lot derives.
In his article entitled 'Quelques sculptures retrouvées du XVIIIè siècle' (op. cit., 1996), François Souchal comments that the present lot was not listed in any of Coustou's biographies or his contemporary texts but that due to its 'caractère légèrement érotique', it must have been commissioned for a private patron.
The Venus, represented here holding a girdle, is an apparently unique conception representing the culmination of various styles that Coustou adopted and developed during his career. The subject matter and composition clearly echo classical prototypes, such as the numerous classical Venuses that Coustou would have seen during his time in Rome. With the present Venus, he has modified these classical templates and has created a more dynamic and animated composition - an attitude typical of his works from the late 1690s and early 1700s as, for example, his Julius Caesar also demonstrates. Another development in his style (and quite unlike his contemporaries) was that he drew few influences from the Baroque aesthetic, and focused more on the simplicity of the composition and the delicacy of the female form. Although almost twenty years later in date, the Venus compares very closely to the three figures by Coustou of Adonis, the Nymph with Quiver and the Nymph with Dove (all in the Louvre) conceived for the Appartements Verts in Marly but subsequently transferred to the Jardins des Tuileries (Souchal, op. cit., 1977, nos. 53-55). In all four instances the artist has conceived original compositions that display freedom of invention, similar physiognomy and a sensual rendition of female morphology. But the strength of these figures, and the Venus, essentially lies in the dynamism of the composition. Note, for example, the exaggerated contrapposto in the latter, which is defined by the head looking up high over the right shoulder, while the torso twists to the left and legs motion to the right. This play on the positioning of the body's axis not only gives the artist the opportunity to define muscle groups but also to make the composition 'light' - almost as if it was about to spring off its plinth.
Through also looking at his later works, it becomes clear that Coustou had lost none of his virtuosity, as his great masterpiece The Pieta completed in 1728, and his Louis XIV as Jupiter, 1731, demonstrate (Nôtre Dame, Paris and the Louvre respectively, see Souchal, op. cit., 1977, nos. 61a and 74). In relation to the former, Coustou rendered the facial features of the Venus and the Virgin in a very similar way, with tilted back head, narrow open lips, rounded face and a sense of anxiety. This re-using of stylistic traits is also evident in the fluid and naturalistic folds of the drapery that billow over Venus' thighs, and are similarly reproduced on the Louis XIV as Jupiter. We thus see how Coustou selected his preferred characteristics from antiquity and the baroque and added to them the naturalism and asymmetry of the rococo - the Venus thereby being a formidable, undocumented, survival typical of his creative output in the 1720s.
The lack of documentary evidence relating to this sculpture by no means subjugates the fact that this is a rare, signed and dated work by a major artist of the Louis XIV period. Souchal points out (op. cit., 1996, p. 98) that Coustou conceived various secular figures for private patrons; such as a Flora and a Bacchus for a garden in Saint-Maur and a Diana for a château in Villegenis all unlocated and possibly even destroyed. But one tantalising suggestion appears in an article by Françoise Arquie-Bruley (loc. cit.) discussing the existence of a Venus by Coustou commissioned by a French patron of the arts called Watelet and to be placed in the gardens of his residence, the Moulin Joli. Arquie-Bruley highlights two sentences in some correspondence of 1786 '... au milieu du mur desd. bâtiments est une grande niche ornée de sculpture dans laquelle est une Vénus avec son piédestal par Coustou' and later continues '... dans une niche decorée se trouve la Vénus de M. Coustou reparee par luy.' Although connecting the present lot to this reference may be tenuous, the present lot is seemingly unique and, like the Watelet Venus, has had its right hand repaired probably contemporarily with the time of facture.
Firmly placed into the context of Coustou's oeuvre, the Venus is a significant survival from the latter years of an artist who exerted considerable influence upon the evolution of European sculpture. Although he produced relatively few works in his last 10 years, here he has demonstrated that he never lost his charisma or profound understanding of female beauty.
We would like to thank Professor Souchal for his confirmation of the attribution, and for his assistance in the preparation of this note.