These magnificent vases of richly veined levanto rosso marble (perhaps cut from an ancient Roman column), with handles in the form of male and female caryatids, their musculature beautifully modelled as they grasp the rim, their legs terminating in fantastical foliage, reflect that fascinating moment in the French decorative arts when the first seeds of neo-classicism were being sown.
The crouched caryatids forming the handles and the interlaced garlands that issue from them feature on a design for a vase in the immensely influential Receuil Elémentaire d'Architecture of the architect and dessinateur Jean-François Neufforge (1714-1791), the first part of which was published in 1757-8 (see S. Eriksen, Early Neo-Classicism in France, London, 1974, fig. 310).
Neufforge, who arrived in Paris circa 1738 and studied architecture with Jean-François Blondel, was among a select group of architects and designers in Paris in the 1750's promoting the new, avant garde à la grecque style. He collaborated with Louis-Joseph Le Lorrain on the publication of Julien-David Le Roy's les Ruines des Plus Beaux Monuments de la Grèce in 1758. Le Lorrain, who had fallen under the spell of antiquity while studying in Rome, designed the famously iconic suite of neo-classical furniture for Lalive de Jully in 1756-8, now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly.
DATING THE VASES
The motif of nymph-like caryatids flanking vases and candelabra also recurs frequently in the 1770's, occurring in the oeuvre of the famous bronzier Pierre Gouthière, for instance on a green porphyry vase in the Louvre Museum (illustrated in D. Alcouffe, A. Dion-Tennenbaum and G. Malbet, Gilt Bronzes in the Louvre, Paris, 2004, pp. 240-1), or in the form of vases sirènes produced at Sèvres (for instance an example in the Wallace Collection, discussed in R. Savill, Catalogue of Sèvres Porcelain, London, 1988, vol. I, p. 447-450, cat. C333), or on a garniture of Chinese porcelain vases sold from the collection of Karl Lagerfeld, Christie's, Monaco, 28-9 April 2000, lot 40.
However the examples cited above have a sweeter, more delicate sensibility, and lack the muscular solemnity of the vases offered here, supporting an earlier dating for the latter. A further vase in the Louvre, dated 1760-1770 and originally in the Minister of Agriculture, of green porphyry and with handles in the form of sirens with fish-tails, offers perhaps the closest parallel (see Alcouffe et al., op. cit., p. 148, cat. 71).
THE ATTRIBUTION OF THE GILT-BRONZES
Without further documentation an attribution for the bronzier responsible for the superb figures on these vases, which were probably commissioned by one of the sophisticated amateur collectors of the day such as Blondel de Gagny or Lalive de Jully, and most likely supplied by a marchand mercier, will remain tentative. However recent research by Alexandre Pradère in the inventories of an important marchand-mercier of the period, Jacques-François Machart, has revealed some intriguing possibilities, including the name of Vassou, one of the few bronziers deemed important enough to be named in the catalogue of the sale of Blondel de Gagny's celebrated collection and also in the daybook of Lazare Duvaux, and also Gabriel Godille, who was acclaimed in the 1773 L'Almanach Dauphin as being 'renommé pour les garnitures de porcelaine et autres vases précieux' (see A. Pradère, 'L'Inventaire d'un Grand Marchand Mercier des Annés 1750 Jacques-François Machart', Objets d'Art: Mélanges en l'honneur de Daniel Alcouffe, Paris, 2004, p. 236).
One should also not ignore the possibility of two of the leading bronziers of the period, both of whom were quick to embrace the new neo-classical style, Jean-Joseph de Saint Germain and Philippe Caffiéri, the latter of whom supplied the bronzes for the famous Lalive de Jully suite.