The exhibition of Tigre dévorant un gavial at the Salon in 1831 signalled a major turning point in Barye's career, effectively launching his reputation in Paris as a mature, daring and gifted sculptor, and earning him the attentions of the royal house of Orléans, who would be his most important patrons over the coming years.
Awarded a second-class medal, the half-life-size plaster model, skillfully patinated to resemble bronze, won both the admiration of many critics and the scorn of several others, ensuring the notoriety of both the work and its sculptor. Classically-leaning detractors, such as the critic Etienne Delécluse, considered animal imagery of any sort to be, at best, a "less elevated mode" than that of the human figure, and therefore the least challenging to an artist. At worst, they regarded the appearance of such exotic creatures in the hallowed halls of the Salon as scandalous. Admirers, on the other hand, were stunned by the hitherto unencountered sense of realism and vivid action expressed by the work. This was voiced by the critic Théophile Gautier, who wrote: "What energy, what ferocity, what a thrill of satisfied lust for killing shows in the flattened ears, the savage gleaming eyes, the curved nervous back, the clutching paws, the rocking haunches, and the writhing tail of the tiger, and how the poor scaly monster doubles in agony under those cutting teeth and jaws." Furthermore, for Romantic aspirants, such as the painter Eugène Delacroix, the mere sight of these natives of the Indian swamp, displaying the awesome animal violence possible in nature, could engender a sense of emotional transport.
A year after its sensational appearance at the Salon, Tigre dévorant un gavial was cast in bronze by Honoré Gonon and his two sons. Barye subsequently offered two reductions of the model, this fine épreuve ancienne being an example of the first, larger size (see lot 142 for an example of the second). After 1876, all three sizes were edited by Brame, the second, smallest reduction, also cast towards the end of the century by Delafontaine.