The present statuette depicts the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, scion of the dynastic House of Habsburg, sitting astride a curveting horse preparing to leap gracefully from its hind legs. The bronze is known in one other cast, which was in the Imperial Treasury in Vienna from at least 1750 and is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and which has been conclusively attributed to the great Austrian sculptor Caspar Gras. The present bronze belongs to a descendant of the Royal House of Savoy which had its origins in the 11th century and ruled the unified Kingdom of Italy from 1861 until 1946.
THE HABSBURG GROUP OF RIDERS
This bronze belongs to a series of equestrian statuettes that represent different members of the Habsburg family. Four of these are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, including another example of Ferdinand III in his youth (inv. no. 6020), Ferdinand III at a later age (inv. no. 5989), Leopold I in his youth (inv. no. 6000) and Ferdinand II (previously unidentified, inv. no. 6025). A further two statuettes were previously in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of Archduke Ferdinand Carl, which remained in Vienna until 1933 and is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (A.16-1960), and another of either Archduke Ferdinand Carl or his brother Archduke Sigismund Francis, which was formerly in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (inv. no. 5995) and was offered at Sotheby’s, London, 8 July 2010, lot 48 (withdrawn before the sale). Of these the equestrian statue of Ferdinand III (inv. no. 6020) can be traced the furthest back to an Imperial Treasury inventory of 1750. There is only one known gilt-bronze equestrian statuette, depicting Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, brother of Emperor Ferdinand III, which is a part of the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (inv. no. KMS5501), and can be traced back in the royal inventories to 1737. There are two unattached heads, one of Leopold I and the other either of Archduke Ferdinand Karl or Archduke Sigismund Francis, also in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and another at Schloss Lichtwehr, Tyrol. Leithe-Jasper notes the existence of other examples related to the group, but with the horse in full gallop, rather than curveting; an example of this type, depicting either Leopold I or Archduke Sigismund Francis, was sold at Christie’s, New York, 13 April 2016, lot 45.
The present bronze was cast with the same technical ingenuity and methodology as the rest of the above group. The body of the horse was cast in one piece, including the hind legs and forelegs to below the carpus. The rest of the forelegs, the head and base of the neck and the tail were all cast separately. The rider’s body, saddle and saddlecloth form one piece; the head, arms below the shoulder, and large bow of the sash are all cast separately. For this entire group the horse was always cast from the same model. The heads are all inserted into the neck aperture and are thus easily interchangeable. In all probability the heads were executed last, when it was known who was to be portrayed (Leithe-Jasper, loc. cit.).
This process would have allowed the sculptor to produce a quantity of extremely high quality and adaptable bronzes, without the excess costs of building up the models and moulds from scratch. The present bronze is seemingly identical to another example of Ferdinand III in Vienna (inv. no. 6020), albeit without the baton, reins and stirrups. A hole to the back of the head of Ferdinand II in the present bronze indicates that he also was originally adorned with a laurel crown. Of all the groups in the series, these are the only two bronzes that are identical, although the unattached head of Leopold I in Vienna is a close variant of the head of the same sitter in the equestrian bronze also in Vienna. It is generally believed that the bronzes were all cast between 1630 and 1658.
The equestrian statuettes have long been attributed to the Austrian sculptor of German birth, Caspar Gras. In 1742, Anton Roschmann first mentioned Gras’s name in connection with these groups. In the 1781 catalogue of the collection of the Imperial Treasurer two of the Kunsthistorisches bronzes are also connected with Gras. The tradition continued until Schlosser mistakenly re-attributed the statuettes to Gianfrancesco Susini (1910 and 1913/4), a view that was followed by Planiscig (1924 and later) and Radcliffe (1966). Egg (1960) first reverted to the old ascription to Caspar Gras and he was followed by Weihrauch (1967), Caramelle (1972), Koch (1975/6), Leithe-Jasper (1976, 1978/9 and 1986), Olsen (1980) and Avery (2001).
Whilst the inspiration for the series came from Giambologna’s Nessus and Deianira, the bronzes are formally close to Caspar Gras’ monumental equestrian statue of Archduke Leopold V in Innsbruck (1623-30). With the latter equestrian portrait Gras became the first European sculptor to realise the feat of executing a monumental bronze equestrian portrait in which the enormous weight of a rearing horse and rider is balanced on the delicate twin points of the horse's rear hooves. This extraordinary technical achievement, which must have made Gras famous far beyond Innsbruck, was surely the catalyst for this series of bronzes that showcase this feat on a smaller scale. Avery notes that ‘the assembled evidence now points beyond reasonable doubt to the authorship of Caspar Gras’ (Avery, op. cit., p. 432).
Caspar Gras trained as a goldsmith and from 1600-1602 as an embosser at the court of Archduke Maximilian III in Bad Mergentheim. He then followed his teacher, Hubert Gerhard, to Innsbruck where he later obtained the title of court sculptor and, therefore, most of the court's commissions when Gerhard left for Munich in 1613. Gras was one of the finest metalworkers of Northern Europe and a principal exponent of Giambologna's style in the north.
FERDINAND III HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR
Ferdinand was the fourth child of Emperor Ferdinand II and his first wife, Maria Anna of Bavaria. The young archduke grew up in Graz and lost his mother when he was seven. During his childhood he was overshadowed by his elder brother Johann Karl (b. 1605). As the second-born son, Ferdinand was destined for a secular career in the service of the House of Habsburg, but his position in the family changed abruptly at Christmas 1619 when his elder brother died suddenly of kidney disease. His education lay in the hands of the Jesuits, who had a monopoly on higher education during the time of the Counter Reformation, which his father was relentlessly imposing in his dominions. He became Archduke of Austria in 1621, King of Hungary in 1625, and King of Bohemia in 1627. Having been elected King of the Romans in 1636, he succeeded his father as Holy Roman Emperor in 1637. As Holy Roman Emperor he endured to win peace with the Treaty of Westphalia, but at the cost of concessions that eventually reduced the power of the Habsburg dynasty. The present statuette may have been created around the time of his elevation to Emperor in 1637.