The present pair by Picault, opulent and extensively detailed, is inspired by ethnographic findings of the mid-19th Century on ancient Egypt as well as the influences of theatre and costume design. Travelers to the East have often recorded their journeys, either in writing or in pictures, but the movement of Egyptomania was far wider reaching than Egyptology. The immensely popular vogue of Egyptomania is without a doubt due to the success of performing arts in recreating this era, in particular Giuseppe Verdi's Aida. Both the Cairo and Paris premieres created waves of sensation that influenced generations of artists from Alexander Cabanel to Cecil B. de Mille. In Aida, the ruins were brought back to life in full color and three dimensions before the eyes of a generation that would make history as romantics, adventurers and explorers.
The Cairo premier of Aida was entirely conceived by one of the foremost Egyptologists of the day assigned to the project by the Khedive Ismail Pasha himself, Auguste Mariette, whose involvement with the set and costumes contributed to the success of the piece. Verdi, who had twice turned down the Khedive's invitation, was absorbed by Mariette's synopsis of the opera delivered to him in 1870, and agreed to compose the music for the work. Mariette's primary concern was the challenge of transforming two dimensional hieroglyphs and large stone statues into characters on stage. In one of his letters dated Paris, 15 July 1870, he states: 'Finding the proper balance, through studying the ancient costumes discovered in the temples and adapting them to the demands of the modern stage, is a delicate task. A king may be quite majestic in granite with a huge crown on his head, but when we endow him with flesh and blood, and have him walk and sing, it may get awkward and embarrassing. We must be wary of one thing ... provoking laughter'. Mariette's final costumes for Aida were a satisfying re-creation of ancient Egyptian attire and his marvelous sets transported the spectators at the Cairo premiere to the time and land of the pharaohs, which is why the preparations revolving around the 1880 Paris premiere were so highly anticipated. For the Paris opening Pierre-Eugène Lacoste was responsible for designing the costumes. He was a more experienced designer than Mariette and his costumes for the opera were better-fitted, carefully researched and more authentic. The fitted Egyptian robe with crisscrossed, wing-like flaps, which re-appears in sculpture (as in the present work) and in painting is entirely Lacoste's invention. During this period artists inspired by the Egyptian revival extensively collaborated as well as demonstrated the possibilities of mixing styles. Costume and jewelry designers such as the Castellani Workshops influenced painters such as Edwin Long and Alma-Tadema as well as sculptors such as Emile-Louis Picault and Gaston Leroux.
The rediscovery of ancient Egypt broadened horizons for artists as it allowed them to mix mediums as well as styles. The introduction of design elements in fine art grew into a fascination, which would culminate in Art Nouveau. The present pair of sculptures by Picault represent the contemporary interpretations of Egyptian costumes. As noted above, theatre and opera played a great role in reviving and reinterpreting Egyptian attire during the second half of the century. The nemes hairpieces and wigs worn by the figures are all inspired by designs of Lacoste and Mariette for Aida. Even the choice of Isis, the Egyptian goddess and the protector of the Pharaohs, is significant as she was the most fascinating and studied one of all Egyptian deities of the time. Most striking are the exceptional quality of the chiseled cast and the outstandingly elaborate and intricate designs of the costumes. The Egyptian robes are adorned with hieroglyphs and each belt buckle introduces an entirely new design executed with great detail enriching the highly crafted garments even further.
Emile Picault trained under Louis Royer, the Dutch sculptor, and exhibited a wide range of sculpture at the Salon between 1863 and 1909. His Egyptian subjects are some of his most popular works and follow in the tradition of ethnographical decorative sculpture so popular in France during the latter part of the 19th Century.
In all of Picault's designs for his Egyptian figures the previous generation's work on ancient Egypt is immediately noticeable. He has almost direct visual quotes from set and costume designs for the production of Aida by Pierre-Eugène Lacoste (fig. 1). In his molding of the head dress and the skirt of the figures, Picault is looking at Lacoste's designs closely. This is evident in that much of the integrated detail in both artists' work, however authentic it may look, is historically inaccurate. This trend is not exclusive to these two artists. From Clodion to Lucien-François Feuchère, all artists working in the late 18th and 19th Centuries have taken inspiration from Egypt and integrated this new aesthetic and imagery into their art. The famous ancient statue of Antinous in the Capitoline Museum has also been a source of inspiration for most artists looking back at Egypt. Clodion's teraccotta statue of Antinous-Osiris (fig. 2) is an early example of this synergy, and Picault's Egyptian figures also exhibit a striking similarity to the ancient statue.
This pair of bronzes was probably cast by G. Servant, a Parisian fondeur who specialized in Egyptian Revival pieces and who was a medalist at the major international exhibitions between 1867 and 1887. Four comparable pairs to the present work were sold at Christie's New York, one in the di Portanova Collection, 20 October 2000, lot 91, another on 2 May 2001, lot 73, another on 23 April 2002, lot 39 and another on 19 April 2006, lot 68.
(fig. 1) Pierre-Eugène Lacoste, Pharaoh, costume design for the Paris opening of Aida at the Opéra de Paris, 1879, Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra, Paris.
(fig. 2) Claude Michel, called Clodion, Antinous-Osiris, circa 1775, Private Collection.