Born in Bordeaux in 1827, Isidore-Jules Bonheur began his career working with his elder sister Rosa (d. 1899) in the studio of their father, drawing instructor Raymond Bonheur. Although best-known as one of the 19th century's most distinguished animalier sculptors, Bonheur initially worked as a painter. He made his Salon debut in 1848 with the painting Cavalier africain attaqué par une lionne and a plaster group of the same subject (no. 4619), although as a painter, his brushwork was relatively undistinguished. The following year, he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and from then onwards concentrated solely on sculpture, whereupon his true talent in the medium became apparent.
The English were particularly appreciative of Bonheur's fine and wide range of equestrian works and consequently the artist exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 1870s. Bonheur gained great success with equine figures and groups, and one of his important large equestrian studies, Un cavalier, époque Louis XV was shown in bronze at the 1879 Salon (no. 4816) alongside Le Grand Jockey (no. 4817), his best-known single horse and jockey group (see lot 50). No doubt realising the commercial potential of these large equestrian groups, Bonheur exhibited them again at the 1883 Exposition Nationale (nos. 893 and 894) and, for a third time, at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle (no. 1690), where he was awarded the coveted Médaille d'Or.
Bonheur created several powerful variations on the quintessentially English steeplechase theme. His various models, cast in a range of sizes, display one, two and, as in this magnificent group, even three horses at a time captured in mid-jump. It is likely that the present monumental group is the one referred to in Lami as La Saut de la haie. The plaster model was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1882 (no. 4132), the bronze in 1884 (no. 3301), and the bronze again at the Exposition Universelle in 1889 (no. 1692; S. Lami, Dictionnaire des Sculpteurs de l'Ecole Français au dix-neuvième siècle, Paris, 1914, vol V, p. 129).
Bonheur had a close working relationship with his brother-in-law, the celebrated Parisian founder Hippolyte Peyrol, who was married to his sister Juliette. These close ties resulted in the production of exceptionally cast and finely chased bronzes, often identified by Peyrol's miniscule cachet. Cast by Peyrol and edited by the reputable Parisian firm of Boudet, the detailing of the present cast is superior, suggesting a close understanding between founder and sculptor.
An example of Bonheur's smaller group of two steeplechasers, also cast by Peyrol, was sold in these rooms, 5 December 2003, lot 33 ($175,500).