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Post Lot Text
A CYLINDRICAL CARVED IVORY TANKARD SLEEVE OF THE THREE GRACES
ATTRIBUTED TO GERARD VAN OPSTAL (1605-1668), MID 17TH CENTURY
The circular gilt-bronze platform with acanthus and bead borders and swags of drapery, the ivory carved with the Graces dancing with alternating winged putti, on a square gilt-bronze base with bead and acanthus borders; very minor cracks, the gilt-bronze mounts later
The date of Van Opstal's birth in Brussels has recently been established as 1605, rather than c. 1594. He trained in his native city under Nicolas Diodone, but matriculated into the Guild of St Luke in Antwerp in 1635-6, where he seems to have concentrated on carving in ivory. In 1643 he moved to Paris and embarked instead on a career as a marble and alabaster carver, producing decorative reliefs for many buildings, including the Palais du Louvre (under Sarrazin) and the Hotel Carnavalet (1655-61), as well as for the façade of the grotto of Thetis at Versailles (1666). He also worked in terracotta and bronze. In 1648 he was one of the twelve founding members of the Academie royale and was appointed 'sculpteur ordinaire du roi'. His style is indebted on the one hand to ancient Roman sarcophagi and Renaissance reliefs, but on the other to his fellow-countrymen, the sculptor François Duquesnoy and the painter Rubens, who were helping to create the Baroque style.
Van Opstal treated the classical subject of The Three Graces on two other occasions: once as a deep relief of oval shape in marble (Louvre, MR2756, by descent from the collection of King Louis XIV), varying the normal theme by having Cupid lashing their raised hands to a tree; and again, in ivory, with an ajoure silhouette (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, inv. 2169). The latter is not signed but is usually believed to be by the artist (Bussers, loc. cit., pp. 253-54, no. 217). The sinuous flow of a shared length of drapery is common to all three images, as are the fleshy, Rubensian, forms of the women. (see M. Boudon-Machuel, 'L'oeuvre de Rubens, modele pour les sculpteurs? Les cas de Van Opstal et de Du Quesnoy', in M.-C. Heck, ed., Le Rubenisme en Europe aux XVIIeme et XVIIIeme siecles, Acts of an international colloquium, Lille, 2004, pp. 103-12).
Cupids are not to be found in the other renderings of The Three Graces, but - behaving like naughty children - are commonplace in Van Opstal's work, just as they are in that of Duquesnoy. Good examples are to be found among the finest and best documented of Van Opstal's ivory plaques in the Louvre, showing a nymph being tied up by a putto and two baby fauns (Louvre, MR365: Theuerkuaff, loc. cit., no. 352), and another of the drunken Silenus with four putti (Louvre, MR360: Caubet and Gaborit-Chopin, loc. cit., no. 180). Their fat stomachs, pendulous cheeks, emphatic creases in their adipose tissue and seemingly windswept hair are quite distinctive. A pair of ivory reliefs of pairs of putti in The Wallace Collection (nos. S266-67: in the collection of Count Pourtalès in Paris until 1865, when they fetched 6.000 francs at his sale) are of a similar, larger-than-average size.
This ivory sleeve is like those produced in Germany for large beer-tankards (Humpen) and may have been so employed, or could have been used round the stem of a pedestal, as employed at present. The section must have been sawn from a massive elephant tusk, which may have been inverted by the carver, in order to provide more material for carving the projecting elbows and heads of some of the Graces. A tankard in ivory - complete with curvaceous handle and lid ornamented with a grape-vine - showing the Triumph of Silenus, from the Thiers Collection in the Louvre, has been attributed to Van Opstal (Bu-Akar, loc. cit. pp. 142-43, pl. 2).