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Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century the possession of works of sculpture was, almost exclusively, the prerogative of royalty and the aristocracy with great houses and long halls and galleries in which to display it. Marble was the preferred medium for these collectors, and Greek and Roman statuary rubbed shoulders with works by Canova, Thorwaldsen, Gibson and others; awesome and admirable but hardly covetable to a wider public. However with the spread of prosperity, gradually, a new class of collectors emerged, who, whilst admiring such grand works, began to appreciate that there was a place in the home for sculpture of a more modest scale. In his 1903 essay, 'Sculpture for the Home', which appeared as a foreword to The Fine Art Society's seminal First Exhibition of Statuettes by the Sculptors of Today, British and French M.H. Spielmann wrote that 'gradually, sculptor and public have come to realise that the modeller, like the painter, has his place in the home as well as in the hall and gallery. They are beginning to understand that although statues in life - of heroic-size, like great decorative paintings, are very well for palaces - statuettes, little works of art, and bibelots, may take their places in less pretentious rooms along with cabinet pictures, miniatures and the like.' It is perhaps not surprising that Jean-Léon Gérôme, that supreme painter of cabinet pictures, should have been in the vanguard of those who recognised this trend, which offered to the artist both a new challenge and a potentially profitable market.
It is interesting to note the number of painters who at this time also practised sculpture. Frederic Leighton is perhaps the most outstanding, as his Sluggard and An Athlete wrestling with a Python are two of the iconic works of the New Sculpture Movement, which revitalised the art of sculpture in Britain in the 1870s and 1880s, and whose influence could still be felt through the later works of Gilbert Bayes and Reid Dick well after the Second World War. Leighton's Olympian contemporary, George Frederic Watts, had, like Leighton himself, frequently used modelling in clay and plasticine, as a means of resolving compositional problems, long before he turned his hand to such heroic works as Physical Energy and the Tennyson Memorial. Both the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy encouraged the growth of this expanding interest in sculpture, though, as is often the case, the French were both more ambitious and more generous in their patronage as is evident from even a cursory walk down the main aisle of the Musée d'Orsay or at a glance at the great fountains of Paris writhing with crocodiles and other marine beasts, displaying an exuberance to rival the creations of Bernini, though the vision of the Third Republic, ambitious as it was, was far removed from that of the Medicis.
Rome, Paris and London became centres for this late-nineteenth century sculptural revival, with sculptors, foundrymen and models moving between the three cities. The influence of Michaelangelo, Donatello, Cellini and Della Robbia intermixed with a fresh analysis of realism and a growing interest in symbolism. Subject matter was drawn freely from history, legend, mythology and everyday life. Hamo Thornycroft's Mower, Mercié's David, Gilbert's figure of Eros and Reid Dick's Catapult Boy are each treated with much the same admixture of realism and idealisation, while Courbet's La Dame à la Mouette and Henry Pegram's Perseus and Andromeda combine realism and symbolism, a recipe to which Andrea Lucchesi added strong erotic charge for the slumped female figure in The Myrtle's Altar.
One important effect of this demand for small-scale sculptures was the need to make multiples, with the result that plasters and terracottas proliferated, though bronze became the medium of choice, and both sculptors and founders worked to revive and perfect the lost wax process - cire perdue - which, whilst facilitating reproduction of the model, allowed the sculptor to make alterations and refinements to the wax right up to the moment of casting. Both Thomas Stirling Lee and Alfred Gilbert were particularly interested in the possibilities of cire perdue and their experiments helped push the process to greater refinement. Like many of their contemporaries, both in England and on the Continent, they were also seriously interested in colour in sculpture, something that could be achieved not just in the patination, but also through the use of gilding and enamelling and the incorporation of rich and exotic materials - ivory, lapis, onyx and semi-precious stones. The final decades of the nineteenth century - and the first of the twentieth - were, in sculptural terms, truly amongst the most creative, fertile and inventive that Europe has witnessed.