This vase represents an extraordinary confluence of painting and sculpture in 18th century French art. Not only is it an early and masterful work of sculpture by Clodion, one of the most important 18th century French sculptors, but it appears that this vase, or an identical one, was owned by the painter François Boucher. And the artistic links between these two artists, represented by this vase, are astonishing. As this vase, or an identical one, seems to have played a visual role in Boucher’s paintings and, in addition, figures from Boucher’s paintings can be clearly recognized on Clodion’s vase.
François Boucher was, arguably, the most famous 18th century European painter. And the impact of Boucher’s work on 18th century art was colossal. Named Premier Peintre du Roi in 1765, Boucher’s rise was meteoric, helped, also, by being the favorite painter of Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Pompadour. So, from West Sussex to St. Petersburg, Boucher’s work influenced the paintings, decorative arts, architecture and gardens of the 18th century. And, despite the age-old aesthetic battle with neoclassicism, this veneration and imitation of France’s rococo Ancien Régime has continued from the 18th century until the present day. As Poulet records, the Dalva vase, or another identical version of it, appears in three different works by or after Boucher: Vertumnus and Pomona, now in the Louvre, The Prudent Shepherd, a painting now lost but exhibited at the Salon of 1763 and a drawing of a design for a vase, formerly in the Goncourt Collection and now in the Bilbliothèque nationale, Paris (Poulet, 1989, p. 143). Poulet gives further evidence that the Dalva vase was probably owned by Boucher by citing a sale of Boucher’s collection in 1771: ‘A vase decorated with a bacchanale of children in low relief, and with two masks with rams horns in relief from which fall garlands of flowers, by the same Claudion [sic].’ The measurements of the Dalva vase also correspond relatively closely to the vase mentioned in Boucher’s sale (Ibid. and note 5). The Dalva vase appears identical to one of a pair of terracotta vases by Clodion now in the Hermitage Museum - called ‘no.1’ by Poulet and Scherf - and so it is difficult to say if the Dalva vase or the Hermitage vase was originally in Boucher’s collection (Poulet and Scherf, 1992, pp. 78-86). The later 18th century provenance of either the Dalva vase or the Hermitage vase is also well-documented as proved by Saint-Aubin’s marvelous sketch in the margins of Mariette’s sale catalogue.
The possibility that this vase was owned by Boucher also means that it is one of Clodion’s earliest vase designs, or possibly even the original of this type. As Poulet illustrates, since this vase is possibly depicted in Boucher’s Vertumnus and Pomona of 1763, it predates Clodion’s marble vase in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, as that is dated 1766 (Poulet, 1989, p. 143). Clodion left for Rome in the fall of 1762 and it is not known whether Clodion executed Boucher’s vase before he left for Italy or after his arrival in Rome because, as Poulet notes, in order to have it represented in a painting that was submitted to the Salon of 1763, Boucher would have had to have owned Clodion’s vase by the summer of 1763 (Ibid.). Furthermore, Boucher’s design for a vase from the Goncourt collection mentioned above has been dated to 1761/62, placing it probably earlier than Clodion could have produced this vase (A. Priore, p. 24). Because, of course, there is always the possibility that Clodion was influenced by Boucher’s paintings and drawings and based his vase on them, rather than the other way around.
This close connection between Clodion and Boucher is further strengthened by the fact that it was a two-way street and that Clodion was clearly influenced by the works of Boucher. He was looking at Boucher’s paintings from the 1750s and earlier 1760s, such as l’Automne (location unknown) as several of the figures from this painting appear on the present Dalva vase and the Hermitage vase. And, indeed, Clodion owned paintings by Boucher as in Clodion’s inventory done after his death there is noted: ‘Trois tableaux de Boucher représentant Jeux d’enfants…’ (Poulet and Scherf, Op. cit., p. 83 and fig. 46).
This vase is closely related to a group executed by Clodion both right before his departure for Rome and during his time in Rome. These have been discussed extensively by Anne Poulet and Guillaume Scherf in multiple publications, most thoroughly in their joint 1992 Louvre catalogue. A number of variants of this composition exist in both marble and terracotta, with the pair of vases in the Hermitage museum representing the touchstone for the latter. All the vases have in common the fluted neck, the grotesque masks, the swags and the bacchic frieze, although variations of each motif exist to create a variety of 'unique' inventions. As Poulet notes, the present Dalva vase is very close to the Hermitage vases with the only differences being that the Hermitage vases have slightly indented bases, where the Dalva base is smooth, and the ram horns of the grotesque ‘handles’ on the Hermitage vases are both longer and more torqued, while the horns on the Dalva vase are shorter and straighter (Poulet and Scherf, 1992, p. 80). The indentations on the Hermitage vases might have been intended for ormolu mounts which can be found on the many other marble, terracotta and bronze versions of this popular model, most of which date from the late 19th and early 20th century. Poulet and Scherf mention another terracotta vase in the collections of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, that it is particularly close to the Dalva vase (Ibid.). Scherf also notes a terracotta vase very similar to the Dalva vase, but with differing figures of putti, that was in the collection of Marius Paulme and sold, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 15 May, 1929, lot 281 and was later on the New York art market.
As a single object this vase encapsulates much of what is so admired in the arts of 18th century France: it is technically dazzling, appearing fresh and effortlessly dashed off, as only the hand of a master could achieve, and it is a brilliantly original composition, so popular imitations were still in production two hundred years later. It is both beautiful and humorous, and draws on both Antiquity and contemporary French paintings for inspiration.
But, most remarkable of all, is that this vase is an amalgam of painting and sculpture with both Clodion and Boucher giving credit to the other and, by doing so, elevating them both.