François-Xavier Lalanne introduced his iconic Moutons de Laine at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture in Paris, 1965, where they immediately attracted international attention. Lalanne placed his first flock of 24 sheep at the exhibition's entrance, documented by a notable photograph of artists and critics at the Salon lounging atop the docile ewes. By 1967, the sheep, which were to become one of François -Xavier's best known works, had been pictured in Parisian interiors in Life magazine, and would soon be found in the collections of Yves Saint Laurent and other impresarios, collectors and cultural figures. The Moutons de Laine were conceived at a pivotal time for the artist: in 1965 François-Xavier had just completed his first private commission, a wildly inventive bar for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé which led, a few years later, to the gilt metal castings by his wife Claude Lalanne from the body of the model Verushka which were incorporated by the couturier in evening dresses for his "Empreintes" collection of 1969. For the next half century, François-Xavier and Claude, Les Lalanne as the two artists came to be known, created an unrivaled body of work. Their disconcerting yet seductive magical kingdom of fantastical beasts and luscious plants, characterized by humor, surprise and poetry--at once surreal and tender--established them as a preeminent artistic force of 20th century French art.
Originally presented with the title, "Pour Polypheme," Lalanne's flock recalled the passage in Homer's Odyssey where Ulysses and his comrades escape from the Cyclops Polyphemus' cave by clinging to the underbelly of his giant sheep even as the blinded ogre runs his hand over their woolly backs. The sheep are the perfect manifestation of Lalanne's mischievous and surrealist version of the tradition of art animalier, where mythology, metamorphosis and word play reign. Initially creating a single sheep, Lalanne then decided to create a whole flock, allowing them to cluster in his living room at Impasse Robiquet prior to the Salon de la Jeune Peinture exhibition. The artist recalled, "I wanted to create something very invasive because if you show small objects no one notices them. You have to go in with something out of the ordinary. The thought of a flock seemed to me to be a very peaceful idea. I thought that it would be funny to invade that big living room with a flock of sheep. Putting sheep in a Parisian apartment, it's a little like bringing the countryside to Paris. It is, after all, easier to have a sculpture in an apartment than to have a real sheep. And, it's even better if you can sit on it" (F. Lalanne, quoted by D. Marchesseau, The Lalannes, Paris, 1998, p. 36).
Edouard Roditi, writing in the April 1966 issue of Arts Magazine, commented upon Lalanne's ability to address the ambiguities the surrealist artist René Magritte painted in two dimensions and to then translate them into three-dimensional, real-life objects. And the art critic Otto Hahn ended his review of the Salon exhibition in L'Express (Jan 24, 1966) which, with the single exception of the sheep, he did not care for, with the following, "The Salon de la Jeune Peinture nevertheless holds one surprise: François-Xavier Lalanne's chairs...he has brought an entire flock of sheep. It is the most amazing thing in the show" (O. Hahn, quoted by D. Abadie, Lalanne(s), Paris, 2008, p. 298).
Adelaide de Menil and her husband Edmund Carpenter acquired the flock in 1976 directly from Alexander Iolas' gallery specifically with their East Hampton compound on Further Lane in mind. After purchasing the land for Further Lane in 1973, Adelaide and Edmund, a notable anthropologist and author, amassed a stunning collection of historic barns, all originally built on the South Fork of Long Island in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteen and nineteenth centuries. In an effort to preserve the regional architecture, the structures were moved to their 40 acre property and restored creating one of the most extraordinary residential compounds in the country. As Adelaide herself explained, "What better place for sheep than in a barn. It had to be!" Being the kind of whimsy that would so delight them, Les Lalanne were pleased to learn that it was the Further Lane barn, the main residential quarters of the complex, that would be the home for their moutons. And, in fact, the flock pastured there for over 35 years -- Adelaide and Edmund never considered just one or two, it was clearly a place for a gathering. Adelaide recalled how they had their corner of the barn, living mainly undisturbed until visiting children would descend upon them -- magnetically drawn to their beguiling countenance and irresistible tactility.
The daughter of the renowned art collectors John and Dominique de Menil, Adelaide was well acquainted with the leading art dealer Alexander Iolas long before she and Edmund purchased the sheep from him. Iolas was a champion of the major European Surrealists in the 1950s--Max Ernst and René Magritte above all--when his relationship with Dominique and John began and was a primary influence on the couple's interest in Surrealism. The de Menils purchased extensively from Iolas' New York and Paris galleries, and he helped them create one of the most important collections of Surrealist art in the world. In the late 1960s and 70s, when Iolas was presenting the work of Les Lalanne, his relationship with John and Dominique was firmly established; he was by then a trusted family friend. Adelaide first saw Lalanne's sheep at the home of another family friend, the artist William Copley. As she recalls, it was Copley who wryly suggested to Lalanne that there ought to be a black sheep--feeling an affinity with the outlier in himself. Intrigued by the idea, Adelaide asked for two black sheep to be made, kept one for herself and gave the other to Copley. Members of a family entrenched in the arts, Adelaide and Edmund, who were living in Switzerland in the 1970s, also knew Les Lalanne, seeing them on frequent trips to Paris -- at art openings or at their own home.
Upon deciding to sell Further Lane, in order to ensure the preservation of the historic barns, Adelaide and Edmund chose to donate 11 of the 14 buildings to the town of East Hampton, and in 2010 the structures were reconfigured into a remarkable town hall building. Adelaide poignantly noted, "now that we don't live in a barn anymore, it doesn't seem right to keep the sheep." Un Troupeau de 24 Moutons, from the collection of Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide de Menil, is the most important flock of sheep ever to come to market. Comprising eight sheep, one unusual black version, and 16 headless, grazing sheep, it represents a complete set as originally conceived by the artist, making it an extremely rare -- and complete -- flock. Among the most important works by François-Xavier Lalanne ever to be offered for sale, it is an iconic grouping with significant cultural importance.