This majestic pair of sphinxes was executed by Frédéric-Eugène Piat (d. 1903), and are indicative of his oeuvre as an arbiter of industrial design during the Belle Epoque, where they were exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1874. These intensely regal figures celebrate the fabled mystery of the mythological world and the genius of Piat’s prowess as sculpteur-ornamentalist.
The atmosphere of the Parisian nineteenth century salon was one of bold exuberance; an environment to make an artistic statement. The present pair presided over a celebrated school of sculptors and iconic works, including Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercié’s monumental plaster of Gloria Victis and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s portrait of the author and playwright Alexandre Dumas.
Piat’s daring and bold contribution paid homage to the familiar and ancient prototype, while simultaneously drawing on the Mannerist and Renaissance depictions of the sphinx from the late 15th century. The so-called ‘French Sphinx’ seemingly first appears as early as the 16th century on the chimney-piece in the Salon Francois Ier at château de Fontainebleau. Parallels that Piat has included to emulate this particular depiction include a coiffed head, the bare breasts of a young woman and the use of jewellery as means of embellished ornament. Whereas later models of the ‘French Sphinx’ are depicted recumbent and often surmounted by allegorical putti, such as those conceived by Jacques Sazarin for the Parterre du Midi at Versailles, seated sphinxes were known as grotesques following the decorations discovered in Nero’s Domus Aurea in the late 15th century. The 19th century saw subsequent appeal in the sphinx just as strongly, with many artists and designers of the Romanticism and Symbolism movements using mythical creatures in their works.
Born in Montfey, near Troyes, Fredéric-Eugène Piat was the son of a carpenter who moved as a child to Paris with his family. As the leading sculpteur-ornamentalist of his time, Piat left a considerable body of work, principally designs and models for an array of clocks, appliques, lamps, candelabra and torchères. Such designs were executed by many of the most reputable firms of Parisian bronziers, among them Christofle, Colin, Lemerle-Charpentier and Val d’Osne. Notably, Val d’Osne cast a variant example of Piat’s Renaissance sphinx fitted as a torchère. A further pair of bronze examples ‘deux magnifique sphinx Renaissance’ by Piat where exhibited at the Vienna Exposition universelle in 1873. However, works equal in scale and execution to the present pair of imposing sphinxes are exceedingly rare. Piat’s is perhaps best known for his designs for Maison Millet, the preeminent ebeniste and fondeur, for whom he designed the ‘grande horloge Louis XVI, genre de La Fosse’ modelled with a life-size figure of a scantily-clad maiden finished in ormolu and patinated bronze. Piat’s career was not without abundant accolades, which included a silver medal at the 1867 Exposition universelle, a gold medal at the Paris Exposition universelle and an appointment to the jury at the 1889 Paris exhibition. The pinnacle of his extensive career was being presented with the Legion d’Honneur in 1900, following his success at the 1900 Exhibition universelle.
In 1894, Piat gave considerable funds towards the inauguration of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in his native Troyes. Included in his gift, and to be displayed in a specially decorated salon on the museum's ground floor, were at least twenty of his creations. A subsequent exhibition of his work in 1905 included a plaster reduction the present sphinxes, as well as cast-iron agrandissment cast by Val d’Osne.