A seminal work by one of the most accomplished sculptors of the 19th century, Charles Adrien Prosper d’Épinay’s Bonne Renommée fully evokes the strength and resolve of Penelope, one of the greatest heroines of antique literature, whilst simultaneously encapsulating the elegance and refinement of the oeuvre of its sculptor. Its splendid draperies and classical proportions pay homage to the masterworks of Antiquity, while its subtle reinterpretations of classical precedent and infusions of modernity make it a work unique to its age.
ANTIQUITY AND THE ANCIEN RÉGIME
Variously known as Bonne Renommée and Pénélope, the present marble represents the wife of Ulysees from Homer’s The Odyssey. In the epic poem, Penelope is separated from her husband for a long period while he fights in the Trojan War and subsequently faces many obstacles in his return from battle. During his prolonged absence, Penelope is pursued by many suitors among whom she promises to choose once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. Unbeknownst to them, however, she undoes each day’s work in the evening while she awaits her husband’s homecoming, a task which is ultimately rewarded when Ulysees returns from the war, and to which Épinay makes direct reference with the tumbling spool of yarn suspended from the figure’s right hand.
Like many of the most accomplished artists of the century, Épinay was well versed in the art of antiquity, having personally studied the classical sculptures of the great European capitals, including Rome, where he maintained an atelier for several decades. Épinay also sojourned in London where, Roux-Foujols suggests he admired and was inspired by the marbles from the Parthenon brought back to Britain by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and today in The British Museum: ‘Ces fragments uniques produisent sur lui un grand effet. Il admire bien sûr leur style, mais il est surtout frappé par ce qu’il appelle 'leur réalisme le plus nature’’ (P. Roux-Foujols, Prosper d’Épinay: un sculpteur mauricien à la cour des princes, 1996, p. 23). Indeed, the splendidly complex and highly refined drapery of the present marble call to mind these Classical Greek masterpieces, including a marble relief (Block XLI) from the south frieze of the Parthenon dated to 438-432 BC and centred by a female maiden cloaked in drapery and in a pose very similar to Bonne Renommée (1816,0610.87).
This connection to the art of antiquity was also noted in commentaries published by Épinay’s contemporaries. In his 1887 article on the artist’s work, Thiébault-Sisson suggests that Épinay’s sculpture of Penelope is directly based on the aesthetics and ideals of antiquity: 'Pour la Pénélope, elle est empreinte, sous la longue palla d’une chasteté presque auguste, elle a tout le parfum d’un antique’ (Thiébault-Sisson, 'L’Art élégant’, La Nouvelle Revue, November-December 1887, vol. 49, p. 846). Indeed, to Épinay’s contemporaries, this sculpture both borrowed from and was imbued in the very spirit of the antique.
Épinay’s fierce admiration of the sculpture of the ancient world was complemented by a profound appreciation for the works of his more immediate artistic predecessors, notably the sculptors of the Ancien Régime, whose influences can also be seen in the present marble. Roux-Foujols signals two marbles which exerted a particularly strong effect on Épinay and of which he brought back photographs from a visit to Paris: Augustin Pajou’s bust of Jeanne Bécu, comtesse Du Barry and Christophe-Gabriel Allegrain’s Baigneuse also known as Venus, both of which are today in the collections of the Musée du Louvre (M.R. 2651 and M.R. 1747, respectively) (P. Roux-Foujols, op. cit., p. 27). The first, of Louis XV’s celebrated mistress, shows a graceful figure dressed 'à l’antique’ in tumbling classical draperies while the second is an elegant representation of the goddess of love leaving the bath, also in a manner highly inspired by antiquity. While neither appear to be the direct precedent for the present work, their apparent strong influence over Épinay no doubt informed his production in the neoclassical style, and elements of each work are identifiable in Bonne Renommée, which similarly reinterprets the grace of antique sculpture with the panache of a modern hand.
Finally, Roux-Fujols has also suggested that this work makes reference to the work of the pre-Raphaelite artists of Great Britain, whose unique interpretation of the art of ancient world reached its zenith in the years around the present marble’s creation: 'il réalise Pénélope ou Bonne renommée (1884). Le thème est à cette date-là proche du mouvement des préraphaélites. Ici, la femme d’Ulysse est représentée debout et marchant pour ne point succomber au sommeil. Les cheveux sont traités de façon sommaire. Une longue tunique masque les formes féminines. Le traité des plis, retenant la lumière donne à l’ensemble une verticalité et contribue à lui conférer une allure fière, presque austère’ (Roux-Fujols, op. cit., p. 46-47).
LA CEINTURE DORÉE AND BONNE RENOMMÉE
While the precise dating of this sculpture is unclear – Roux-Fujols indicates before 1885 – it has been suggested that it was conceived as a pendant work to Épinay’s celebrated marble, Ceinture dorée, which was shown at the Salon of 1874 (Roux-Fujols, op. cit., p. 90). Commissioned by a certain Madame de Cassin who wished to have a sculpture of the ideal woman of the modern age, Ceinture dorée represents a life-size nude maiden fastening the ends of a golden belt around her torso. It was received with great acclaim when shown at the Salon and did much to further Épinay’s reputation in the Parisian artistic milieu.
While the sensuality of Ceinture dorée differs considerably from the more restrained nature of the present marble, it is possible that they could have been created as a manifestation of the French proverb: ‘bonne renommée vaut mieux que ceinture dorée’ (a good reputation is worth more than great riches). As Épinay was well versed in the art of his European contemporaries and predecessors, it is entirely possible that he wished to place these sculptures into a long-established artistic paradigm of creating visual representations of contrasting virtues. This connection would also equate the present lot with one of the artist’s most famous works, which was admired by the likes of Emperor Alexander III of Russia and the King of Holland and reproduced in Sèvres biscuit porcelain and in bronze reductions.
PROSPER D’EPINAY: A SCULPTOR TO THE ARISTOCRACY
Épinay was born to French parents in Port-Louis, then under British control and in present-day Île Maurice. He was thus French by ancestry but a British subject. This ambiguity complicated his exhibitions at the Salon and classifications by the critics, but also bespoke his cosmopolitan lifestyle which greatly influenced his oeuvre. Épinay grew up between Port-Louis and France and, following the death of his parents, settled briefly in Paris. There, he was introduced by his aunt, Julie d’Épinay, who presided over a salon légitimiste, to some of the most elevated social circles in the City of Light. Épinay also met many of the most influential artists of the day, and became an apprentice to the celebrated portrait sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan. While in Paris, he closely studied the masterworks of the Musée du Louvre, and it may have been during this formative period that he first saw the aforementioned sculptures by Pajou and Allegrain.
In the early 1860s, Épinay departed for Rome where he would spend significant periods for the rest of his life, establishing an atelier at 57 Via Sistina in 1864, which he kept until 1912. For the next decade and a half, he sojourned frequently in the Eternal City, where he befriended members of the European aristocracy including the Comtesse Stroganoff and the Marquise de Yavalquinto as well as the foremost members of the artistic elite of his day including sculptor Adèle d’Affry, Duchesse de Castiglione-Colonna, called Marcello, and composer Franz Liszt, some of whom he immortalized in portraits of terracotta or marble. During this same period, he also visited London where he became close friends with the Prince and Princess of Wales after modelling the latter’s portrait in terracotta in 1865. These visits gave way to regular exhibitions at The Royal Academy.
Concurrent to his grand lifestyle, Épinay also developed a strong penchant for gambling, which left him destitute at several stages of his career. This could have been the impetus for a sale of his works and possessions held at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris on 20-21 April 1886, in which the present work was lot number two, and engraved in the following pages. In his introduction to the catalogue, Arthur Bloche describes the present lot as both a fine homage to the antique and a distinctly modern work: ‘…à cette Pénélope les amateurs de l’art classique n’auront, ce me semble, rien à reprocher; statue d’une conception très neuve cependant, puisque la femme d’Ulysse est debout et marche pour ne point succomber décidément au sommeil; oeuvre demeurée absolument originale même dans l’exécution des draperies qui ont toute la noblesse, toute l’ampleur de l’antique, sans la moindre trace de pastiche’ (p. VII). The marble sold for the sum of 9400 francs where it was almost certainly acquired directly by the aristocratic Espivent de La Villeboisnet family for the Château de Mosne. In the 1930s, it passed into the collection of another French noble family before being recently acquired by the present owner.