Sotheby’s London is to auction Chioma di Berenice (Berenice’s Tresses) by Ambrogio Borghi (Italian, 1849-1887) comes to the market from a Private Belgian Collection, and will spearhead Sotheby’s sale of 19th and 20th Century Sculpture on Tuesday, 17 May 2011. Estimated at £300,000-400,000, Berenice stands at just under three metres tall on her original, revolving base, and is in exceptional condition. Until recently, Borghi’s masterpiece was known to scholars only in the form of a lively clay bozzetto and a plaster model. The marble version has remained in a specially constructed alcove in a private Brussels residence for over one hundred years, following its purchase at a local auction in 1904.
Chioma di Berenice was exhibited at Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, together with three other works by the artist, and singled out by critics for its superb qualities. The advent of World Fairs in the second half of the nineteenth century did much to augur the fame and popularity of Italian sculpture of the period, since vast numbers came to view the wonders of art and industry from across Europe, America and Australia. Italian sculptors recognised that these fairs provided the perfect showcase to display their highly skilled feats of carving and sensitive rendering of narrative. Chioma di Berenice was considered proof of a talent that would place Borghi among the most original and modern sculptors of his time. The marble has an exquisite verisimilitude, in the figure’s carefully observed anatomy, the skin’s supple surface and the curled, fluttering tresses of hair. Although the figure is goddess-like and distanced on its narrow column, the curved body and outstretched arms give an impression of movement that is so vivid, visitors to the Exposition Universelle might have experienced the sensation that Berenice is on the point of launching herself into the crowd.
Queen Berenice II of Egypt was the wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes, and the present work illustrates a legend about her famously beautiful hair. Berenice offered her hair to the gods on fearing for her husband’s life whilst he was on a military expedition in Syria, as a sacrifice for his safe return. She hung her locks in the temple but they mysteriously disappeared on the first night. The King was furious and to appease his anger, the court astrologer explained that the winds had wafted the tresses up to the heavens, where they formed the constellation of Berenice. Borghi depicts the queen in the temple with an incense burner at her feet, moments before she sacrifices her hair. The sculptor’s artistic language of ‘sentiment’ and ‘sensation’ is perfectly aligned in the present work.
Ambrogio Borghi was recognised in his short life – he was only 38 when he died as a stellar talent among his peers. He did not run a large workshop, unlike his contemporaries, and produced only a handful of exhibition marbles. Borghi offered Chioma di Berenice in Alexandro Rossi’s auction of sixty Italian marbles from the 1878 Exposition Universelle in the year it was exhibited. In the catalogue preface, it was described as ‘the most beautiful young female form ever to escape, alive and pulsating, from the block of Carrara.’ It was then sold in Brussels in 1904 to a Monsieur Rouleau, who was building a house in the city. He constructed part of the interior of the salon specifically to frame the sculpture, and it was in this alcove that Berenice remained for over one hundred years until her rediscovery this year.
La Frileuse by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827 – 1875) is a life-size marble, and as such is extremely rare in the oeuvre of Carpeaux. This newly-discovered version is unrecorded in the literature. In the spring of 1871 Carpeaux and his family fled the bloody turmoil of the Paris Commune and took refuge in London. Deprived of his lucrative public commissions, he began to concentrate on a series of lyrical female figures intended to appeal to a wider market. One of the most notable models he produced in London was the present work, intended for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1871. It is probable that it was produced in the large studio the sculptor hired opposite Regents Park, where he also carved his Daphnis et Chloé for Lord Ashburton. Very fine chisel marks across the surface give the piece an air of spontaneity, which matches the lissom modelling of the nude and the blithe spirit of the subject. The sculptor captures a swooping movement as the girl curves and twists, her right foot raised entirely off the ground as she appears to jump from her tree-trunk seat. It is estimated at £100,000-150,000.
Mosé Salvato Dalle Acque (The Finding Of Moses) by Francesco Barzaghi (Italian, 1839 – 1892) is a very imposing life-size marble, intended to amaze and impress (est. £150,000-200,000). It displays all of Barzaghi’s distinctively adept carving skills, as he revels in the myriad textures of cloth, basketry, jewels, hair and flesh. The present work was shown at the World Fairs of Vienna in 1873 and Philadelphia in 1876. The popularity of the piece is attested to by the postcards that were produced depicting it at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Showing at these important fairs was a way of garnering commissions and a few versions of the Mosé are known. However the date on the present marble of 1870 would suggest that it predates other known versions and it may in fact be the marble shown at Vienna and Philadelphia. Barzaghi was a key sculptor in the Scapigliatura movement in Milan. He was ambitious and prolific, contributing in as many international exhibitions as possible, always to great acclaim. Having built an international reputation for himself, Barzaghi was given a post as professor at the Accademia di Brera in 1880 and continued to teach there until his death in 1892.
The classical theme continues with a superb bronze by Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824 – 1904) entitled Tanagra (est. £100,000-150,000). In December 1870, archeological excavations at a site called Tanagra in Boetia, modern day Greece, unearthed a group of Hellenistic terracotta funerary figurines bearing large traces of original polychromy. The discovery caused a sensation as it provided firm evidence that antique sculpture was painted. In 1878, the ‘Tanagra Figures’ were brought to Paris and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, where they fascinated the French public. Gérôme’s decision to adopt the Tanagra Figure provided him with the opportunity to combine his interest in antiquity with an exploration of the polychromy of sculpture. In 1890, he exhibited the marble version of his Tanagra at the Paris Salon, and it was presented with painted features. In the present bronze version, Gérôme explores the relationship between sculpture and colour through the use of striking contrasts in the patination, from the dazzling gilt bronze patina of the body, to the dark brown patina of the base. Gérôme’s Tanagra offers itself as the spirit of the ancient Boetian city which bears the same name. She sits on a pile of earth and rock, and the tools at her feet are a reminder of the archaeological process, as well as alluding to Gérôme’s role as sculptor. Despite being presented as an antique sculpture, however, Tanagra bears a resemblance to contemporary women. This represents a deliberate choice on the part of Gérôme to converge the antique with the aesthetic of the modern nineteenth century Parisian woman, in order to create arguably the most successful and highly regarded sculpture of the artist’s oeuvre.
Of further note in the sale is St George by Alfred Gilbert (British, 1854-1934), which was designed as one of the twelve saints who surround the tomb of the Duke of Clarence in the Albert Memorial Chapel, Windsor Castle. This royal tomb was the most prestigious commission of Gilbert’s career and St George in particular has become emblematic of Gilbert’s entire oeuvre. In the artist’s own life-time the central importance of St George was confirmed when the Prince and Princess of Wales chose this figure as a separate, private memorial for their home in Sandringham in 1895. Clad in undulating shell and foliate armour and standing on the scaled hide of the felled dragon, Gilbert emphasised the fairy-tale quality of St George. The saint raises his right hand in blessing, holding in the other the sword set with a crucifix which symbolises his dual role as warrior and saint. The detail of the armour is enhanced by the intricate casting – the mould for the St George was made in nineteen pieces. The sculptor cast the model in very limited numbers and the present bronze is one of only eight versions known to exist. It is estimated at £70,000-100,000.
*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium