The Tribuna of the Uffizi painted by Johan Zoffany in 1772-8 shows Grand Tourists admiring the masterpieces of the Medici collection, Florence.
At the turn of the 19th century the universal sculptural style looked back to antiquity, to the classical world of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. This style of heroic subjects carved in white marble was definitive and any deviation from the classics was deemed sacrilegious. Neoclassicism was fashionable across Europe, and Antonio Canova (1757–1822), followed by his disciples Bertel Thorvaldsen from Denmark and John Gibson from Great Britain, led this classic revival producing heroic sculpture for European and Russian nobility and, with prescience of the superpower to be across the Atlantic, Canova even sculpted a portrait of George Washington in 1821.
Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker by Antonio Canova, commission in 1802. Apsley House, London (English Heritage)
The pre-eminence of monochrome white marble remained the exemplar for any important sculptural commission. Sculpture at the Salon de Paris, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, would be modelled first in clay or cast in plaster, and if awarded would be commissioned by the French state to be carved in marble for the Emperor or for public display at the Louvre. In this way sculptors such as Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827 – 1875) and Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824 – 1887) found fame. The Paris Salon greatly furthered the visibility of sculpture and greater public consumption led to innovation. There was a reassessment which concluded that much marble sculpture in ancient Greece might not have been intended to be pure white marble but would have been painted, having only lost its colour over the ensuing millennia. This was termed ‘polychromy’ and stimulated a move, especially in French sculpture at the Paris Salon during the mid-19th century Second Empire period, for artists such as Charles Cordier (1827 – 1905) and Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904), to create multicoloured and luxurious sculpture often incorporating precious stones, gilt-bronze and metalwork.
The Paris Salon in 1890 painted by Jean-André Rixens. The marble group of runners, left, is titled Au But and sculpted by Alfred Boucher. The group of Tigers and Her Cubs, right, is an animalier work by Auguste Cain.
Nonetheless neoclassical marble statues ‘after the antique’ remained must haves for the wealthy. Furthermore, there was a considerable appetite to acquire antique and contemporary sculpture for the many new museums being built to serve the new bourgeois. Appreciation of sculpture was furthered by the Grand Tour which had begun with English milordi travelling to Italy in the 17th century but by the 19th century encompassed a global audience of tourists, increasingly from the USA, who were keen to bring home their own slice of Rome. This demand was met by sculptors in Rome and Florence such as Galleria Romanelli and Galleria Pietro Bazzanti, replicating masterpieces of ancient sculpture such as Laocoön and His Sons and the Apollo Belvedere. These Italian studios followed in the footsteps of Canova and by the late 19th century had broadened their output to reflect the fashions of the day producing allegorical and Romanic figures, beautifully carved with virtuoso and dexterity.
What to look for?
Classical subjects after the antique, especially female subjects such as Venus de’ Medici and later copies of seminal works such as Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces are undiminished in popularity and sound investments. Nineteenth century marble portraiture is generally not appealing unless it depicts a famous personage, such as a bust of Napoleon or a Roman Emperor such as Julius Caesar or Caligula. Especially prized are half-lifesize or full length standing female figures for centrepieces to entrance halls or for sculpture galleries. Most popular of all are allegorical and romantic subjects from the Florentine school by the likes of Cesare Lapini (1848 –1890) and Vittorio Caradossi (1861-1918), with subjects such as Spring and Eve carved in the round making great centrepieces for rooms or focal points in window bays.
L’Amore degli Angeli, a marble statue by Giulio Bergonzoli on display at the Ranger’s House, Greenwich (English Heritage)
A common misconception about marble sculpture is that it was intended for display outside as garden statuary. Although many marble works were commissioned for gardens, and as such were carved with less detail, many more were intended as interior or gallery works of art but have since suffered from being placed outside. In the early 20th century, a great number of fine marble sculptures were relegated to the garden and as a consequence ruined beyond repair. This is an especially saddening fate for the finest and most detailed marble sculpture. Therefore, considerations of placement are of paramount importance when buying marble statuary. If you are looking for garden statuary, you should choose a statue that was either carved for that purpose or one that might have been placed outside already and weathered with time. If you are looking for an interior piece you should check the condition carefully to ensure it retains an interior finish. The signature or any inscriptions should be visible and the detailing of the hair, flowers, nails etc. should be crisp. It is important to note that with marble statuary some restoration is inevitable. Fingers or other delicate protrusions might have been damaged in the course of the work’s lifetime, but if minimal and professionally restored, such repairs are not detrimental to value.
Adrian Alan offers a superb variety of nineteenth century sculpture. Please get in touch for further advice on buying 19th century sculpture.