Sun King’s equestrian sculpture could bring $US13m at auction

François Girardon's "A bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback" is estimated to bring up to £10 million when it is offered at auction in London in July.
François Girardon’s “A bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback” is estimated to bring up to £10 million when it is offered at auction in London in July.

A bronze equestrian sculpture commissioned by Louis XIV of France is expected to fetch up to $US13 million when it is offered at auction in London next month. 

Louis XIV of France and Navarre (1638-1715), who reigned for an extraordinary 72 years and 110 days, was perhaps even more interested in art than in politics. Known as the ‘Sun King’, the great connoisseur and collector envisaged a unified style in the arts — classicism — that would glorify his reputation at home in France and across the courts of Europe.

The sculpture “A bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback” is a sumptuous portrait of royal power and absolute authority. Intended as the prime representation of the sovereign in the heart of his capital, it depicted the monarch in Roman armour, hand outstretched in a gesture of command, astride a prancing horse.

It was commissioned by the Sun King in 1685, to sit in the newly created Place Louis le Grand (now Place Vendôme). The commission, which was the idea of his war minister, was entrusted to the finest sculptor of the age, François Girardon (1628-1715). As sculptor to the king, Girardon was instrumental in the development of the gardens of Versailles and was entrusted with several grand projects, including the Galerie d’Apollon at the Louvre.

Detail from François Girardon's "A bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback".
Detail from François Girardon’s “A bronze group of Louis XIV on horseback”.

The model was finished in 1687 and when eventually cast by Balthazar Keller in 1692 the bronze stood almost seven metres high (around 17 metres with the pedestal). It was placed in the square designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and was inaugurated in 1699. Like so many symbols of royal authority, the bronze was destroyed in the French Revolution, with only the left foot of the king surviving today (now in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris).

Due to the importance and success of the commission, Girardon made other versions of this monument in bronze on a reduced scale. There are four early references to bronze examples of this composition, and four surviving bronzes which are accepted as having been cast under Girardon’s supervision: one in the British Royal Collection at Windsor Castle; one in the Russian Royal Collection at the Hermitage in St Petersburg; one in the French Royal Collection at the Louvre; and this version, rediscovered in a European collection, which was almost certainly the example in Girardon’s own collection. Its dimensions are 104 x 90 x 43 cm, and it is estimated to fetch between £7 million and £10 million when it is offered at The Exceptional Sale 2018 on July 5 at Christie’s in London.

Well versed in the arts of antiquity, Girardon took inspiration from the antique statue of Marcus Aurelius (Musei Capitoline, Rome) that had been the prototype for most major equestrian commissions since the Renaissance. It was the sculptor’s aim, however, to challenge the dominance of Italian artists past and present in order to establish a new era of greatness in France under the rule of Louis XIV.

During his lifetime, Louis commissioned more than 300 formal portraits of himself, and at least 20 statues in the 1680s alone. The latter stood in Paris and the provinces and were intended as physical manifestations of his rule.

The equestrian monument to Louis XIV was Girardon’s first and only commission for the city of Paris and the ‘most important work of his later period’. He died on September 1715, within a few hours of his royal patron, Louis XIV.

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