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A bronze figure of Mercury playing the flute, by Barthelemy Prieur (1536-1611), circa 1570-80. Estimate $600,000 – $1,000,000. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2015

With an integrally cast circular plinth, 18 3/8 in. (46.6 cm.) high

Provenance: André Le Nôtre (1613–1700) (possibly).
Villa Mansi, Segromino Monte (Lucca).
Christie’s, London, 23 June 1982, lot 148.
Peter J. Sharp, New York; Estate of Peter Jay Sharp; Sotheby’s, New York, 13 January 1994, lot 48.

Literature: André Le Nôtre, posthumous inventory of 1693 (possibly).
J. Guiffrey, ‘Testament et inventaire après décès d’André Le Nostre et autres documents le concernant’ in Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art français, 1911, pp. 217-262
M. Buckling, Die Negervenus, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1991, p. 48, no. 33.
A. Gibbon, Bronzes de Fontainebleau, 1985, p. 53, fig. 55.
Trinity Fine Art, An Exhibition of Old Master Drawings and European Works of Art, New York, 1995, p. 164, no. 90.
New York, The Frick Collection, European Bronzes from the Quentin Collection, 28 Sep. 2004 – 2 Jan. 2005, M. Leithe-Jasper and P. Wengraf eds., p. 290 and 292.
Paris, New York and Los Angeles, Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art and The J. Paul Getty Museum, Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution, 22 Oct. 2008 – 27 Sep. 2009, G. Bresc-Bautier, G. Scherf and J. Draper eds, pp. 112-115, no. 17.
M. Schwartz, ed., European Sculpture from the Abbott Guggenheim Collection, New York, 2008, pp. 164-165, no. 87.

Exhibited: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Musée du Louvre, Paris, and J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Cast in Bronze, 2009.

Notes: When the present bronze was included in the exhibition Cast in Bronze – French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution (op. cit.) it was among a handful of the most important works executed by the French sculptor Barthélemy Prieur. Prieur is thought to have been born around 1536, and travelled to Italy where he worked in Rome, Turin, and possibly Milan. He returned to France in mid-1571 when he was almost 40 and was already considered to be a specialist in bronze sculpture. He soon came to the attention of members of the French court, and he was appointed court sculptor to king Henri IV of France in 1591 (for a summary of Prieur’s career see Cast in Bronze, op. cit., pp. 102-103). Executed on an unusually large scale, the present bronze is – according to Regina Seelig-Teeuwen – ‘probably the earliest known sculpture of a nude male in Prieur’s oeuvre’ (ibid, p. 114). She dates it to before Prieur’s departure from Paris following the Edict of Nemours in 1585.

he bronze first appeared on the art market when it was sold by Christie’s in 1982 where it made the enormous price of £60,000 hammer. However, it may also have a 17th century provenance as there is a reference in the inventory of the collection of the celebrated landscape designer André Le Notre to: ‘une autre figure de bronze representant Mercure jouant de la fluste, posée sur son pied d’ébeyne’ (‘another bronze figure of Mercury playing the flute on its ebony socle’; Guiffrey, op. cit., p. 256). Le Notre was well-known as a collector of paintings and sculpture, and his gift in 1693 to king Louis XIV, of 20 groups, nine figures and two vases in bronze was an important addition to the royal sculpture collection. Unfortunately, the inventory does not include dimensions of the bronze so it is impossible to determine if it refers to the present bronze or to one of several smaller examples which are known to exist.

Stylistically, the body type – with its somewhat smooth stylised forms – can be compared to the bronze reclining allegorical figures executed by Prieur for the tomb of Christophe de Thou in circa 1583-1585 (formerly church of Saint-André-des-Arts, Paris, now Louvre, inv. nos. MR 1684 and 1685; see ibid, nos. 14 and 15) or to the standing nude figure of Henri IV as Jupiter (Louvre, inv. no. OA11054). The pose, with its exaggerated contrapposto and right foot pulled back to the rear edge of the plinth, is seen again in the Henri IV mentioned above and even more so in the fountain figure of Neptune with Three Hippocamps which was commissioned in 1583 by the marquise de Rothelin (Musée Municipale de Melun, inv. no. 802; ibid, nos. 18 and 16).

On the basis of Prieur’s stylistic development and the subject matter of the bronze, it is thought that the Mercury was probably executed in the sophisticated milieu of Paris, before Prieur fled to Sedan to escape religious persecution for his protestant beliefs. The bronze is unknown in any other cast of this scale, and so was probably a specific commission for a private patron. The representation of Mercury playing a flute – as opposed to pipes – is thought to be the only one of its kind in 16th century sculpture or painting (ibid, p. 114). It would suggest that the original patron of this sculptural commission may well have been a music-lover, probably associated with the French court.

Christie’s. THE ABBOTT GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION: A NEW YORK KUNSTKAMMER, 28 January 2015, New York, Rockefeller Plaza