This exceptional pair of bronze horses are attributed to royal French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Tuby, and they recall the lavishly decorated gardens of the grand palaces of Louis XIV. Tuby was, in fact, one of the lead sculptors for the Sun King’s gardens, producing several marble and bronze groups for display there, and the present works were almost certainly made for the gardens of one of the king’s famed residences. With a remarkable level of detail, the artist has masterfully captured the animals’ anatomy and grace of motion with a sense of power and dynamic movement, and they are a rare treasure of 17th-century French Baroque artistry.
Louis XIV’s palaces were built to reflect the grandeur of the king and his court, and the gardens were equal in importance to the residences they accompanied, with lush landscaping and decoration throughout. Fountains were important to the grounds; they gave the gardens life and movement, and the king sought out the best sculptors of the day, such as Tuby, to create them. Versailles has a total of 55 existing water features, and they are the highlights of the gardens.
Originally created as part of a decorative fountain, the figures represent the mythical hippocampus, or seahorse, as evidenced by their hooves, mane and torso entangled with flowing seaweed. The work relates closely to an important fountain by Tuby specifically created for the Basin of Apollo at Versailles, depicting the Greek god of the sun pulled in his chariot by a team of horses. The present horses bear a striking resemblance to Apollo’s horses in their anatomy, facial expressions and poses. Likewise, the present equestrian pair resemble a since-destroyed fountain sculptural group created by Tuby for Versailles consisting of two hippocampi surrounded by Cupids and spouting water. These examples are outlined in volume III of French Sculptors of the 17th and 18th Centuries by François Souchal. Here, the horses themselves are a magnificent example of equine anatomy and dynamic expression. Captured rearing up, the animals are compelling and alive with motion from every angle.
This group may hail from another of Louis XIV’s country retreats — Château de Marly. Marly, like Versailles, had dozens of beautiful fountains, but the estate went into decline and was largely dismantled after the French Revolution. Regarded as a symbol of the monarchy, the monumental sculptures and fountains at the king’s palaces were largely destroyed during the Revolution, and bronzes were melted down in order to produce artillery. The few marble sculptures that survived now reside in the Cour Marly at the Louvre Museum or Versailles, and the majority of Marly’s bronze sculptures are missing. The present figures relate to two horses that were part of a now-lost bronze fountain that once graced one of Marly’s ornamental pools. Considering the king’s preference for Tuby’s work, especially regarding fountains, it is a distinct possibility that this work was created for the gardens of Marly.
As a favored court sculptor to Louis XIV, Tuby was highly regarded as an artist in 17th-century France. Born in Rome, he first trained in Italy before moving to Paris, where he worked at the renowned Gobelins tapestry factory under the guidance of Charles Le Brun, court painter to Louis XIV. Through Le Brun, Tuby caught the king’s attention, earning several commissions for sculptures and fountains at Versailles and other royal residences. Beyond his fruitful career in service to the monarchy, he also created monumental tombs for Marshal Turenne and Cardinal Mazarin. Renowned for his monumental marble and bronze groups, his works rank among the most influential sculptures of the French Baroque.
Each 16" wide x 13" deep x 27" high
Souchal, François, Henriette Dumuis, and La Moureyre Françoise De. French Sculptors of the 17th and 18th Centuries: The Reign of Louis XIV Illustrated Catalogue, vol. III, pp. 332-342. London: Cassirer, 1987.