A Bronze Bust by Antoine Benoist Acquired by the Louvre

Antoine Benoist (1632-1717)
Bust of Suzanne Phélypeaux, 1690
Bronze - 61.8 x 26.5 x 24.8 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Galerie Kugel

6/3/14 - Acquisition - Paris, Musée du Louvre - The Musée du Louvre acquired a bust of Suzanne Phélypeaux by Antoine Benoist from the Kugel Gallery thus rounding out its collection of French 17th century bronze busts with a rare example of a female portrait. A famous artist under the reign of Louis XIV, who bestowed many privileges on him, ascending rapidly from being one of the ten "peintres ordinaires du roi" to "peintre du roi et son unique sculpteur en cire colorée" then Chevalier de Saint Michel or "chevalier de l’ordre du roi", Antoine Benoist is generally unknown today and not many of his works remain.
The life size bust represents a young woman turning to the left wearing an elaborate hairdo made up of braids wrapped around her head and ringlets held with a ribbon which fall on her uncovered shoulders and neckline. The work sits on a small marble pedestal and is signed on the right side : "A. BENOIST EQUES FEC AD VIVUM 1690" ("Chevalier Antoine Benoist made it from life 1690") and on the back bears a plaque added posthumosly with the engraving : "SUZANNA PHELYPEAUX / FRANCIAE CANCELLARII SOROR ; / MDCC. / EX ARCHETYPO CEREO, ANNI. M.D.C.LXX." ("Suzanne Phélypeaux, sister of Chancellor of France, 1700, after the wax model, year 1670").
The work was apparently commissioned by the model’s brother, Louis Phélypeaux, Comte de Pontchartrain, who became Chancelier de France in 1700, mentioned in the inscription, or else her husband, Jérôme Bignon, Garde de la Bibliothèque du roi. According to the Kugel gallery, the plaque was commissioned afterwards by Jérôme III Bignon as a sign of the family’s social ascent, shortly after his uncle, Louis Phélypeaux de Pontchartrain, was appointed Chancelier. The bust remained for many years in the hands of the model’s descendants before joining a Swiss private collection.
Cast in 1690, at the death of Suzanne Phélypeaux (1641-1690), this is a bronze replica of a wax model produced by Antoine Benoist twenty years earlier, today lost, creating a veritable souvenir portrait in order to leave a permanent vestige of her passing. However, the very careful attention to the etching, the precise modeling of the face which renders her complexion so real, lead Geneviève Bresc-Bautier [1] to think this is not a "mechanical transcription from a colored wax cast [...] but a recreation" for which the sculptor most probably availed himself of the savoir faire of a founder.
The wax model from 1670 is no doubt part of a larger group of wax heads which had become Antoine Benoist’s specialty. As the portraitist of court circles, known as Benoît du Cercle, he had assembled a large collection of wax figures - at least 90 are mentioned in the inventory made after his death - of which only the bust of Louis XIV remains, held today at Versailles. The life size heads and busts cast directly on the subjects were then colored, had wigs added as well as enameled eyes and clothes provided by the models themselves. They were exhibited at his home rue des Saint Pères, a surprising forerunner to Madame Tussaud’s museum in London or the musée Grévin in Paris. While the royal likenesses in wax reflect a long tradition going back to the Middle Ages, showing various attitudes : festive, votive or funerary this practice would disappear after Louis XIV, living out the last days of glory under Antoine Benoist. Curiously, the extreme realism obtained from the direct cast was in direct contradiction with the royal or court portrait meant to magnify the subject.

Besides the wax portrait of Louis XIV, a sculpted bronze medallion and two painted portraits produced for his reception at the Academy in 1681, that of the sculptor Jacques Buirette and another one of the painter Gabriel Blanchard also reside at Versailles. The Bibliothèque national de France holds a relief of the Portraits of Louis le grand selon ses âges [...at different ages]. The bronze bust of Suzanne Phélypeaux is therefore an exception and seems to be the only bronze replica of the wax figures known as "Cercle de la Cour".

Version française

Julie Demarle, jeudi 6 mars 2014


[1] Geneviève Bres-Bautier, "Antoine Benoist, ceti llustre inconnu qui sculptait "sur le vivant", Grande Galerie n° 24, June-August 2013, pp. 16-17.

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