Sunday, July 8, 2012

Marly Horses and Pittsburgh Horses

Once upon a time, I wandered the halls of the Louvre Museum in Paris, thrilling at the sight of the Marly Horses. 

Cour Marly, by John Phillips

My visit in 2011 was as part of a group examining the medieval collection. But we also paid obligatory homage to the iconic exhibits, and passed through Cour Marly. I was so enthralled with the horses that I've visited them again on subsequent visits. My first glimpse of the horses was from the hall several floors above. They look like chess figures from this distance. Ah, Perspective, how you do distort the Facts.

Photo by Malcolm Craig

So, whither, horses (as opposed to horse withers)?

Over the course of four extended building campaigns, France's Sun King Louis XIV converted a royal hunting lodge into the Palace of Versailles. He was thus in need of a new location for the Royal Hunt, and so in 1679 architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart began building Château de Marly du Roi on adjacent lands.

Marly was to Louis what Hameau de la Reine would later be to Marie Antoinette: a place to kick back and relax in a less formal environment away from constant court scrutiny and protocol. Marly was equipped with a dozen individual pavilions surrounded by an exquisitely landscaped setting. 

It was sort of the equivalent of rustic individual hunting cabins, n'est-ce pas?

No. Not really. Check it out:

Château de Marly, by Pierre-Denis Martin, 1724. Wikipedia Commons.

Château de Marly du Roi: better than your average hunting lodge. 

As can be seen in the above painting, even the horse trough was superior. The Grand Abreuvoir à Chevaux at Marly was basically an in-ground equine swimming pool.

French sculptor Charles Antoine Coysevox was commissioned to create a grouping of two equestrian subjects for Château de Marly, which he quickly and beautifully sculpted of marble and had installed by 1701 on either side of the horse pond. Coysevox's Renommée (aka Fame of the King) and companion Mercure, both astride Pegasus, represented Louis XIV's personal dominance in times of both peace and war.

 Renommée, from Wikipedia Commons
When Louis died in 1718, his five year old heir and namesake had little need for a hunting lodge. However, the court did find it prudent to refurbish the decrepit public Tuileries Garden, so Renommée and Mercure were moved to the western entrance of the park in 1719.

Eventually Louis XV developed a renewed interest in his grandfather's estate at Marly. He had a second group of horses installed by Coysevox's nephew and former student Nicolas Coustou circa 1739 to replace the originals. After all, what's an in-ground equine swimming pool without massive Carrerra marble horse sculptures guarding its entrance?

When creating his sculptures, Coustou was most likely inspired by the marble Dioscuri or Horse Tamers from the Quirinal Palace in Rome, themselves 4th century copies of Greek originals. Coustou's pieces represent what the Louvre's website describes as:
 ...the struggle between two wild forces: an untamed horse and a naked man.... The powerful, thick-necked horse shows every sign of panic and anger: rearing up, tossing its head and whinnying, with dilated eyes and nostrils, and a tousled mane. The almost invincible force of nature seems about to break free again. Wherever the spectator stands, the impression of movement, strength, and violent struggle is perceptible. A moment in time has been captured, heralding something of the Romantic works of Géricault. Indeed, Victor Hugo admired "those neighing marbles [...] prancing in a cloud of gold". Coustou claimed to have sculpted (American) Indian slaves, which explains the quiver and feathered headdress that have fallen to the ground in the struggle. The reference is approximate (one groom appears to be from the West, the other African), but the sculpture prefigures Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage" - an idea already propagated by the accounts of travelers and missionaries. ~ from Louvre: Marly Horses

Photos from Wikipedia Commons
Nicolas Coustou's Horse Tamers were completed by his younger brother Guillaume.

Lucky for the Horse Tamers that they were so magnificently done. During the French Révolution anything that was connected with monarchy or theology was usually destroyed or vandalized. In 1795, on the orders of the painter David, the Coustou statues were moved to Place de la Révolution (now Place de la Concorde) at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées. The superior artistry of the Coysevox set eclipsed any former monarchical associations with a once-glorious godlike king. That's what allowed these sculptures to survive during a time when France destroyed so much that was beautiful due to monarchist or religious associations.

Place de la Révolution from "Paris pittoresque" circa 1842. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Château de Marly du Roi itself did not fare as well. Left to deteriorate, much damage was done during the Révolution. The property was sold, and the château leveled and sold off in bits and pieces. Napoleon later bought the estate. It has since been preserved as gracious and expansive park grounds.

Both sets of Marly Horses were moved to the Richelieu wing at the Louvre in 1984 to be conserved. They were replaced by cement copies at the Place de la Concorde and at Marly.

And thus we have the Marly Horses to admire at the Louvre:

Photo by Tee McNeill

The theme of man's native intelligence dominating the superior strength of noble and wild beasts like these untamed horses is one that has resonated over time. Horse taming sculptures have thus been replicated in many places. I love finding connections to the well-known and famous in my own little world, and was thrilled to make a mental connection while visiting the Louvre. I realized that I'd passed my own regional versions of the Horse Tamer sculptures outside the Stanton Avenue entrance to Highland Park in Pittsburgh many times, when I walked my dog there back in the day. Small wonder that the Louvre's Marly horses seemed so familiar, since I'd lived within a mile of their (admittedly smaller) Western Pennsylvania cousins!

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which inventories and records such things, the Pittsburgh Horses are bronze statues finished in a green antique patina set upon granite piers. They were created by Italian sculptor Guiseppe Moretti as replicas of the Coustou group of Marly Horses, and installed at Highland Park in 1900.

Moretti was an Italian sculptor who migrated to Pittsburgh by way of Croatia and Austria. He came to public attention in the States after being retained by renowned Gilded Age architect Richard Morris Hunt. Hunt was the go-to guy of the Vanderbilt family, and he commissioned Moretti to work on the interiors of William K. Vanderbilt Sr's Marble House. Moretti's work there was a hit and directly led to an invitation by the director of Pittsburgh's parks and public works, Edward M. Bigelow, to come here to create and adorn Pittsburgh's boulevards and parks with sculpture.

We Pittsburghers know Moretti's work as part of our everyday experience: the four panthers that adorn the Panther Hollow Bridge; the controversial Stephen Foster Memorial statue in Oakland at Schenley Plaza near the Carnegie Museums; and the imposing entrance to Highland Park itself.

An artistic critique of Moretti's Pittsburgh Horses reveals that the proportions of the men to horses are, well, somewhat off.  The green patina of these bronze sculptures is not quite as lively and vivid as is Carrerra marble.  And, as our architectural witnesses to our history, the Pittsburgh Horses have watched dog-walkers, tennis players, and park-goers for 112 years.  It's not history on quite the same scale as that witnessed by the Marly Horses:
"....Consider these restive horses opposite careering on the self-same pedestals, from the day that Marly yielded them in 1790.  They must have been the last object to catch the eye of the unfortunate king on the fatal scaffold, and the first to catch the eye of the emperor, when, after Austerlitz, he made his entry into Paris at the head of the grand armée by the Champs Elysées. In presence of the cynicism of those statues, my country has proclaimed the supreme wisdom of no less than sixteen political constitutions, each the product of her passion, and each an unconscious exposition of her impotence. The horses of Marly! As one muses on their past, what acts, what words, what shades rise up in judgment! A hundred years of Montespan, Pompadours, Du Barrys, at Marly and two years of the avenging Reign of Terror on the Place de la Révolution! Here, for half an age, has a Babel of nations paraded, now in victory, now in idle curiosity; still those Marly horses stand where it found them. They are marble, we are animated flesh. Yet see their stern sentinelate; and do they not seem the substance, and we but a fleeting shadow?"  

~ from John Estagel's essay Mon Ami Perot in Bentley's Miscellany, Vol 62 by Charles Dickens, Albert Smith and William Harrison Ainsworth. 
They are nonetheless Pittsburgh's own Horse Tamers, born of skewed Perspective and verdigris, the Guardians of Tennis Courts and Highland Park. 

Further reading:

1 comment:

  1. Love your blog. As a newcomer to the Pittsburgh area and a lover of both history and art, I will be visiting often. ~ Nicole