A rare and exceptionally fine Empire gilt and patinated bronze vase attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire of campagna form with an everted rim cast with acanthus leaves and lozenges, the patinated body of the vase mounted with a frieze of maenads in diaphanous dress playing musical instruments as they dance in procession, flanked by a pair of Egyptian priestesses each wearing a nemes headdress, a skirt gathered in a knot below the waist, leaning outward while holding the rim of the vase in their hands. Each figure standing on a scrolled rosette headed handle that wraps around the base of the vase which is mounted with a stiff leaf cup, on a fluted stem and laurel wreath foot, on a stepped rectangular patinated bronze base mounted at the front with a lyre with a floral swag and supporting a stylised vase of flowers and mounted on the sides with a beautiful ribbon-tied spray of roses and other flowers, the plinth on a square base with stiff leaf border
Paris, date circa 1810
Height 62 cm.
Like many great works of art made in Paris during the Empire period, this superb bronze vase includes both classical and Egyptian motifs. Given its quality and closely comparison with works by the eminent fondeur ciseleur Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843), it can be attributed to the same maker. In 1806 Thomire became the first bronzier to be awarded a gold medal at the Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie. He won another gold medal in 1809, in which year he was also appointed ciseleur de l’Empereur. In addition to Napoleon himself Thomire was patronised by the Emperor’s family as well as by many foreign royal courts.
With its campagna shaped body and frieze of maenads or bacchantes, the female followers of the mythological god of wine, who dance in a line while making music, its primary inspiration was the famous Borghese Vase. Dating from the 1st century AD and made from marble, the Borghese Vase was rediscovered in a garden during the late sixteenth century and by 1645 was placed in the Villa Borghese, Rome. It was then purchased by Napoleon Bonaparte in September 1807 and soon after 1808 had arrived in Paris; by l811 it was displayed in the Musée Napoleon. The body of the Borghese Vase featured a procession of dancing maenads accompanied by the drunken Silenus and was to have a profound influence upon French design. Thomire used this motif to great effect on many of his bronzes, often portraying the same female figures in diaphanous dress with the greatest dexterity. For instance, the maenads can be compared to mounts adorning centrepieces attributed to Thomire in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, as well as a similar frieze of maenads around a covered vase, made either by Thomire or his contemporary Claude Galle (illustrated in Hans Ottomeyer and Peter Pröschel, “Vergoldete Bronzen”, 1986, p. 364, pl. 5.12.7).
Whilst the overall shape of the Borghese Vase and its dancing maenads played a primary role in the design of the present vase, it differs in other respects, notably in having handles as well as the distinctive flanking female figures. Their form compares extremely closely to a large bronze vase of 1783 by Thomire in the Musée du Louvre, Paris which features a pair of classical females in a very similar pose and in a comparable state of undress standing below the lip of the vase (illustrated in Juliette Niclausse, “Thomire, fondeur-ciseleur 1751-1843: Sa Vie, Son Oeuvre”, 1947, pl. 7). Another similarly shaped vase by Thomire, (illustrated ibid. pl. 14; Albert Marino Collection), is again flanked by classical females who stand beneath the rim of the vase. Although they support baskets of flowers on their heads, as here they stand on the scrolled top of a similarly shaped handles that encircle the lower part of the vase.
One should also mention the similarity between the present figures and those flanking a vase-shaped clock case by the Paris bronzier Jean Baptiste Héricourt (1756-1849), of which there are examples at Pavlovsk Palace, Saint Petersburg as well as in the British Royal Collection and at Schloss Fasanerie, Fulda (the latter illustrated in Jean-Dominique Augarde, “Une nouvelle vision du bronze et de bronziers sous le Directoire et l’Empire”, in “L’Estampille l’objet d’art”, no. 398, January 2005, p. 77, pl. 21).
The present flanking female figures also reflect a prevailing theme within French Empire design, namely the Retour d’Egypte. This interest gathered momentum after Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaigns in 1798 and especially so after the publication in 1802 of Baron Denon’s “Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte”, which was filled with images of Egyptian art and ornaments. The Russians were similarly fascinated with the Egyptian taste, for instance a watercolour by Thomas de Thomon of 1809 showing Tsar Alexander I’s study in the Winter Palace includes a set of Egyptian style Paris porcelain pieces with similar Isis priestesses (illustrated in Arcadi Gaydamak, “Russian Empire, Architecture, Decorative and Applied Arts, Interior Decoration 1800-1830”, 2000, p. 56). It is not surprising that the Tsar owned such pieces since the new Russian Empire style took its lead from Paris and in so doing Russian designers often created complete interiors that combined both Egyptian and classical designs. Paris, at that time was considered the artistic centre, with all of European as well as Russian designers and craftsmen trying to emulate aspects its style. In this respect it should be mentioned similarities in design between the present vase and a pair of gilt and green patinated bronze vases made in Saint Petersburg, now in the Hermitage Museum (illustrated in Igor Sychev, “Russian Bronze”, 2003, pp. 102-3). Igor Sychev describes the latter as “The Medici Vases. St Petersburg, the J. -J. Baumann Factory (?) 1805-7”. The latter however have covers, have a bright green patination, the malachite bases are mounted with figures of Diana the huntress and the main body features a band of grotto-work above a lion mask, scrolls and floral swags. Despite the differences, the body is of the same overall form and the female figures stand in a similar, albeit not identical pose upon similarly shaped handles.