Literature: Hans Ottomeyer and Peter Pröschel, “Vergoldete Bronzen”, 1986, p. 276, pl. 4.11.14, illustrating a model for another chenet of circa 1780 attributed to Pierre Gouthière or Pierre-Philippe Thomire with two similar half crouching winged sphinxes without vases on their heads centred by a flaming urn and below on the frieze by an Apollo mask, examples of which can be found at Cleveland Museum of Art, the Musée du Louvre in Paris and Château de Versailles. Pierre Verlet, “Les Bronzes Dorés Français du XVIIIe Siècle” 1987, pp. 214-5, pl. 241-42, illustrating another type of sphinx chenet but without wings at Château de Versailles, modelled by Louis-Simon Boizot, cast by Pierre-Philippe Thomire and gilded by Claude Galle. Giacomo et Rozenn Wannenes, “Les Bronzes Ornementaux et Les Objets Montes de Louis XIV à Napoléon III”, 2004, p. 290, illustrating an identical pair of chenets but with an enclosed entrelac frieze. And p. 282, illustrating a pair of gilt and patinated bronze chenets with very similar winged sphinxes bearing the stamp of Thomire.
An extremely fine pair of Louis XVI gilt bronze chenets almost certainly after a design by François-Joseph Bélanger, each composed as a beautiful recumbent winged sphinx supporting upon her head a vase-shaped basket filled with flowers and fruit, with scrolling foliate arabesques behind her, the sphinx and arabesques upon a rectangular plinth with gadrooned bow-ends and decorated on the frieze with a pierced entrelac panel, flanked by inset Apollo masks on fluted toupie feet
Paris, date 1780
Height 33 cm, width 33 cm. each.
With their elegant sphinxes and Apollo masks on the frieze, these fine Neo-classical chenets were almost certainly modelled on a drawing by the architect and designer François-Joseph Bélanger (1744-1818). Bélanger’s pen and ink design (now in the Cabinet d’Estampes in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris and illustrated in Ottomeyer and Pröschel, op. cit, p. 276, pl. 4.11.13) for a complete fireplace includes a pair of chenets, each with a pair of crouching sphinxes centred by a covered urn and mounted below on the frieze by a central mask head. Although the latter sphinxes are not winged, several chenets based on his design with winged sphinxes are known, counting among them examples at Cleveland Museum of Art, the Musée du Louvre Paris and Château de Versailles. Whilst the latter examples feature crouching rather than recumbent sphinxes, their beautiful faces closely compare with those on the present pair. Furthermore, they are also mounted on the frieze panel by an equally beautiful Apollo mask head. Other variant sphinx chenets include an example without wings wearing a Nemes headdress, supplied in 1786 to the Château de Versailles, which was modelled by Louis-Simon Boizot (1732-1813), cast by his pupil Pierre-Philippe Thomire (1751-1843) and gilded by Claude Galle (1751-1815).
In addition to the above, François-Joseph Bélanger designed a clock case featuring two similar recumbent winged sphinxes either side of the dial drum which was made by Pierre Gouthière and supplied by the royal clockmaker Lepaute in 1781 to Louis XVI’s brother the comte d’Artois for his salon at his newly built Pavillon de Château de Bagatelle which Bélanger had also designed. Clocks of the same model are now housed in the Wallace Collection, London (illustrated and described in Peter Hughes, “The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Furniture”, 1996, pp. 503-8, no. 112, F269) as well as in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.
While the Egyptian style reached its zenith in the years following France’s first Nile Campaigns of 1798, sphinxes and other ancient Egyptian ornamentation were already permeating the decorative arts several decades before. From the 1740s onward French artists and architects travelling to Rome began making close observations of its antique ruins. Out of this came popular illustrated editions such as Recueil d’antiquités Egyptiennes, Etrusques, Grecques, Romaines. Published between 1752-67 by the scholar and antiquarian the comte de Caylus, with whom Bélanger was closely associated, and recording some of the recently excavated arts at Herculaneum and Pompeii, the folio included a number of sphinxes and other Egyptian antiquities which the ancient Romans had discovered after invading Egypt. Other influential publications featuring a number of Egyptian ornaments included Diversi maniere d’adornare i cammini by the antiquarian and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), published 1769. At the same time visitors to Rome during the second half of the eighteenth century were able to study at first hand a number of antique sculptures and sphinxes, both in private collections such as the Villa Albani or in public collections such as the Vatican Museum or the Capitoline. Their accounts as well as such illustrated publications by comte de Caylus or Piranesi inspired a number of designers such as Bélanger, who never travelled to Rome, and in turn their art helped disseminate the Egyptian style that gradually came to be an integral part of the Neo-classical Louis XVI and more particularly the subsequent Empire style.