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European bronzes from the Quentin Collection
01 October 2004

An exhibition of the European bronzes from the Quentin Collection has been organised by the Frick Collection in New York until January 2nd 2005.

European Bronzes from the Quentin Collection is the first public exhibition of a distinguished, little-known private collection devoted to the art of the statuette from the sixteenth through eighteenth century, and New York's Frick Collection is the sole venue.

The exhibition features almost forty sculptures, including exemplary works by Italian masters of the genre such as Giambologna, Giovanni Francesco Susini and his uncle Antonio Susini, Francesco Fanelli, and Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, as well as examples by their equally gifted northern contemporaries such as Hendrick de Keyser and Barthélemy Prieur.

Primarily consisting of bronzes, with some works in terracotta and precious metal, the collection has been discriminatingly assembled over the last twenty-five years.

Many, like Giambologna's Mars and Sleeping Nymph, are outstanding examples of famous compositions. Other masterpieces, like the mysterious Allegorical Deity Seated on Grotesques, are new discoveries exhibited here for the first time. The compositional inventiveness, technical refinement, and sheer quality of these works endow the collection with its particular character, while an emphasis on the idealised human figure establishes its identity. Oil lamps, incense burners, and bells — those imaginative accoutrements of the Renaissance scholar's study collected by Henry Clay Frick — are practically absent. Instead, the Quentin Collection presents some of the best examples by generations of European master sculptors who were inspired by the human form.

The exhibition's gathering of powerful, elegantly idealized nudes provides a focused introduction to the pleasures offered by the bronze statuette.

At The Frick Collection the Quentin sculptures will be displayed so that visitors may appreciate the union of naturalistic illusion with technical artistry that is the hallmark of the greatest figurative statuettes. Most of the sculptures, like Giambologna's Mars, will be shown free standing and without glass show cases. This freedom of viewpoint allows the visitor to experience how the artist used the expressive logic of pose to identify the god of war with martial readiness. His muscles taut and eyes fixed on the enemy, Mars halts his stride, exploiting the force of arrested motion to swing his body and sword arm backward in preparation for attack. His free arm sweeps forward to balance his rotating movement, his hand poised at the instant it most resembles a gesture of command. By depicting Mars ready to strike, Giambologna celebrates the power and late Renaissance rulers appreciated this ennobling lesson by adding the Mars figure to their collections.

No less coveted by princes and kings for its masterful artistry, Giambologna's Mars displays the sculptor's ability to depict the subtle movements of muscles bunching under skin, of eyes tightening in concentration, and of lips parting to draw in breath. This virtuoso combination of illusionism and technique is even more astonishing when one considers that the Mars is little more than fifteen inches tall.
The focused compression of the Mars is typical of statuettes, for these small works were made first to delight and then to engage over numerous encounters. Statuettes compel the viewer to accept the human form as something that can be believably miniaturised to endlessly fascinating effect.

By winning credence, statuettes inspire imagination. Such is the case of the Allegorical Deity Seated on Grotesques, sometimes attributed to the Dutch sculptor Adrian de Vries. The robust muscular ease with which the idealised nude deity sits astride bat-winged monsters so effectively subjugates the creatures that the group has been interpreted as an allegory of good triumphant over evil — all in a work that can be comfortably held within one's hands. It is a witty inversion of size in proportion to theme that, like a fictive looking glass, draws its audience into a world where fantastic nightmare creatures, though small and subdued, have the power to haunt through their sharply realised believability. Composition, scale, and meticulously crafted detail provide insight into this sculpture's meaning even though its exact subject and function have yet to be discovered.

Each small bronze was made to evoke multiple associations that captivated the rulers and wealthy educated classes who collected them. The more we know about this history, the richer our understanding of this art form becomes. During the Renaissance collectors and sculptors often looked back to classical antiquity as a model. The anonymous northern Italian master of the Hercules and Antaeus, for example, based his composition on an over-life-size classical marble fragment, then known even in its ruined state as “the most beautiful statue in Rome.” By imaginatively reconstructing the monumental, fragmentary marble in small-scale bronze, this sculptor rivalled the greatest achievements of the past and literally placed those achievements, miraculously restored, into the hands of his patrons.

The sculptor of the Hercules and Antaeus also exploited his medium, allowing the metal's inherent tensile strength to mimic Hercules's strength as the hero hoists Antaeus into the air, the giant's legs freely dangling without the strutted supports required by the original marble. The composition's angular geometry and the figures' blocky, flexed muscles echo the group's marble origins and remind us that bronze is a molten medium that can take almost any form, its protean character limited chiefly by the artist's ability to manipulate it.

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