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  • 1 Szépművészeti Múzeum / art historian, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
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In this article I make an attempt to determine the function of a so-far unpublished small painting unknown also for professionals. The painting is from the former collection of Rudolf Bedő (1891-1978); the present-day trustees of the remnant of the collection register it as “French master, around 1700: Mythological scene” (fig. 1). The small composition on painter’s cardboard shows a Triton riding on dolphins and blowing a conch horn, and a putto. The characters have been popular in art works and literature since Antiquity; in mythological scenes they belong to the escort of sea nymphs or mermaids. A first sight at the picture painted as trompe-l’oeil, in grisaille, already suggested that it was related to French art, but as for the school and time of creation more caution was called for by several details. On the one hand, there is a painted label possibly with Hungarian inscription in the bottom right-hand corner, and on the other hand, the execution of the surface gives a more modern impression than works of the 18th century.

I managed to find the original composition, a monumental relief by Claude-Michel or Clodion (1738-1814). The relief was designed for the garden façade of the mansion built by Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart in 1775-79 for the general treasurer of the Artillery and Military Engineering Jacques-Louis Bouret de Vézelay. Its theme is Galathea’s triumph. Apart from the original stone relief, variants are known in terracotta, plaster, bronze and Sèvres biscuit (unpainted porcelain) – their great number is proof of the composition’s popularity. Besides, several trompe-l’oeil paintings can also be found, including the one from the Bedő collection.

The typical core of the composition showing Galatea with a Triton riding on the back of dolphins and blowing his conch horn with putti and Nereids became the topic of separate compositions. Most of the terracotta, plaster, bronze and porcelain variants, imitations and repetitions after this scene are from the 19-20th centuries thanks to the late 19th century re-discovery of Clodion and the ensuing craze labelled “clodiomania”. However, from Guilhem Scherf’s investigations we know that several contemporaneous, 18th century carved-cast variants are also identified which circulated on the early 19th century art market in Paris.

There is also a further reduced version of the Galatea composition, which only shows the Triton on dolphins and blowing his horn; one specimen can be found in the V & A Museum sculpture collection in London (fig. 2). About the painted imitations of Clodion’s reliefs Marianne Roland Michel’s thorough investigations provide a summary. Depicting reliefs in painting can be traced to early 18th century Dutch-Flemish painting (Willem van Mieris, Mathys Neiveu), and the theme was present in French painting from the 1730s, among others, in works by Chardin and Alexandre-Francois Desportes. The efflorescence of the genre of trompe-l’oeil after sculptures and reliefs was in the last third of the 18th century, between 1775 and 1790. The trend was inspired by Clodion’s works in great measure, as is proven by the high number of trompe-l’oeils by that-time still-life painters – Anne Vallayer-Coster, Piat-Joseph Sauvage, Jean-Jacques Bachelier, Louis-Léopold and Jules Boilly – inspired by the famous sculptor’s reliefs.

Clodion’s Galatea relief has some reduced versions in painting as well. Of highest quality is the trompe-l’oeil by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845) about the central part of the terracotta version. His son Julien-Léopold (Jules) Boilly (1796-1874) followed in his father’s footsteps painting trompe-l’oeil still-lifes, and he also made a version after Clodion’s Galatea (fig. 3). These examples suggest that the diverse painted versions already began to spread in Clodion’s lifetime, in the late 18th century.

The Budapest Triton riding on dolphins and blowing a conch horn and the putto clutching his finger represent the left side of the relief as depicted by Boilly, with some modification. In both Clodion’s original and Boilly’s copy there is a putto with a torch in his hand hovering above the Triton, which is missing from the painting from the Bedő collection. The greyish material of the painted relief looks more like stone (or plaster) than reddish-brown terracotta as in Boilly’s painting. The imitated stone carving appears nailed to a grained board. To enhance the illusion, the painter made a few tiny changes: where the hook is fastened to it, the stone relief is chipped on the rim, and above the dolphin in the middle there is a diagonal deep scratch or crack.

There is a terracotta version that cropped up in French art trade lately and that reduces the original Galatea composition to even fewer figures; this version may provide explanation for the compositional changes. Another known variant of the composition which is apparently the model of the Budapest painting is kept in the Rhode Island School of Design’s art collection in Providence (fig. 4). It is therefore presumable that a different, more reduced variation of the original Clodion composition spread during the clodiomania period, and the painting at issue was made from a presumed plaster copy of it in (Buda)Pest.

Another confusing element in the trompe-l’oeil from the Bedő collection is the blue-framed painted label in the right-hand bottom corner which reads “Triton 195 Sz.” (?) (fig. 5). The detail imitating an auction or collection label emphasizes the trompe-l’oeil character and may have a role in determining the master and date of painting. On the basis of restorer’s observation, phototechnical tests (fig. 6) and the physical properties of the medium (prepared painter’s cardboard was in use from the mid-19th century) the 18th century origin of the painting can be excluded. The paint material is homogeneous, the luminescent image alludes to its application at one time, without subsequent corrections. The label inscribed “Triton” is synchronous with the work.

It was examined what might have been the purpose of the relief imitation. Maybe it was an assignment to copy at the Academy, this method being a fundamental part of the formation. Just like at the art academies of Vienna and Munich, in the First Hungarian Painting Academy founded by Venice-born Jacopo Marastoni in 1846, then in the Bertalan Székely-led “curriculum” of the Hungarian Royal Drawing School and Art Teacher's College, the state institution in its wake, the copying of prints and plaster copies was ascribed great importance. The teaching method the School of Design can be inferred from the curricula: the learning of figural painting began in the first class by copying planar patterns and convex plaster models in drawing, in the second class copying plaster models in painting was the task. The training based on copying was completed by representation from live models. The register of the one-time cast collection of the school has not been found, that is why only a fragmentary idea can be had of its previous richness on the basis of surviving casts, visual aids, interior photos and replicas of art objects. Painted copies from plaster casts were also made in Marastoni’s private academy in Pest in the mid-19th century. An excellent example is the grisaille copy of a relief by the 17th century Flemish-French sculptor Francois du Quesnoy (1597-1643) painted by József Marastoni, the son of the Academy’s professor (fig. 7).

Though plaster casts had been among the customary paraphernalia of artists’ ateliers for centuries, the painted label included in the studied trompe-l’oeil alludes rather to a numbered piece in a public collection, so it was much rather a part of a collection for educational purposes than a piece in the private collection of an artist used as a model. By way of an analogy it can be mentioned that the method of identification among the plaster casts in Schola Graphidis of the high school of the Hungarian University of Art is a blue-framed label stuck to a plaster piece indicating the maker, theme, and inventory number (fig. 9). The anatomical casts of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts are similarly identified.

The Hungarian institutions of education ordered the casts from catalogues of casting workshops in Vienna and Stuttgart. The selected models arrived in the schools via diverse book and stationary traders, right until the opening of similar casting foundry in Budapest in the last decade of the 19th century. Casting workshops were first opened in the Hungarian capital in the 1880s on West European examples and on their repertoire. They were predominantly established next to schools for the building trade in support of training activity. An idea can be had of their supply on the basis of the surviving price lists of the casting shop next to the State Paedagogium founded in 1886 and the shop next to the Higher Architectural School (Higher School of Design). In the price list of both workshops there is a piece designated as “Triton, modern French relief, 35×18 cm”. Though no illustration is give unfortunately, the size of the painted plaster model in the studied painting (19×37.5 cm) is conspicuously close to the one in the catalogue. I think that the undiminished popularity of Clodion at the turn of the century and the similarity of the size support the assumption that the price list includes the plaster cast we have been searching for.

Though the examples strongly suggest that the trompe-l’oeil from the Bedő collection was a school assignment, possibly in Budapest, but this assumption too needs further verification, and the painter of the piece is still a topic of research. In view of the above-said, I nonetheless recommend that the designation of the painting be: “Hungarian painter, after Clodion’s (Nancy 1738 – Paris 1814) relief, late 19th – early 20th century: Triton with dolphins and putto.”

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