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Work Polyphemus Sitting on a Rock

Department of Sculptures: France, 17th and 18th centuries

Polyphemus

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
France, 17th and 18th centuries

Author(s):
Montalbetti Valérie

This statuette of Polyphemus, which Corneille Van Clève presented to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture on 26 April 1681, was a notable exception at a time when the institution required bas-reliefs as diploma pieces. In this work, the cyclops Polyphemus expresses his despair at the nymph Galatea's rejection of his love for her.

The first sculpture in the round as a diploma piece

Corneille Van Clève was accepted into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture on 26 April 1681 with this statuette of Polyphemus, the model for which had been approved the previous year (30 March 1680). This was the first diploma piece in the form of a sculpture in the round - an exception during the 17th century, when the Academy required marble bas-reliefs.

The subject

The theme comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses (Book XIII, 765), an early 1st-century work recounting the transformations of gods and mortals into plants or animals, and a primary source of artistic inspiration from the Renaissance onward. The cyclops Polyphemus, son of Neptune, fell in love with the nymph Galatea who rejected him. This sculpture expresses his despair: sitting alone on a rocky outcrop near the sea, head thrown back, he grips a long shepherd's crook with his left hand and foot, while in his right hand he still holds the syrinx (or Pan-pipes) that he played to express his love for Galatea.

Inspiration, style, matching piece

This composition was no doubt inspired by Annibale Carracci's fresco (in the Farnese Gallery in Rome), of which Van Clève owned a complete set of engravings. The Farnese Gallery, founded in 1597, had a great impact on 18th-century European art and Annibale Carracci's work there heralded the return to the great classical tradition of artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo.
Corneille Van Clève exploited the giant's rough appearance: large hands, an exaggeratedly full beard, and a sturdy, muscular body that enabled the artist to demonstrate his knowledge of anatomy. Polyphemus is wearing a bearskin, held in place by a shoulder strap. These accessories allowed Van Clève to display his skill at portraying a variety of textures.
In 1701, the Academy asked Robert Le Lorrain to make a Galatea (National Gallery of Art, Washington) as his diploma piece, and as a pendant for Polyphemus. This fondness for matching pieces is a characteristic of French statuary of the early 18th century.

Bibliography

Souchal François, French Sculptor of the 17th and 18th centuries, The Reign of Louis XIV, Oxford, III, 1987, n. 2, p. 369.

Technical description

  • Corneille VAN CLÈVE (Paris, 1645 - Paris, 1732)

    Polyphemus

    Provenance: Académie Royale collections

  • Marble

    H. 0.79 m; W. 0.50 m; D. 0.59 m

  • M.R. 2106

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor

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