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Work Prometheus Bound

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

Prometheus Bound

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
France, 17th and 18th centuries

Author(s):
Montalberti Valérie

The Titan Prometheus, protector of men, stole fire from Mount Olympus. Furious, Zeus inflicted a terrible and cruel punishment on him. He chained him to the summit of Mount Caucasus, where an eagle came daily to peck at his liver, which constantly replenished itself. Prometheus, straining his every muscle, screams in agony. The instrument of his crime, the torch, lies at his feet.

Sculpting torture

After his stay at the Académie de France in Rome, Nicolas-Sébastien Adam was admitted to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in 1735. The torture of Prometheus, the subject the director Guillaume Coustou set him for his admission piece, was in the pure tradition of the dramatic deaths that had been proposed to candidate sculptors since the early 18th century. Adam submitted the study a month later; then, probably too busy with other commissions, did not submitt his plaster model until 1738. In 1757, he decided to finally finish his admission piece, perhaps because of his marriage or his brother's admission to the Académie. The Académie refused outright to cast his plaster in bronze, so he submitted a marble and was admitted on June 26, 1762.

Suffering and turbulence

Adam's tour de force represents a late peak of the baroque style in its turbluence and forceful expressiveness. The hero's agony is manifest in every painstakingly sculpted detail of his taught muscles, bulging veins, and outspread limbs. The sculptor is implicitly trying to rival the Laocoon, but does not display the moderation of the latter. The body is off-balance, and the face, raised skyward, vociferates. At the time, the Laocoon group was one of the most admired classical sculptures. It was considered the embodiment of the phases of suffering in the fight with death, and its dignified restraint was praised. Prometheus' expression is ambiguous. Is it one of suffering or rage? Adam may also have had in mind Sébastien Slodtz's Aristaeus and Proteus (1723), in the park at Versailles, where he had worked from 1736 to 1740.

An outmoded aesthetic

The cloth of the cape and the smoke from the torch swept away by the mountain winds seem to further extend the hero's body. The jagged outline of the rock amplifies the effect of his outspread limbs. His arms and chains form an oblique rectangle from whose lowest corner springs his screaming face. Adam plays with the vagaries of light and shade, contrasting the deep shadows of the drapery folds with the gleaming planes of the rock. When the work was shown at the 1763 Salon, between Falconet's Sweet Melancholy and Vassé's Nymph, it seemed a product of an outmoded aesthetic. Diderot and the advocates of a return to the serene grandeur of antiquity disparaged it. The public, however, impressed by its virtuoso execution, thought otherwise. Legend has it that when Frederick II of Prussia offered the fabulous sum of 30,000 livres for the sculpture, and the king of Denmark proclaimed, "Adam, . . . your name will be be immortal."

Bibliography

Diderot et l'art de Boucher à David, cat. exp. Paris, hôtel de la Monnaie, 1984-1985, Paris, 1984, pp. 434-436.
Pradel Pierre, "Une figure de Prométhée en terre cuite. Essai pour le morceau de réception de N.-S. Adam à l'Académie de peinture", Le Pays lorrain, 39e année, n 3, Nancy, 1958, pp. 129-130.
Fiche 210D, L'Estampille, janvier 1988, pp. 65-66.

Technical description

  • Nicolas-Sébastien ADAM (Nancy, 1705 - Paris, 1778)

    Prometheus Bound

    Provenance: confiscated during the Revolution from the collections of the Académie

  • Marble

    H. 1.14 m; W. 0.82 m; D. 0.48 m

  • M.R. 1745

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor

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