François Dominique Aimé MILHOMME, attributed to (Valenciennes, 1758 - Paris, 1823)

PYTHIA, ORACLE OF DELPHI

56.5 x 46 x 32 cm. (22 ¼ x 18 18 x 12 58 in.)
c. 1800. Hollow plaster with terracotta patina.

Provenance
• France, Private Collection.

The seductiveness emanating from our work is only equaled by the mystery which surrounds it and transcends periods, styles, and traditions.

Without a base or pedestal, but cut straight in the style of ancient funerary sculptures or Renaissance busts, this poetic depiction thus resists iconographical interpretation. The Ionic chiton decorated with small clasps on the shoulders undoubtedly belongs to Greco-Roman Antiquity, but no attribute nor element makes it possible to be more precise, not even the braid forming a large knot above the young woman’s forehead. Otherwise unknown, this knot corresponds to no formal repertory and seems to be either an inaccurate transcription of an antique detail or else the sculptor’s invention. Furthermore, the thinned hair held in a by a band are not only inappropriate for a married woman or a goddess, but prove to be the prerogative of young Ephebes, even Apollo, and thus troubles that much more perception of this bust.

The only plausible explanation for the liberties taken with traditional iconography is that this is a priestess whose accoutrement, and especially hair style, differed from that usually worn by women, whether in Greece or Rome. The “Apollonian” aspect of the disheveled hair, as well as the absence of a veil covering the head, brings to mind Pythia, the oracle at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, or else the Sybille of Cumes, her equivalent in Virgil. No exact description of her appearance exists – in Virgil, she is simply “disheveled” (Aeneid, Song VI, 77) – and its images are very rare. In the often consulted Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, Bernard de Monfaucon only reproduces a single image: a high relief taken from the famous study of Fabri de Peiresc which has since disappeared. It features a young woman dressed in an Ionic chiton and leaning against a tripod, Pythia’s logical attribute, for want of being traditional, because she prophesied seated on a tripod.

Except for the veil and, it seems, a crown, the figure in this high relief proves to be very close to our work. Her slightly open mouth which corresponds perfectly to a prophetic person is particularly noticeable. In fact, without question the young woman in our bust is speaking, but it is a monologue, as her lowered and somewhat vague gaze prevents any conversation with the viewer.

A slightly snub nose, lowered eyes, and half-open mouth revealing her teeth: our bust whose iconography is already original, is even more so by its divergence from the aesthetic canons of antique statuary as they were defined by Neoclassicism. Similarly, the way the wavy hair with its somewhat geometrized curls is handled strand by strand is in strong contrast to the finesse of the drapery which clings to the forms in light loose folds. Finally, the realism in the rendering of the eyebrows, lips, eyelids, and eyes with dilated pupils – which are not hollowed, but outlined – contrasts with the work’s almost hieratic frontality.

The perfectly mastered coexistence in a single work of such diverse, even contradictory, artistic approaches confers an undeniable and captivating charm. It also makes it possible to date the sculpture to the early 19th century, which teemed with the acquisitions of past epochs and very recent discoveries in the realms of art and history from Antiquity. After a composition by Poussin who had planned to depict Hercules before Pythia in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre (squared off preparatory drawing conserved in the Louvre, inv. 32507), our sculpture appears to be one of the first artistic evocations of the prophetess before Romanticism and Historicism seized on the subject. One is far however from those exalted figures, such as the Pythia of Delphi, sculpted in Rome in 1869 by Charles-Arthur Bourgeois (Narbonne), who appears agitated and menacing as she vociferates her oracles.

The heterogeneous style of our bust complicates its attribution. Nonetheless, the elongated oval of the face, form of the nose, round chin, elongated neck, and incised hair make it possible to compare this sculpture to the herm bust of Andromache, a plaster by François Dominique Aimé Milhomme, signed and dated 1800 (Louvre Museum, inv. RF 3521).

A student of Pierre-Joseph Gillet in Valenciennes, then of André-Jean Lebrun and of Christophe-Gabriel Allegrain at the Royal Academy, Milhomme saw the beginning of his career endangered by the Revolution. He couldn’t compete for the Prix de Rome until 1797, then again in 1798, and he won it in 1801. His sojourn at the Villa Medici lasted nine years. Upon his return to France, he took part in the Salon by exhibiting historical low reliefs and bust portraits of illustrious men. He was solicited for the embellishment of the Arc de (de Triomphe) de l’Etoile, produced several public monuments, including Abundance, a colossal stone statue for the Saint Germain market in Paris (destroyed), as well as tombs.

The Notice sur la vie et les ouvrages de Milhomme, statuaire (Notice on the Life and Works of Milhomme, Statuary), published in Paris in 1844 by his next of kin, does not mention any work comparable to our bust, however it also omits Andromache. The text nonetheless specifies that in 1799-1800, the sculptor was busy embellishing “a sumptuous mansion on the Chaussée d’Antin with busts and low reliefs,” and worked for Robert Joseph August, a goldsmith.

With dimensions fairly close to those of our bust, Andromache is clearly more antiquating and presents low reliefs on three sides of the base taken from the Iliad which confirm the character’s identity. For all of that, the angle of the head and expression of sustained pain attest to the same quest which dominated the creation of our work. The rare hairstyle displays the same finesse in execution which is visible in spite of the coating; the chiseling is a reminder that the artist furnished models for fine metalwork. The herm bust of the architect Pâris made by Milhomme in 1807 should also be mentioned. In it can be seen the same slightly open mouth and naturalistic rendering of the eyebrows despite the empty eyes in the style of Antiquity (preparatory plaster with terracotta patina, H. 57 cm. Dole, Museum of Fine Arts, inv. 575; marble in Besançon, Museum of Fine Arts).
A.Z.

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