• United States, Private Collection.
In the Supplement to the first volume of his Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures which appeared in 1724, Dom Bernard de Montfaucon, member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, noted in reference to Vertumnus,
“The most beautiful Vertumnus that has yet been seen is that of Seau [sic]: it is a marble statue three feet high. Its head resembles Jupiter’s so perfectly that one would have taken it for him, if all the symbols didn’t indicate that it is surely Vertumnus. He is crowned with ears of wheat, a definite indication of a god of the countryside.”
The description is accompanied by an engraving which is surprising in the quantity of perfectly conserved details and especially the incongruous presence of a dog which the scholar preferred to omit. In fact, this finely snouted animal comes straight from Diana the Huntress and proves to be very close to that of the Portrait of a Roman Lady as Diana from Cumes (Louvre Museum, inv. MA 247).
In 1724, the Château of Sceaux belonged to the Duke of Maine, the king’s legitimated son, but the sculpture collection which embellished the park belonged to the preceding owners of the domain, Colbert and his son, the Marquis of Seignelay. Between 1670 and 1690, André Le Nôtre had created vast gardens for them where close to three hundred statues, busts, terms and vases, copies of antiques or works by the greatest sculptors from the reign of Louis XIV: Michel Anguier, Pierre Puget, Gaspard Marsy, François Girardon, Jean-Baptiste Tuby, Antoine Coysevox, and Jean-Baptiste Théodon.
The domain was confiscated as national property in 1793 and the statues dispersed between the Parisian gardens of Luxembourg and the Tuileries, as well as the Muséum (Louvre Museum), and Alexandre Lenoir’s Museum of French Monuments. Traces of the Sceaux Vertumnus were lost at that time, and only thanks to Bernard de Montfaucon was it still described in 19th century publications on mythology
This Vertumnus now appears to be closely related to a marble statuette from Paros which came from Cardinal Richelieu’s antiquities collection, which was the largest in 17th century France with approximately four hundred works distributed between mainly the Palais-Cardinal (now the Palais Royal) in Paris and the Château of Richelieu in the Poitou. The little Vertumnus is mentioned in a visitor’s anonymous account of Richelieu, and then in a description published in 1676 by Benjamin Vignier, governor of the château for Armand-Jean Vignerot du Plessis, the Cardinal’s grandnephew. Vignier confused it with Proteus and gave its placement as in the Queen’s study in the right wing, “on the corners of the cornice of the paneling,” with an urn, a Cupid, and an Aesclepios. Moved during the following century to the King’s study, the statuette, despite being “broken into several pieces,” was chosen in 1800 by Léon Dufourny and Ennio Quirino Visconti for the Central Museum, the future Louvre Museum, where it still is.
As opposed to most of the other pieces which came from the Château of Richelieu, the Vertumnus was not “de-restored,” although even then only the head, torso, and thighs were antique. Thus it remained as it had been in the 17th century – apparently completed in Italy before its acquisition by Cardinal Richelieu. Even if many of the elements date to the years 1620-1630, such as the pruning knife in the right hand (now broken), the iconography comporting a mature man’s face crowned with ears of wheat, a he-goat skin knotted at the shoulder and folded over the left arm, as well as the fruit and vegetables it contains, do go back to the second century.
Dating to the second half of the 17th century, our terracotta, inspite of its small size, is not a casting from the antique Vertumnus in the Louvre, although the practice was current at the time. It is a reinterpretation which respects the iconographic details and is reinforced by the classicizing tradition in statuary during Louis XIV’s reign. The artist corrected body proportions so as to make them conform more to classical canons. He also modified the leg position to obtain an elegant contrapposto and suggest movement: he probably had the Richelieu Alexander Severus as a source of inspiration (Louvre, inv. MA 890). For that, the sculptor had to move the tree trunk which assures stability, tilt the terrace, suppress the club, and enlarge the goat skin to support the volume of fruit. The sculptor arranged the divinity’s hair, suppressed the wrapping at the back of the crown of wheat, and, as was often the case at the time, concealed the genitals under a fig leaf. Inspired no doubt by a Diana the Huntress, he added the dog which brings a touch of gracefulness and advantageously camouflages the thickness of the trunk. Finally, a proof that the statuette was probably preparative to a marble, Vertumnus’ right arm is placed close to the body so as not to weaken the stone by excess weight caused by the pruning knife.
The engraved depiction of the Sceaux Vertumnus corresponds in almost all points to our statuette. The few slight differences can easily be explained, on the one hand, by the transition from terracotta to marble, and on the other, by the artist’s imagination as he sought to display all sides of a statue in the round. The most important modification concerns the shoes worn by the Sceaux Vertumnus. Exactly the same can be found in the antique statue of Antinous as Aristaeus, acquired in Rome by Cardinal Richelieu for his château under the name of Vertumnus with the features of Antinous (Louvre, inv. MA 578.)
- Everything leads us to believe that the Sceaux Vertumnus was not an antique sculpture, but a 17th century creation inspired by 2nd century marble sculptures conserved at the Château of Richelieu. Although traditional iconography preferred depicting the god of gardens as a young man holding fruit or a cornucopia, our terracotta’s artist attempted to make it as much like the original example, despite the accumulation of misleading attributes. These attributes nonetheless correspond fairly well to this god whose very name comes from the Latin verb signifying “to change.” Protector of gardens and orchards who looks after the fertility of the ground, Vertumnus had the ability to change appearance as he wished and he used this artifice to seduce Pomona. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis (book XIV), he appears to the nymph in the form of a herdsman with a goad, a vine-grower with a pruning knife, then an “uncouth reaper” with ears of wheat in a basket and the “temples bound with hay,” a fisherman with his rod, a soldier with a sword, and finally an old woman with a staff. The presence of this unusual Vertumnus at Sceaux seems linked to the work at the so-called Little Academy, the future Academy of Inscriptions, founded by Colbert in 1663 to orient artists’ allegorical or mythological creations by verifying their exactness and composing the emblems or mottos.
The question of our terracotta’s artist remains to be clarified. The great finesse in details, perfect assimilation of diverse influences, anatomical accuracy, clay worked very densely without any trace of tools except in the tree trunk and terrace: all indicate the hand of an experienced artist. Although the manner is deliberately antiquating, we don’t believe that either Girardon’s or Puget’s suppleness or Coysevox’ or Théodon’s sensitivity can be seen here. Instead, it manifests the powerfulness which was the attribute of the preceding generation. It is tempting to relate this Vertumnus to a series of gods and goddesses realized in 1652 by Michel Anguier for Sceaux, of which a few terracottas exist that are the same height as ours. However, not only is there no trace in the written sources of a Vertumnus by Anguier, but above all, our statuette has neither the sculptor’s sometimes Berninian passion or spirit, nor the pronounced musculature of his male nudes, as can be seen in the Melancholic Pluto whose pose is fairly close.