Philippe Bertrand, Allegory commemorating the Accomplishment of the Vow of Louis XIII, 1714 (S176)
It is very rare indeed for French 18th-century bronzes to be signed. The fact that the sculptor of this group, Philippe Bertrand, has proudly signed it on the terrain at front ‘Philip Bertrand, Sculp. du Roy’ (‘Philippe Bertrand, Sculptor to the King’) tells us that it was something very special. Bertrand (1663-1724) was one of the leading sculptors of the reign of King Louis XIV. Although he worked on a large scale in marble and stone, at Versailles and elsewhere, he is best known today for a series of small bronzes. Although not perhaps the sculptor’s most original composition, this signed group is the most important of his bronzes to survive, partly because we know so much about its origins.
The two draped female figures, representing Religion (left) and Piety (right), immediately tell us that the composition has a religious dimension, whilst the trumpeting figure above, Fame, celebrates Royal Magnificence. Indeed, Religion, Piety and the little putto below all hold royal medals, of King Louis XIII (1601-1643) and his son King Louis XIV (1638-1715), whose accomplishment of a vow made by his father is celebrated in this composition. In 1638, Louis XIII made the vow that if he was granted a son, he would redecorate the choir of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. However, it was left to the son he was granted, Louis XIV, to carry out this promised refurbishment, mainly between 1708 and 1713, and towards the very end of the King’s life. Most of the great sculptors of early-18th century France worked on this project, which was almost entirely destroyed during the French Revolution, no doubt because of its associations with the ancien regime. Bertrand himself contributed two lead figures of Justice and Fortitude and it may have been because of this involvement that he was commissioned to make the prize for a poetry competition, organised by the French Academy to celebrate the completion of the re-decoration of the choir.
If the competition is remembered at all today, it is certainly not for its winner – the minor poet the abbé du Jarry (1658-1730) – but for the fact that the runner-up was the young Voltaire (1694-1778). The celebrated writer and philosopher was evidently bruised by the experience, never again entering a literary competition. He vented his feelings on this occasion by publishing an open letter lampooning the poetic efforts of his rival, which included an especially bizarre line lauding the spread of Louis XIV’s fame to all corners of the earth, even to ‘the frozen and the burning poles…’. A wider feeling of dissatisfaction with the result of the competition may be reflected in the fact that the abbé’s victory is mentioned almost in passing at the end of the long inscription recording the circumstances of the competition on the reverse of the base of the bronze group.
Bertrand’s group passed through auction sales in Paris in 1776 and 1783 and is first recorded in the collection of the Fourth Marquess of Hertford in 1867.
- J.G. Mann, Wallace Collection Catalogues: Sculpture, London 1931 (2nd edition 1981)
- Robert Wenley, French Bronzes in the Wallace Collection, London 2002