What you see: A French patinated bronze model of the Vendôme Column, made circa 1835 and standing just over five feet tall. Christie’s estimates it at $40,000 to $60,000.
The expert: David Weingarten, a partner in Piraneseum, the gallery that consigned the work. Piraneseum focuses on artwork and souvenirs of the Grand Tour, a trip through Europe that wealthy young Englishmen took to finish their educations in the 17th through 19th centuries.
Let’s start with Trajan’s Column and why Napoleon would want his own version of it. One emperor liked the way another emperor was remembered. [Laughs] There are other parallels of Napoleonic France to Imperial Rome, but Napoleon saw himself in the same light as Trajan, as an equal. The Vendôme Column is very closely modeled on Trajan’s Column. The initial statue of Napoleon at the column’s summit had him dressed in a toga, like a Roman emperor. The column was part of a much wider enthusiasm in this period for Roman architecture and art, which in Paris included the Arc de Triomphe, which was modeled on the Arch of Titus, and the Luxor obelisk, which was retrieved from Egypt, just as the Romans had. There are more ancient Egyptian obelisks in Rome than in Egypt!
How did the artisans create such a precisely detailed replica of Trajan’s column around 1835, when they would have had to rely on sketches and engravings instead of photography? Rome wasn’t so terribly far away. They had very accurate records of it in the beginning of the 19th century. The Vendôme Column’s details are quite different, of course. Trajan’s Column depicts him humiliating the Dacians. The Vendôme Column shows Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, with French cannons and horses. Trajan had different actors and different weapons.
So this is an update? A refresh. Column 2.0. [Laughs]
Does the Napoleon statue on the top date-stamp it to 1835? One of the most interesting things about the Vendôme Column is how it’s changed dramatically over time. When it went up, there was no statue on the top. Then there was a fleur-de-lis, then a flag, then a statue of Napoleon in a toga. Then the people who were politically in charge, Napoleon’s family, didn’t care for the toga statue. That’s when Le Petit Corporal went up [the Napoleon statue on this model]. It lasted until the 1860s, when Napoleon’s grandchildren thought it was demeaning, and put up a new statue of Napoleon in a toga.
Was this a souvenir of the Grand Tour, the trip through Europe that rich young Englishmen took after they finished school, or was this a custom commission of some sort? It wasn’t like a souvenir that you go down to the souvenir shop and get. It certainly is the right period, and it’s a very grand sort of thing. You get the grandest of the Grand Tourists bringing this thing back.
Is it solid or hollow? And do we know why the finish looks black? The Vendôme Column isn’t black. The model is hollow-cast bronze, and is remarkably detailed and highly accurate. The model’s finish – a very dark, inky green – is typical of many French bronzes in this period. As you point out, this differs considerably from the monument’s green-oxidized bronze panels, which we see today. Whether this oxidized patina was original or intended, I don’t know.
How heavy is this thing? I wouldn’t say it was lightweight, but one person can lift it with no problem. You can put it on a table. It cohabitates nicely with other things of its period.
Do we know who made this model Vendôme Column? In the last 15 years, since the sale of a Vendôme Column at the Bill Blass Collection auction at Sotheby’s in 2003, there have been a half dozen or so of these offered at auction. All have shared the same general characteristics–patina, method of manufacture, topped by Le Petit Corporal, etc. And yet, there has been one intriguing difference–almost all are different heights, something very unexpected with pieces cast in a mold. This suggests there wasn’t a vendor in any conventional sense, but a foundry producing models on order, for a very limited clientele. I wish I knew the name of this foundry. Perhaps time will reveal it.
What is it like in person? The idea of a souvenir is to jog your memory, but this giant Vendôme Column inverts that idea. At the Place Vendôme, you don’t get very close to the column. The real thing is great, but you can’t see what’s going on. This column is tremendously well- and accurately detailed. You can get very close to it. The architectural experience of the model is more profound than the experience of the real thing.
How to bid: The circa 1835 Vendôme Column replica souvenir is lot 331 in The Collector: English and European 18th and 19th Century Furniture, Ceramics, Silver & Works of Art, taking place at Christie’s New York on October 23, 2018.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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