(Rouen 1757 – Paris, 1813)
Urania Teaching Astronomy to Eratosthenes
Bas-relief in bronze with brown patina
Signed, lower left, on the base of the sphinx: Chardigny Fit
11.5 x 54 cm
Winner of the Grand Prix de Sculpture in 1782 after having studied in turn with Ignace Broche, Berruer, Bridan, Christophe-Gabriel Allegrain and Augustin Pajou, and having safely lived through the period of the Revolution (whose ideas he espoused), Chardigny is known above all for numerous pieces he executed which can still be seen in the south of France in the various places he lived—Aix, Toulon and Marseille. Applying his talent to exploring all of the facets of sculpture, he seems to have been equally at ease in the art of portraiture, from agreeable small statuary to monumental works, producing a particularly abundant number of pieces. Without going further into the whole of his long career, suffice it to say that as he was easing into old age under the Empire, Chardigny was still considered one of the best sculptors of his time, since he was chosen by the architect Fontaine to ornament the Great Staircase leading to the Imperial Apartments at the Louvre—on the Colonnade side—which he decorated with two monumental reliefs representing Jupiter and Juno.
The ease with which the aging sculptor assimilated the Neoclassical style—not an obvious thing to do for an artist trained under the Ancien Régime—is particularly appreciable in this mythological bas-relief where he managed to skillfully vary the space around the eight figures that compose it. Urania, the Muse of Astronomy on whom all attention and all eyes are fixed, occupies the center of the frieze. Enlightening the world with her knowledge as evidenced by the Genie holding the lighted torch, she is seen here teaching astronomy to Eratosthenes and his disciples. A canopic vase is sitting on a plinth at the right, and a representation of the Nile leaning on a sphinx, with a pyramid and a palm tree on the left complete the scene that the artist provides for our contemplation. Deliciously exotic and at first looking like simple decorative additions drawn from collections of elements of décor produced after the Egyptian military campaign, these different elements constitute above all a scholarly allusion to the activities of Eratosthenes of Cyrene, the historian, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and geographer of genius summoned to Alexandria by Ptolemy III around the year 240 to be his son’s tutor. Director of Alexandria’s famous library, his activities as a geographer were founded on his profound knowledge and rational use of astronomy and geometry, and earned him real fame. Eratosthenes perfected tables for the eclipses, an astronomical catalogue of 675 stars, and the idea that Earth was a sphere at the Pythagorean School.
“Fortunately” signed, Chardigny’s composition allows us to illustrate the sculptor’s little known involvement in the decorative arts through one of the most important clocks made during the Empire period and decorated by him: in direct reference to the commission given to Bailly for a clock (now lost) using the theme of Urania, by the Garde-Meuble Impérial in 1808 for the Emperor’s Grand Cabinet at the Château de Compiègne. The clock, with its imposing dimensions, was a great success, judging by the two identical models commissioned from the clockmaker, the first in 1811 for the Salon des Princes in the Emperor’s apartments at the Grand Trianon—where it still is today (ht.: 88 cm, width: 60 cm, depth.: 27 cm. Inv.: T 441 C); then, in 1813, for the third sitting room of Empress Marie-Louise at the Quirinal Palace in Rome. Registered in the Journal du Garde-Meuble of 1814, the latter finally was sent to the Tuileries Palace and placed in the Throne Room, where it remained until 1841 when it went into the collections of the Château de Fontainebleau, and placed in the apartments of the Princes (inv.: F88 C). The bronze-caster Jean-François Denière was in charge of its execution, before the model was later taken on by Claude Galle, as well as Louis-François Jeannest, two other well-known bronze-casters.