Style Other / Ref.10511
Ferdinand LEVILLAIN (1837-1905) - Rare "Diogenes Vase" in brass, gilt bronze and galvanoplasty, design of 1891
Width: 7'' ½ 19cm
Height: 16'' ⅛ 41cm
Depth: 7'' ½ 19cm
Signed and Dated : "F. LEVILLAIN 1891"
In excellent condition.
Brass and gilt bronze. Galvanoplasty gilding.
This delicately chiseled vase, describing the life of the philosopher Diogenes, is the work that marked the summit of Ferdinand Levillain's career. Considered to be the finest amateur of Greek art among the artists of his time, Levillain is an emblematic bas-reliefs sculptor of the Neo-Greek vogue. Exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1891, this cup was immediately acquired by the Luxembourg Museum whose mission was to collect the best contemporary works.
Ferdinand Levillain is trained in sculpture workshops where the Antique models reign. Since the end of the eighteenth century, culture has been molded by an idyllic vision of the Greek world, a model of scientific rationality, political achievement and refinement. Under Napoleon III, the Neo-Greek style flourished and Levillain played a major role in it. Animated by a true interest, he realizes sketches and moldings of antique medals from the Louvre, and studies closely the bas-reliefs that decorate the cups and antique vases of the Berthouville Treasure. Formed to be a sculptor, he wishes to make the sculpture of medals in bas relief the equal of the sculpture in the round.
Noticed at the Salons, Levillain’s works enter in the great Barbedienne foundry’s catalog as soon as 1871. This collaboration enables him to broadcast his art widely, but he doesn’t wish to work exclusively there, like a performer of the Barbedienne brand. Levillain wants indeed to keep his artist’s independence, and works with several bronze foundries such as Gagneau and Susse. In 1889, he reaches the peak of his career, being a favored collaborator of art industries. The Diogenes Vase is created in this state of grace, and its casting is entrusted to the Susse Foundry, the oldest if not the most prestigious in Paris.
1891 marks a turning point for Levillain, who since the Diogenes Vase will focus on a production for luxury. The Vase is shown at the 1891 Salon where the State acquires it, and another specimen is bought by Alphonse de Rothschild. Both of them are today held respectively in the Orsay Museum and in the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon. A third specimen was held by Irma Levillain, the artist’s sister, who gave it to the Museum of Sens. In these collections, it is displayed with the Five Masks Plate (1892), that the Susse Foundry used to cast along with the Diogenes Vase.
Diogenes of Sinope’s life (c. 404 B.C. - 323), the philosopher-vagabond, has left many anecdotes, eight of which are represented here. His life was described by Diogenes Laertius in the third century in the Lives and Doctrines of Illustrious Philosophers; It has passed through History like a fantastic fable, full of humor and scandals.
Diogenes chose to live in the strictest deprivation in the days of Socrates and Plato, to whom he regularly opposes himself, and does not believe in the idealization of man. Representative of the cynical philosophy, he is often, as here represented, accompanied by a dog, from the Greek cyno.
The medallion bearing the signature of Ferdinand Levillain represents the most famous episode, where Diogenes in the seed jar which serves as his shelter, meets Alexander the Great. Levillain executed a medal before the Vase, where the general composition is recognized. Alexander the Great came to Diogenes to test his asceticism, and offered to offer him whatever he wished. To this Diogenes replied to the Emperor “Stand out of my sun”, the only thing he wishes to enjoy.
Below this medallion, Levillain represented an anecdote illustrating the biting irony of Diogenes. Plato having described man as “an animal with two feet and without feathers”, Diogenes plucks a cock and exhibits it to the crowd, yelling, “Here is the man of Plato!”. He seems here to show it to Plato himself, with a pout of disdain.
One day, Diogenes would have traveled on a ship taken by assault by pirates who would then have sold him at the slave market. Then he would have released this bravado: “Who wants to buy a master?”; Which pleased Xeniades, a Corinthian notable. Diogenes thus teaches, on a medallion, to the children of Xeniades, who made him their preceptor before giving him his freedom.
Again, Levillain has an illustration of the wisdom of Diogenes above an anecdote recounting his temperament. Socrates would have met Diogenes one day in the streets of Athens, walking a lantern in his hand as it was daylight. Numerous representations of Diogenes with the lantern were taken from this other episode for his answer: “I seek a real man!”. The Museum of Sens holds a plaster model of the bas-relief of Levillain as well.
The asceticism of the philosopher is a demanding practice. He tries to free himself from desires and to resist pain, by rolling in the burning sand, or by embracing iced marble statues, a scene depicted by Levillain in one of the four upper medallions. We also know a Diogenes Cabinet by Levillain, preserved in the Museum of Sens, where the same scene is present.
Below this, he represents Diogenes begging to a statue, to the astonishment of young men staring at him. He explains that he implores the statue to practice suffering failure.
On the last pair of medallions, Diogenes sees a man getting his shoes shod by his slave and says to him: “You are not yet happy if you have not your nose blown for you as well; It will come, when you become armless.”
At last Diogenes throws down his bowl, which he considers superfluous after having seen a child drink water in the palm of his hands. “This child tells me that I still have some superfluous!”
These eight medallions are arranged in a regular manner, alternating vertically with small masks with lions' heads. Their legibility is accentuated by contrast with the rest of the surface of the vase, entirely covered with entangled wrestlers and vine leaves. In the midst of these wrestlers, grotesques masks are carved with different expressions.
These masks of bearded men in the midst of wrestlers recall the ornaments of the Berthouville Treasure. One can try to read there an image of the madness of the world and the passions, to which Diogenes had tried to find an answer.
The Diogenes Vase is thus one of the most beautiful works of Ferdinand Levillain, which has established itself in important collections by the poetry and the erudition of its theme.
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