Owl and Skull
Signed J Clessinger
Inscribed 'RIEN!!!' and '1868' and with the foundry mark MARNYHAC 26 Avenue De L'Opera and inset with the Bronze Artistique de Paris Foundry seal
Bronze with a rich dark brown patina
Height: 13" (33 cm)
Conceived and cast circa 1868
Clessinger was born in Besançon and studied under his father before finding employment in the studio of Thorwaldsen. In 1839 he briefly studied under David D’Angers before beginning a period of travel in Switzerland, Italy and France. In 1843 he sent his first work to the French Salon and in 1847 he achieved success with Woman Bitten by a Snake, a model which helped to propel him into the public consciousness. By 1849 he had been awarded membership of the Legion of Honour, later being promoted to officer in 1864.
Clessinger’s career was punctuated by great success and high patronage, including working on a State commission for a statue of Francois I between 1854 and 1856. By 1867 he had grown tired of the Salon and began to exhibit his work independently on the Rue Royal, echoing the independent exhibitions staged by Courbet and Manet at this time. In 1868 and 1870 he organised public auctions of his own work, thus further taking ownership of his own artistic output.
The present model was conceived in 1868 and appeared in terracotta at Clessinger’s 1870 sale, where Théophile Gautier catalogued the work as follows:
‘Let us stop for a moment and look at this owl who with the philosophical interrogation of a feathered Hamlet, turns over the skull….What a serious mingling of irony in the expression of this bird, the traditional companion of Minerva, ringing this empty skull like a small bell and declaring with dramatic stress, ‘Alas, poor King!’ Full of humour, this fantasy is a marvel of execution.’
As Gautier alludes, the work is clearly a memento mori, or reminder of the inevitability of death and the perils of earthly concerns. The elements in the work are borrowed directly from the vanitas paintings of the 17th century, but are combined in an unusual, even humorous, way. The skull represents death and the Owl, whilst being the traditional companion to Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom and arts) is also associated with darkness and the night. The broken crown worn by the skull indicates the ephemeral nature of earthly glory and is perhaps an autobiographical reference by a artist who had fought hard for fame and fortune.