Bust of a Bacchante
Frederick James Halnon
Bronze with light brown and green patination
Height: 9 1/2" (24.15 cm)
Conceived and cast circa 1915
The present model dates to the most prolific period of Halnon’s artistic output, having been conceived around 1915. The subject relates to ancient Rome, where bacchantes were the followers of Bacchus, the god of grapes, wine and male fertility; they were directly related to the cult of the Greek maenads, the priestesses of Dionysus.
The word ‘maenad’ literally translates as ‘the raving one’, referencing the ecstatic frenzy the priestesses reached using intoxicating substances and dancing to honour the god. Bacchantes had been at the centre of literary and artistic depictions since the 6th Century BC and have been portrayed in numerous works by European artists from different eras. Halnon had likely seen the ancient depictions of Bacchantes held in the collection of the British Museum and surely knew Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s La Danse for the façade of the Paris Opera House, in which four dancing maenads feature prominently.
Despite this, Halnon’s figure lies far from the frantic depictions produced by his predecessors. Rather than frenzied, the bacchante’s gaze is melancholic, and her features are modelled delicately so as to make up the soft, sensuous curves of her lips, neck, shoulders and collarbones. The only reference to the traditional iconography of bacchantes is to be found in the hairpiece, which is composed by entwined vine leaves modelled in the wax and beautifully captured in this final version in bronze. Idealising her features, Halnon demonstrates to have masterfully internalised the lesson of the English ‘New’ sculptors, filtering classical models through his own sensibility.
The reason behind these compositional choices are mentioned by the artist in a letter to the curators of the Royal Albert Memorial and Art Gallery (Exeter), which had purchased a cast of the work in 1927. In the letter, Halnon states how ‘the average Bacchante is generally treated in a more mirthful outlook, but I felt at the time there was no reason why the head should not be refined and reposeful’.
Interestingly, the director and curators of the Museum decided to change the title of the piece from Bacchante to Autumn. This was a usual practice for works by contemporary artists in the early 20th century, which has now fallen out of fashion. Halnon wrote back to the curators stating that the name was fitting for the sculpture, but that it would be unwise for him to change it altogether as ‘Her Majesty the Queen and two Royal Academicians honoured me with the purchases of this work by which [name] it is known’. Despite this fact, the piece was catalogued under the name of Autumn and only recently was it restored to its original title.
As the artist’s letter testifies, another bronze model of Halnon’s Bacchante was purchased directly by Queen Alexandra, during its exhibition at the Royal Academy, and is currently part of the Royal Collection.