Conserving sculptures made for Marie Antoinette and the ill-fated Château de Saint-Cloud
Ten-and-a-half feet tall by eighteen-and-a-half feet wide, the plaster reliefs of The Triumph of Flora and The Race of Atalanta and Hippomenes are impressive not just in scale, but for their connection to Queen Marie Antoinette—guillotined in 1793 during the French Revolution. Located in the museum’s newly renovated Lenfest Hall, they’re rare surviving examples of plaster reliefs that were used as models for carving the same monumental designs in stone for installation in the Château de Saint-Cloud in 1788. Recent conservation treatment provides an opportunity to celebrate the reliefs’ refreshed appearance and to explore what makes these works of art so special.
Located on the river Seine just outside Paris, Saint-Cloud was a palace with famous gardens and waterworks, an attraction for fashionable society before the Revolution. In 1785, it was purchased at great expense by King Louis XVI of France for his notorious queen. To prepare Marie Antoinette’s residence, Richard Mique, an accomplished architect in the neoclassical style, was employed to oversee renovations. Mique focused on the wing that held the queen’s apartments, where a new, elegant staircase to her rooms was graced with the final stone versions of the two plaster reliefs. Their creator was Joseph Deschamps, a sculptor who had worked on several royal projects; he died in an accident at the worksite in 1788.
Inspired by the mythological stories in Metamorphoses, by the Ancient Roman poet Ovid, The Race of Atalanta and Hippomenes tells the story of an athletic huntress, Atalanta, who would only marry the suitor who could beat her in a foot race. The other panel, The Triumph of Flora, shows the goddess of flowers and spring, riding on a chariot pulled by cherubs and surrounded by attendants. Highpoints of classical style, these romantic, literary subjects must have been appreciated by the royal couple.
Saint-Cloud—serenely beautiful and a convenient distance to the capital—was used by France’s rulers even after the fall of the monarchy, including the Emperor Napoleon and his wife Josephine. But these glorious connections ended during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, when artillery fire and subsequent burning destroyed the palace.
The building was left in ruins for twenty years. In 1892, the French government decided to raze the chateâu’s remains and auction its salvageable elements, an act that made Saint-Cloud a cause célèbre for preservationists. The sculptor Charles-Émile Jonchery obtained the remains of Deschamps’s stones and was fortunate in that he also came into possession of the sculptor’s plaster models—that is, the reliefs now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—which allowed the restoration of the stone sculptures. Those were purchased by the Belgian royal family and installed in their home, the palace of Laeken, in Brussels. As Jonchery remarked in a statement shared with the museum, the plasters had been “found in the garret” (the attic, basically) of the palace and thus saved from destruction. Photographs in the museum archive showing the Philadelphia plasters on a dirt floor surrounded by vegetation confirm they were safely (if not carefully) stored, most likely in a palace outbuilding.
The reliefs’ condition posed an interesting set of challenges to restoring them for the reopening of the new and restored museum spaces in May 2021. More than a century of damage from neglect and war was compounded by the decades that the plasters spent in an art studio in Paris, being used as a model for the repairs of their stone counterparts, and also being repaired themselves. A transatlantic journey brought them to Philadelphia in 1927–28 for installation at PMA in what’s now Lenfest Hall.
The museum contracted conservators Adam Jenkins and Alisa Vignalo to take on the wide range of tasks necessary to stabilize and protect these important works of art during the Frank Gehry–designed reconstruction of Lenfest Hall. Their first duty was to help plan and install, and later remove, a custom covering needed to protect the delicate works from vibrations caused by building construction.
They also carried out all aspects of the extensive conservation treatment of the two reliefs and their frames, in consultation with PMA conservators and curators. The treatment included delicate surface cleaning, removing old repairs and restoration materials, and filling in large and small gaps, among countless other tasks. Along the way, they documented everything through photographs and detailed reports.
All of this history contributed damage: cracks and breaks, losses of body parts, separation of sections, spills of various materials, abrasions—even graffiti—followed by poor-quality repair and inappropriate restoration. We also had to factor in the importance of preserving the traces of the artistic process, such as the presence of sculptor’s pointing marks, small x’s used as references between model and carved stone, seen all over the surface.
Details of The Triumph of Flora, before (left) and after (right) conservation treatment. Photos: Alisa Vignalo.
This work, which took over one thousand hours, ultimately allowed the shallow, subtle sculptural relief, only ¼ to 5 inches deep, to finally be readable and beautiful again—to be what the artist intended us to see.
It’s hard to overstate how rare it is for Deschamps’s full-scale plaster models to have survived. There are few precedents, and the successful conservation of the two reliefs is an important milestone, and will serve as a case study for similar projects at other institutions.
The museum’s acquisition in the 1920s of the reliefs reflects the how important French royal and neoclassical art were to Gilded Age taste in America. Their present-day installation within the transformed museum building, alongside works by contemporary artists Martin Puryear and Teresita Fernández, allows us to reflect on the artistic process and the ways in which history is shaped by both destruction and renewal.
Jack Hinton is the Henry P. McIlhenny Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture.
Melissa Meighan has worked as a conservator of decorative arts and sculpture at the museum since 1983. Before that, she worked in Iraq and Egypt, first as an archeologist and later as a conservator, and as a New York-based traveling exhibition specialist. She is still a bit surprised to have found herself in a temple in Philadelphia working on 18th-century French sculpture. She believes that her exposure to a wide range of architecture, sculpture, and other objects, made of different materials and from many cultures, has been valuable for her work as one of the museum’s team of conservators.
The conservation of this work in 2021 was supported by the French Heritage Society and the museum’s European Decorative Arts Committee.