Attribued to Pierre Marius Montagne (1828-1879), Mercury Preparing to Decapitate Argus


H : 124 cm, W : 46 cm, D : 66 cm

Toulon or Paris, 1869-1879

This sculpture, the model of which was presented at the 1869 Salon, was described by Mr de Thémines in La Patrie of 7 May 1869: “The young god is sitting on a tree trunk, his right leg so crossed over the left that the ankle of the latter almost touches the knee of the first one. One hand resting on this knee holds a Pan flute; the other extends limply towards a sword which is on the ground in its sheath.”

Le Monde Illustré, July 13, 1867, Exposition des Beaux-Arts (sculpture), plaster model of “Mercure s’apprêtant à trancher la tête d’Argus” by Marius Montagne.

In 1867, Marius Montagne presented the plaster corresponding to the model of this marble at the Salon under the title "Mercury preparing to cut off the head of Argus". The State then commissioned the artist to produce a marble model which was exhibited at the 1869 Salon and at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition before being transferred to the town of Montbéliard in 1874 by the Direction des Beaux-Arts. Our marble is one of only three versions in this material known to date. As mentioned above, one of them is currently in the museum of the Castle of the Dukes of Würtemberg in Montbéliard. It is probably the version commissioned by the state from Montagne. It is 133 centimetres high. Another version was sold in New York at a sale on 18-19 July 1996 but is only 68.6 centimetres high, the same height as the bronze editions of this sculpture. The size of our version is close to that of Montbéliard as it is 124 centimetres high. The original plaster version in the Toulon Museum is known in old sources to be 1.10 metres high.

Pierre Marius Montagne, Mercury, Castle of the Dukes of Würtemberg in Montbéliard.

Marius Montagne's Mercury was produced in bronze in numerous copies. However, the only two known "natural size" marble versions suggest that they were made in the workshop or by the sculptor himself. Their small number can be explained by the fact that Montagne died only ten years after the first marble was made, in Toulon in 1879, at the age of fifty. Several elements, notably the addition of a drape and a different base between the two "natural size" marble versions, suggest that this is not a copy or an edition.

Pierre Marius Montagne was born in Toulon. After spending several years as a pupil in the sculpture workshop in the port of Toulon, he was a pupil of Rude in Paris. He exhibited at the Salon from 1850 until 1875, winning gold medals at the Salon of 1867 and 1869. His major works are currently in the museums of Grenoble and Toulon. His Mercury was also exhibited at the London International Exhibition in 1872, and at the 1878 Universal Exhibition in the form of a bronze which was a lottery prize in the 1879 national lottery. Marius Montagne was also commissioned to decorate the Grand-Théâtre in Toulon.

Charles Blanc, the famous French art historian and critic, while praising the quality of the bronze Mercury presented at the 1878 World Fair, compared it stylistically to the "Thorwaldsen Mercury". This is a work by the sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen from 1818 with the same scene inspired by mythology. Like the Montagne proposal, the god gently grips his weapon to cut off Argus' head while holding the panpipes used to put him to sleep. The same massive trunk is used as a support for the figure. Thorwaldsen's work was reproduced by his pupils in marble and in engraving, so that it could be one of Montagne's sources of inspiration.

These works are inspired by the Greek myth of Argos and Hermes. Argos is a giant with a hundred eyes, half of which sleeps while the other half watches. Thus Argos' vigilance cannot be deceived. In order to deliver Io, Zeus' love entrusted to Argos' care by jealous Hera, Hermes plays the panpipes to put the giant to sleep and then cuts off his head. Marius Montagne has chosen to represent the critical moment, the climax of the myth, when Argos (Argus) has just fallen asleep and Hermes (Mercury) decides to draw his sword to kill him.

Mercury by Thorvaldsen, engraving, early 19th century.

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