11511 A CARVED STATUARY MARBLE SCULPTURE OF A RECLINING VEILED FEMALE SPHINX Possibly English. Eighteenth Century. Measurements: Width: 19 1/2″ (49.5 cm); Depth: 9″ (22.8 cm); Height: 12″ (30.4 cm).
Of statuary marble. Carved in the form of a sphinx with a lion’s body and the head and torso of a neoclassical veiled female. Restorations to tail.
The discovery and appropriation of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman motifs permeated European architecture and decorative arts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The sphinx in particular was introduced in the grotesques of Jean Berain and widely disseminated in the work of Bernard de Montfauçon, who was probably the first to publish such ancient objects and monuments in his L’antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures of 1722 (figure 1). At the end of the eighteenth century, Napoleon’s military successes in Egypt further fueled excitement for the style, whose motifs exude a sense of mystery and exoticism. Baron Vivant Denon, who traveled northern Egypt during these campaigns, recorded all he saw in notes and sketches. The resulting two-volume work, Voyage dans la basse et l’haute Égypte, published in 1802, “can be said to be the first attempt to provide comprehensive and accurate descriptions of Ancient Egyptian architecture.” Seven years later, the Institut d’Égypte released its encyclopedic tome, Description d’Égypte, published in twenty-three volumes between 1809 and 1829, bolstering the enthusiasm for Egyptiennerie across Europe.
Egyptian sphinxes were typically portrayed as men, while Greek and Roman sphinxes were female, and winged. In Europe there existed a hybridization and “exotic twist on a classical theme [that] occurred as early as about 1700,” with the human portion of the sphinx eventually adopting more individualized features. In the later eighteenth century “some sphinxes were given the faces of the beauties of the day”1 or that of the lady of the household. Models for such portrait sphinxes include Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry (figure 2), and the actress Peg Woffington.
The posture of the present sphinx is highly unusual. The vast majority of representations portray the creature in a rigid pose with its two arms outstretched in parallel, while others position the paws on top of one another, like a lion in repose. Here, however, the sphinx’s paws are entwined with the veil she wears, drawing it around her body. Likewise, in traditional representations the creature’s hind legs are symmetrically positioned, but in the case of the present sculpture the sphinx is lounging with angled hips and its right hind leg tucked under the left. Unusually, the tail does not rest next to the feet, but is on the opposite side of the body, a rather unnatural position for the appendage.
The somewhat relaxed, unorthodox modeling of the sphinx indicates a possible English origin, with designer-architects such as William Kent and John Vardy as possible candidates. Vardy, for example, created a most unusual design for a console table for Spencer House in 1759, in which the base incorporates a sphinx with a divided body (figure 3).
1. Cherry, John. Mythical Beasts. London: British Museum Press, 1995. 128.