9929 AN EXTRAORDINARY PAIR OF CARVED POLYCHROME AND SHELL-MOUNTED NUBIAN FIGURES STANDING ON BASES SET WITH ROCK CRYSTAL IN THE MANNER OF FRANCISCO XAVIER DOS SANTOS (1739-1804) Probably Brazil. Early Nineteenth Century.   Measurements: Height: 26″ (66 cm); Diameter: 9 1/2″ (24 cm). Height: 23 1/4″ (59 cm); Diameter: 9 1/2″ (24 cm).


Of carved and gilded wood, shells and minerals. Each in the form of a standing beturbaned figure, one holding a swag of shells, the other with the swag aloft. Both set on bases of naturalistic rockwork formed of rock crystal above circular bases raised upon short turned feet. Formerly with glass domes. Some small losses.

Distinguished Private Collection, Lisbon.

This enchanting pair of beturbaned figures, ornately decorated with shells, illustrates the idealization of the exotic, popularized after exploratory campaigns in Africa and the Middle East in the mid to late 18th century by figures like Baron Vivant Denon and Sir Richard Burton. The depiction of Africans in European art extends back to antiquity, with Ancient Greek sculpture and pottery painting, ancient Roman floor mosaics, and wall frescoes. More stylized depictions began in the late 17th century, when the curiosity amongst Europeans for African and Middle Eastern subjects, which increased with expanded trade, encouraged these portrayals, often richly dressed, to be displayed in aristocratic households as a symbol of status. The attire varies, but most are shown wearing a turban or other head covering and are embellished with gilding and jewels. Examples were executed in precious materials, such as exotic woods, silver set with gemstones or, as in this case, mounted with shells, rock crystal and shimmering polychrome painted decoration.

The figures are closely inspired by the techniques of Francisco Xavier dos Santos (1739–1804), also known as Xavier das Conchas (of the shells), “one of the foremost artisans of the colonial Late-Baroque period” in Brazil. Known for his oratories, structures containing sacred images used for private devotion in the eighteenth century, the pieces were made from a series of very fine wires covered with fabric and thread, and adorned with garlands, bouquets and volutes, using mainly shells in their composition. His most famous works can be found in the Church of Nossa Senhora do Outeiro da Glória in Rio de Janeiro.

Research report available on request.

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