It is safe to assume that Sebastien Forst exceeded his luggage allowance when he travelled from France to Abu Dhabi in September.
A conservator and expert in the restoration of historic sculpture, Forst made the 6,800 kilometre journey as a specialist courier in the company of a pair of exhausted and thirsty horses and their grooms; half-men, half-fish and known as tritons in classical mythology.
Forst’s job was to safeguard the transport, delivery and installation of the group, known as The Horses of the Sun, from his workplace at the Palace of Versailles to its new temporary home at Louvre Abu Dhabi and a room, Gallery 8, dedicated to the 17th century magnificence of royal courts and the patronage of rulers.
A 350-year-old monumental sculpture, The Horses of the Sun was commissioned in the late 1660s by none other than the Sun King himself, France’s Louis XIV, for a classically-inspired feature he was building in the grounds of his new palace, an extension of his father’s old hunting lodge in the woods outside Paris.
Executed by the sculptor Gilles Guérin (1611-1678) to a design by Louis XIV’s court painter, Charles Le Brun, the horses were just one part of a larger composition that featured another double horse and triton grouping by the Marsy brothers (The Horses of Apollo Groomed by Tritons) and a central sculpture by François Girardon, Apollo Tended by the Nymphs of Tethys.
Designed to depict the Greek god resting at the end of his daily procession across the heavens in the chariot of the Sun, all three sculptures were carved from the same white Carrara marble and all were destined for the Grotto of Tethys, a whimsical, underwater-inspired pavilion whose interior was decorated with precious stones, shells, mirrors, mosaics, and masks.
Like the other sculptures that were being installed in Versailles’ grounds during the first phase of its construction, such as Charles le Brun’s Fountain of Apollo, which also features the Greek god with horses attended by tritons, the sculptures were intended to draw parallels between the mythological attributes of the sun god and reign of the self-styled Sun King.
“Louis XIV’s idea of identifying himself with the sun was probably his best decision because it has resonated since that time and even to today,” explains Laurent Salomé, director of National Museum of the Palaces of Versailles and the Trianon.
“His first idea as a young king was to associate himself with the god Apollo, the incarnation of the sun, and the whole palace and landscape was organised to create comparisons between the light and virtues of the sun, the king and the god,” Salome adds.
“Just as the sun provides light and energy, Apollo is the god of light, peace and the arts, providing these benefits to people in the same manner as the King.”
As Jean-Francois Charnier, scientific director of Agence France-Museums and head curator for Louvre Abu Dhabi explains, such associations and the desire, not just to commission art but images of themselves was not just an act of royal egotism but part of a global trend in the 17th century.
“After the first great wave of exploration and global discoveries, princes and rulers found themselves in increasing contact and competition with one another and this encouraged them to emphasise their image,” says Charnier.
“As a result, you start to lots of paintings and sculptures of kings and princes, not just in Europe, but in the Ottoman Empire, Africa and also in China,” he adds, pointing to objects in Gallery 8 at Louvre Abu Dhabi that include Japanese suits of armour, exquisite Islamic weapons and bronze statues from the African kingdom of Benin.
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Horses and riders feature throughout the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s displays, from the very first cases in the museum’s Grand Vestibule to Jacques Louis David’s monumental portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps and in each case and regardless of the culture that has produced the object, the messages they are used to convey are similar.
“The horse isn’t just a symbol of the aristocrat and the ruler, it is also an animal that is mastered. Not only does sitting on a horse elevate you above other humans, but in mastering the horse it shows that you are a master of humans as well,” says Charnier, who was present during every moment of the statue’s six-hour-long installation process alongside Sebastien Forst, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s registrar Najla Busit and deputy director Olivia Bourrat and a 15-man art handling team.
A kit of parts weighing several tonnes, the sculptures had to be moved with a curious combination of care, expertise, encouragement and brute force.
“My first concern, as a curator, I was concerned for the safety of the piece. It was a complex installation: the piece is very heavy, it comes in several parts and it not only had to be moved but it also had to be reassembled,” Charnier says.
“Secondly, we were concerned with the positioning of the piece. We chose not to put it in the middle of the plinth, because when you put something in the middle [of a room] it becomes stabilised and closed and monumental but that is not my role,” he explains.
“Our role is to create a tension that creates a sense of rhythm [between the objects] in the room, like in music.”
Now it’s up to visitors to Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opens this Saturday, to decide whether Guérin’s magnificent statue strikes the right note.