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Statue of Eros

Second century AD
Dimensions: 151.1 cm H
Provenance: Louis de Clercq (1836-1901)
Collection, France;
Thence by descent, Henri de Boisgelin (1901-
E. Koutoulakis (1910-1995), Switzerland.
Private Collection, Switzerland, 1984-2014.
Published: A. de Ridder, Collection de Clercq,
Tome IV: Les Vases Peints et Les Ivoires,
Paris, 1906, pp. 33-34, no. 29, pl. IX-X.
S. Reinach, Répetoire de la statuaire Grecque
et Romaine, Tome IV, Quatre millle statues
antiques, Paris, 1913, p. 257, no. 1.
Sotheby's, London, 10-11 December 1984, lot 349.


Eros, described in antiquity as kallistos (‘the most beautiful’) of the gods, was originally conceived of as a primordial deity. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, he emerged at the very beginning of time along with Chaos, Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (the Underworld), and was capable of overpowering the minds of gods and men. The lyric poets of the sixth and fifth centuries BC were keen to move away from this cosmological interpretation and to stress instead his role as the god of passion and intensity of feeling experienced by mortals; during this time, he is characterized as a handsome and languid youth. In the later Hellenistic age, the god is perceived as a little boy, a mischievous child at play with his mother, Aphrodite, and his fellow personifications of Pothos (‘desire’) and the Erotes. In the Roman world, Cupid assumes his own character and artists embrace and develop Classical and Hellenistic models. In these diverse forms and means of expression, Eros was a significant character in the iconographical corpus of the ancient world. He represents a potent force of nature, an intense and dangerous feeling that may bring about happiness or torment in equal measure, and the embodiment of an everyday human emotion.

The present work recalls classical Greek depictions of Eros as a young male armed with a bow, in contrast to his later Hellenistic and usual Roman representations as a playful, cherubic child. He is represented as an idealized youth, his lithe body sinuously curving as he leans against a pillar. He stands contrapposto (counterpoised), a technique conceived in the Classical period and adopted by the foremost sculptural masters in the Roman period. This sculpture is an especially fine rendering of the deity; his anatomy is carefully crafted with exceptional attention to the detail of the musculature, the remains of his wings are clearly visible, and his quiver is slung across his back. He probably held a torch in his right hand, an allusion to love’s ability to inflame the heart, and his celebrated bow in his left hand, with which he would shoot unsuspecting gods or mortals to arouse in them potent desire or cruel indifference. The ability of the god to inflict happiness as well as misery is something which fascinated the Romans and highlighted the traditional conflict between the role of the gods and mortal choice; love was often portrayed as the agitator, an external force personified in the god, over which the victim had little control. The first century Roman poet Ovid captures the torment and heartache caused by the god of love in his Amores, saying ‘the slender arrow sticks in the heart, and savage Love turns over and over the occupied breast’, and he describes Eros’ companions as Error (mistake) and Furor (madness). Something of the playful and mischievous persona of the young god is captured here in his nonchalant pose and wry smile, as he perhaps ponders his next victim or gazes on those he has inflamed with desire.

This statue recalls in particular the work of the late Classical sculptor Praxiteles in the S- shaped curve of the torso, the thrust of the hip, and the position of the legs, as shown in his Apollo Sauroktonos and Eros of Thespiae, sculptures known to us through contemporary literature and Roman copies. Praxiteles’ works marked a departure from convention, as he preferred to sculpt the youthful gods, such as Apollo, Hermes, and Eros, rather than the more traditional Olympians. His subjects exhibit slender figures and a pronounced curving of the body and, as such, exude a distinctive delicate fluidity and graceful charm. His representations of the god of love therefore more strongly evoke the subject’s role as the embodiment of sexual power and lust, staying true to the god’s name – Eros – which denotes sexual desire. In homage to Praxiteles, the present work expresses the radiant beauty, soft skin, and androgynous grace of the god, as described by the foremost Classical Greek poets.

Roman creations based on such Greek models were therefore redolent of high culture and the authority of the past. Whereas the Praxitelean originals would have been erected in the god’s religious sanctuary, a Roman work of this quality would have been commissioned by a wealthy citizen to adorn their villa. Such an expensive piece, in the classicizing style and impressive in scale and execution, would have been a showpiece in the owner’s home. Allusions to Greek art and myth were present in much of the public art of the empire, but statues for the home offered the patron and their guests a more intimate connection to the culture of this revered past civilization. It is likely that this statue of Eros would also have been part of a group of sculptures, placed in the reception room, garden or peristyle of a similar villa, intended to evoke the pleasures of life and the Roman concept of otium (‘leisure’). In addition, Eros’ obvious connection to Aphrodite, or Venus, made him an especially fitting choice for the politically shrewd and loyal citizen of the empire. In Virgil’s epic poem, the hero Aeneas, ancestor of the Romans, is also a son of Aphrodite. Through his son Iulus, Julius Caesar claimed descent, and therefore divine ancestry from Venus. Such a claim became central to the legitimization of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and images of Venus and her son Cupid were prominent throughout imperial public art, such as the famed Prima Porta statue of Augustus, which depicts Cupid riding a dolphin at the emperor’s right foot.

This statue of Eros is therefore a sophisticated and allusive work of art, that is part of a revered sculptural and iconographical tradition. It demonstrates the ability of Roman sculptors to create works that echoed their Greek predecessors, but that were also tailored to meet the individual tastes of their clients. Through reference to a famous canonical Greek model, the work is instantly recognizable and authoritative, and retains the idealized and sensuous character for which these classical statues were famed. It was a fitting ornament for the eclectic and aesthetically sophisticated society of the Roman empire, and retains a presence of character that continues to captivate today. A Roman marble torso of Eros, after a Greek original by Praxiteles, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Inv. 24.97.14, first or second century AD) exhibits the same S-shaped curve as the present piece. For a copy of Praxiteles’ Eros of Thespiae, see the Farnese Eros, Naples Archaeological Museum, (Inv. 6353, second century AD).

The statue also has a long and distinguished pedigree going back to the nineteenth century. It was formerly in the renowned collection of Louis de Clercq, who was born in 1836 in Oignies, Northern France, where he became Mayor. He is best known as the photographer on a government-sponsored expedition to Syria and Asia Minor in 1859, published inVoyages en Orient. He amassed an important collection of marbles, vases and ivories, many of which were collected on his eastern tour, and were published after his death by Andre de Ridder, in 1906. A substantial part of his collection was donated to the Louvre in 1967 by his nephew Henri de Boisgelin.

Further literature

A. de Ridder, Collection de Clercq, Tome IV: Les Vases Peints et Les Ivoires (Paris, 1906).
S. Reinach, Répetoire de la statuaire Grecque et Romaine, Tome IV, Quatre millle statues antiques

(Paris, 1913).

M. Bieber, The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age (New York, 1967).
A. Hermary, et al., ‘Eros’ in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. III (Zurich and

Munich, 1986).
A. Stewart, Greek Sculpture, an Exploration (New Haven, 1990).

For Roman interpretations of Greek sculpture, R.M. Kousser, Hellenistic and Roman Ideal Sculpture, The Allure of the Classical (Cambridge, 2008).

Ovid, Amores, (Heroides, Amores Vol.1) Book I.2., translated by G. Showerman (Cambridge, MA, 1914), revised by G.P. Goold.

For early interpretations of the god, I.P. Touratsoglou, ‘Eros the Greek’, in N. C. Stampolidis and Y.Tassoulas, eds, Eros from Hesiod’s Theogony to Late Antiquity (Athens, 2009), pp. 24-28.

For Classical Greek poetic references to Eros’ physical appearance, Euripides, Hippolytus, (edited and translated by D. Kovacs, Cambridge, MA, 1995), line 1275; the poet Agathon in Plato’s Symposium; and the poet Alexis in T. Kock, Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta, vol II (Leipzig, 1880), 387, frg. 245.

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