Artwork of the month

December 2019 Decorative Arts

Allégorie de l’Afrique

With an elephant’s head for a headdress, drapery whose disordered folds reveal her shoulders, a cornucopia in her right hand and tightly-curled hair escaping from beneath a turban, this astonishing female bust is a free interpretation of the academic and allegorical codes. It once formed part of a series, now scattered and partially lost, representing The Four Parts of the World.

See the artwork in the collection

René Frémin or his entourage
Allegory of Africa
About 1720-1750
France or Spain
White marble
71 x 72.5 x 28 cm

Nicolas Beaujon Collection, Hôtel d'Évreux, Paris
Sale Nicolas Beaujon collection, Paris, 25 April 1787, lot n° 162
Marc-Arthur Kohn, Cannes, August 4, 2010, lot n° 223

Fig. 1 – © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographe : Thierry Ollivier

An Allegorical Representation

This sculpted female bust, extending almost down to the waist and whose shoulders are partially covered by energetic folds of ample drapery, possesses a number of attributes that permit identification of its allegorical function. Wearing a turban surmounted by an elephant's head and a coral necklace around her neck, she holds in her right hand a cornucopia from which issue ears of corn: all elements linked by Cesare Ripa to the allegory of Africa in the representation of The Four Parts of the World, theoretically also including America, Asia and Europe.

Fig. 2 – Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, traduit par Jean Baudoin, 1643 (droits réservés)

In his famous Iconologia, first published in 1593 before being translated and adapted into French by Jean Baudoin1, the figure of Africa does indeed have the following characteristics: “[…] almost naked ; frizl'd Hair ; an Elephant's Head for her Crest ; a Necklace of Coral ; and Pendents of the same, at her Ears ; a Scorpion in her right Hand, and a Cornucopia, with Ears of Corn, in her left ; a fierce Lion by her, on one Side, and a Viper and Serpent on the other.”2 Though the definition of such codes was initially a response to a humanist desire to establish an iconographic tradition by means of a fixed symbolic language, it became a source used extensively not only by 17th century artists but also during the 18th century. The principal liberty taken by the sculptor here with regard to the standards set out by Ripa has been to decrease the number of attributes, pared down to the most emblematic ones in order to better adapt the piece to the format of the bust.

The Allegory of Africa comes from a representation of the cosmogony which aimed to affirm the superiority of a civilised and civilising Europe over the other continents during a period of triangular trade.

A Sculpture by René Frémin?

This sculpture comes from a set of four busts worked in high relief that portray The Four Parts of the World, long attributed to René Frémin (1672-1750)3, though no archival or illustrated document has been able to offer proof of this. Trained in the workshop of François Girardon (1628-1715) and Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720) before spending time at the Académie de France in Rome from 1694 to 1699, Frémin was one of the most active French sculptors during the first half of the 18th century. Most of his work was created for the great sculpture programmes of the gardens of Versailles, Chantilly and Marly. At the invitation of Philip V, who appointed him First Sculptor, he subsequently lived in Spain from 1721 to 1738.

Two works from this set are still in existence - Africa, held at the FGA, and America4, belonging to a private collection. Yet the style of these busts appears to differ slightly from that of Frémin’s oeuvre, notably in the incised treatment of the pupils5. It is more in keeping with works by other French sculptors active after Frémin at the court of Philip V of Spain on the site of La Granja in San Ildefonso near Segovia, such as Jacques Bousseau (1681-1740), Pierre Pitué or Hubert Dumandré (1701-1781)6. These sculptors readily made use of the models left behind by Frémin after his return to Paris, and so adopted a style of modelling close to that of the master, while at the same adding their own distinctive touches, especially in the treatment of eyes and faces.

Nicolas Beaujon’s Art Gallery

Fig. 3 – Louis Michel Van Loo, Portrait de Nicolas Beaujon, huile sur toile, 144 x 110 cm, abbaye de Chaalis (droits réservés)

These allegories are said to have decorated the art gallery of the Bordeaux patron and banker Nicolas Beaujon (1718-1786) in the hôtel d’Évreux, now the Élysée Palace, whose collection was dispersed in 1787.7 Assembled around ten years previously, from 1777 onwards, this collection, as varied as it was prestigious, contained not only works by the Great and Minor Dutch masters, including Rembrandt and Rubens, but also many 18th century French paintings, ranging from Boucher to Greuze, and one of the jewels of the collection, Holbein's The Ambassadors, now at the National Gallery in London. It also included a group of works in marble by contemporary French sculptors, from Falconet to Pajou, together with many pieces of furniture, clocks, ceramics and gilded bronze objects, as well as an exceptional library of over 4000 volumes, bequeathed by Beaujon to the Académie de Bordeaux.

While some objects and paintings were used to furnish the banker's apartments, most were displayed in almost museum-like fashion in the long gallery with zenithal light that linked the reception areas to the private living spaces. The sculptures of The Four Parts of the World listed as being by Frémin in the auction catalogue of the Beaujon collection (not illustrated) were placed next to four other marble busts representing The Seasons, ascribed in their case to Philippe Bertrand8.

In-Between Anthropology and Fantasy

The busts of The Four Parts of the World amount to a representation of the cosmogony whose aim, within the iconographic programmes of which it formed part, such as the Great Commission of 1674 at Versailles, was to affirm the superiority of a civilised and civilising Europe over the other continents during a period of triangular trade. Created at a time when anthropological knowledge9 was beginning to emerge, the Allegory of Africa for its part attempts to blend the academic ideal with the relatively crude transposition of an African physiognomy.

Fig. 4 – © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographe : Thierry Ollivier

This attempt is sensitive in the treatment of the curls of hair, the roundness of the features and the wider facial structure, very different from the more classicising treatment of America. While this extra width echoes the overall horizontality of the bust, accentuated by the arrangement of the drapery and of the arms with their bent elbows set slightly apart, it also expresses the personal interpretation of a set of elements as stereotypical as they are fanciful. The turban covering the woman’s curly hair is thus intended to assimilate the allegorical figure to the orientalising exoticism of the contemporary Turkish-inspired works known as "turqueries".

Dr Fabienne Fravalo
Curator of the Decorative Arts Collection

Notes and references

  1. Jean Baudoin’s translation was published in two parts: the first one in 1636 and the second in 1643.
  2. C. Ripa, II, 1643, pp. 7-8; Bar and Brême, 2009. English translation by Pierce Tempest, printed by Benj. Motte, London, 1709, p. 53.
  3. Masson, July-August 1937; Souchal, 1993.
  4. L'Amérique vue par l'Europe, 1976, p. 134, b/w repr., no. 132.
  5. See Caroline Ruiz’s research project, René Frémin entre Paris, Rome et Madrid ou les séductions de la sculpture française dans l’Europe de la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle, thesis in preparation, supervised by Pascal Julien and Fabienne Sartre, University of Toulouse 2.
  6. Herrero Sanz, 2012.
  7. Masson, July-August 1937.
  8. Catalogue de tableaux et autres effets des cabinets de feu M. Beaujon, 25 April 1787, lot no. 163, pp. 57-58.
  9. Lafont, 2019. See in particular Chapter 2: “Le tournant visuel de la science de l’homme“.


Catalogue de tableaux et autres effets des cabinets de feu M. Beaujon, sales catalogue, Paris, Hôtel d’Évreux, 25 April 1787, lot no. 163, pp. 57-58.

L'Amérique vue par l'Europe, exhib. cat. [Paris, Grand Palais, 17.09.1976 — 03.01.1977], Paris, Éditions des musées nationaux, 1976, piece from the same series, L’Amérique, cited p. 134, b/w repr., no. 132.

MASSON, André, “La galerie Beaujon”, Gazette des beaux-arts, July-August 1937, pp. 47-59, cited p. 55, no illus.

MASSON, André, Un mécène bordelais : Nicolas Beaujon, Bordeaux, Delmas, 1937, p. 105.

SOUCHAL, François, French Sculptors of the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Reign of Louis XIV, Illustrated Catalogue, Oxford, Cassirer; London; Boston, Faber and Faber, 1993, cited p. 310, considered as lost, no illus., cat. no. 35.

General Bibliography:

BAR, Virginie and BRÊME, Dominique, Dictionnaire iconologique. Les allégories et les symboles de Cesare Ripa et Jean Baudoin, Dijon, Faton, 2009.

HERRERO SANZ, María Jesús, “Los jardines de la Granja de San Ildefonso : Felipe V entre Marly y Versailles”, Bulletin du Centre de recherche du château de Versailles [online], 2012, online since 18 December 2013, consulted on 26 September 2019.

LAFONT Anne, L’art et la race. L’Africain (tout) contre l’œil des Lumières, Dijon, les presses du réel, 2019.

RIPA, Cesare (BAUDOIN, Jean, trans.), Iconologie où les principales choses qui peuvent tomber dans la pensée touchant les vices et les vertus sont représentées sous diverses figures, Paris, Baudry, 2011 (reprod. of the work published in Paris by Mathieu Guillemot, 1643).

RIPA, Cesare (TEMPEST, Pierce, trans.), Iconologia, or Moral Emblems, Wherein are Express’d, various Images of Virtues, Vices, Passions, Arts, Humours, Elements and Celestial Bodies; […], London, printed by Benj. Motte, 1709

See also