There are two large lead reliefs by this outstanding Austrian Baroque sculptor in the Sculpture Collection: the work shown here and its companion piece illustrating the Judgement of Paris. Both may be dated around 1735. Lead as a material is well suited to emphasising painterly effects and bringing out delicate, soft transitions. The relief presents mythological figures in a genre-like situation: on the left side muscular men raise hammers, while on the right Venus is accompanied by playing putti, next to them Vulcanus works by his anvil. The slender figure of Venus represents beauty in an everyday setting.
Georg Raphael Donner is nowadays regarded as one of the greatest Austrian baroque sculptors, but this highly individual artist and his neoclassical style were much less appreciated in his own time. In his youth, he worked beside the German sculptor, Balthasar Permoser, and his early works are conceived in terms of German and Austrian baroque. From the 1730s, Donner increasingly turned to Italian art, and his works are reminiscent of mannerist sculptures and those of classical antiquity. To achieve a balanced effect, he placed aesthetics above the technical difficulties of execution. For Saint Martin's Cathedral in Pozsony (today Bratislava, Slovakia) he was commissioned to create the monumental, baldachined main altar, which stands on large columns. Despite the enormous dimensions of the figures, he chose to cast them in lead. This was a real innovation in the early eighteenth century, and execution posed a considerable challenge for the artist, not to mention transport to the site. The main drawback of lead for the sculptor is that it is much heavier than the popular bronze. However, the soft surface is much easier to work with after the sculpture has been cast. This, and the unreflective matte surface which produces a special aesthetic quality, caused lead to be taken up widely by sculptors in the generation following Donner.
The relief Venus in Vulcan’s Forge is also made of lead. The beautiful goddess of love, Venus, visits the workshop of the ugly god of fire and the forge, Vulcan, to plead for holy weapons for her son by Anchises, the heroic defender of Troy, so that he might assist Aeneas in his conquest of Italy. The artistic representation of the scene usually emphasised the contrast between Venus’s beauty and Vulcan’s hideousness. But Donner’s relief shows no trace of this confrontation, and the sculptor has attempted as faithful a reproduction of the naked human body as possible. The scene takes place inside the god’s workshop, but the background is neutral. The artist seems to have had little interest in depicting the forge. He concentrated on the elaboration of the figures, which almost constitute academic studies of the nude. Experiences from his travels to Italy undoubtedly played their part in the scene’s composition: Donner had been in Venice in 1729, and may have visited Rome.
This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.
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