The Lady of Auxerre is a statuette of a woman in limestone, 75 cm high. Originally from Crete and dated to the Orientalist period, around 630 B.C., it is one of the most accomplished sculptures of the Daedalic style, which preludes Greek archaic art.
Identified as such at the end of the 19th century in the Musée Saint-Germain in Auxerre, it joined the Musée du Louvre in 1909, where it is currently on display in the "Galerie de la Grèce préclassique".
We only know that the statuette belonged to Edouard Bourgoin, an artist and art and curiosity dealer in Paris, who retired to the countryside near Auxerre in 1882. At the sale after his death in 1895, it was bought for one franc by the janitor of the Auxerre theater, to be used as a stage prop. Broken at the arm, it ended up in the vestibule of the municipal museum.
It was there that in 1907 Maxime Collignon, a specialist in Greek sculpture, spotted it and understood its importance in the development of Greek art. An exchange was quickly organized: in 1909, the piece known as the "Lady of Auxerre" arrived at the Louvre Museum, which in return sent Auxerre a landscape by the then famous painter Henri Joseph Harpignies (1819-1916).
The 65 cm high statuette is carved with its 10 cm high square plinth in a single block of fine and soft limestone. It is broken below the belt, on the left forearm, below the shoulder and on the right wrist. Apart from the tearing off of the left part of the face and a few splinters, it is in excellent condition.
The surface of the stone is intact, but it was originally painted. The preparatory incised line of the polychrome decoration, which has now disappeared, is still clearly visible, apart from a few traces of red paint that have been preserved on the bust. However, the color rendition made on a cast from the Ashmolean Museum's casting gallery in Oxford appears forced.
The statuette represents a young woman standing frontally, her right arm bent, holding her long-fingered hand against her chest, her left arm stretched out along her body with her hand pressed against her thigh, and her feet together. Her hair is styled in thick strands tied "in pearls" that fall down the back and in front of the shoulders, and completed on the forehead by a row of small curls.
Very large almond-shaped eyes and a mouth with a restrained smile light up the face. The young woman is dressed in a long tunic that moulds the bust, tightened at the waist by a high belt probably made of metal, and covering the lower part of the body without making any folds.
The tunic has a different decoration on the top and bottom: on the bust, a decoration of scales; on the legs, a wide band of interlocking squares at the front and bottom, and a row of bangs. The top of the back and the back of the arms are covered with a short cape, decorated at the edge with a row of meanders.
A similarly decorated band in front of the neck may be a strap to hold the cloak in place; or it may belong to the edge of the tunic, and the cloak was then attached by clasps in front of the shoulders. It has also been suggested that it was not a cloak, but the back of the tunic folded forward.
In any case, it is not treated in a natural way, especially on the back of the arms. The wrists were decorated with bracelets rendered in paint (preparatory incisions), and the feet are bare.
Excavations in the early twenty-first century at the Geometric and Archaic period necropolis (950-650 B.C.) of the city of Eleutherne (Archia Elefterna, Rhethymnon region, Central Crete) uncovered a fragment of female limestone sculpture. It includes the lower part of the dress with the remains of an engraved decoration and the left hand placed against the thigh;
it was found near the remains of a small funerary monument in limestone, provided on one side with a niche framed with a decoration of spirals. The ensemble dates from the second quarter of the sixth century BC. (670-650 BC), and provides a precise parallel to the Lady of Auxerre, whose date of 630 BC remains conventional.
The Lady of Auxerre has all the characteristics of the "dedalic" stone sculpture that developed on the island in the Orientalist period, in the second half of the 7th century B.C.: she is strictly frontal, the triangular face framed by voluminous hair, the waist narrowed, and the lower part of the body of abstract form.
The anatomical proportions have been purposely modified to intensify the presence and attitude of the figure: the head, hands and feet are too large in relation to the body, as are the facial features in relation to the head. But the body and arms are in harmony, the volume of the bust and the slenderness of the waist are emphasized by the release of the arms from the body, and the position of the right arm is rendered with accuracy.
The details of the face, the hands, the refined clothing are rendered with great precision, without being realistic. The Lady of Auxerre is the work of a sculptor who is a perfect master of his art.
If the statuette occupied a place in the niche of a monument like the one discovered in the necropolis of Eleutherne, it is possible that it is a protective deity of the tomb. The position of the arms, the right bent, the hand carried flat on the bust, the left stretched out along the body, is not that of an archaic kore bearing an offering, nor that of a mourning woman. This attitude is inspired by Egyptian or Near Eastern representations.
The Lady of Auxerre is the best introduction to the Daedalus style. This adjective comes from the name of Daedalus, one of the greatest sculptors and painters of Athens. Chased from Athens, he was welcomed by King Minos. In Greek mythology, it is Daedalus who would have built the labyrinth to lock up the Minotaur.
The Daedalus style is an austere art, influenced by Egypt and the Near East, a step towards the great archaic and classical Greek statuary. This art is expressed in the work of stone, clay, jewelry and ivory. It is in Crete that it takes its rise then it develops in Cyclades and finally, in continental Greece. The representation of the female face is very popular.
The Lady of Auxerre probably comes from the site of Eleutherne in Crete. It is on this site that similar fragments were discovered in the necropolis of Orthi Petra. Sculptures like this one were also produced in the Cyclades during the sixth century BC. The Lady of Auxerre bears witness to the intense artistic activity that took place in the eastern regions of the Mediterranean basin during the Orientalist period.
Decorative repertoires and techniques from the Near East and Egypt were widely disseminated and adopted by Greek craftsmen who mixed these models with their own traditions. This is how we perceive an Egyptian influence in the treatment of the bodies. This can be seen in the dedalic style, notably in the proportions, the imposing hairstyle, the frontal pose and the stiffness of the limbs.