This important, previously unpublished relief by the German neoclassical sculptor Johann Valentin Sonnenschein is a major addition to his known works. Sonnenschein was an early mentor of the sculptor, Johann Heinrich von Dannecker, and despite his work featuring prominently in the 2003 exhibition Playing with Fire: European Terracotta Models 1740-1840 held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Louvre, Paris and Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, there are few examples of his work outside German and Swiss collections. Technically highly skilled, the present relief is an early work, but it contains elements of the theatricality which is such a feature of his mature sculptural groups, particularly the way the knot on the canopy of Venus’s bed protrudes outside the frame. Preserved in outstanding condition, this relief is a rare work by one of the most important German sculptors of the eighteenth century.
A mentor of Dannecker, Johann Valentin Sonnenschein was an important forerunner of German Neoclassicism. In 1761 he began training in his native city of Stuttgart as a stuccoist under Luigi Bossi, before entering the Karlsschule in Stuttgart, where he studied with Friedrich Wilhelm Bayer. Under the patronage of Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg, he decorated Schloss Solitude near Stuttgart (1769); he became a member of the Ludwigsburg Kunstakademie in 1772. After moving to Switzerland, Sonnenschein made large-scale busts, such as that of Jonann Konrad Heidegger, the mayor of Zurich (1778, bronze; Zurich, Schweizerisches Landesmuseum), as well as small-scale portraits in terracotta, including Susanna Rosina Kupfer (1798; Zurich, Schweizerisches Landesmuseum). He is best known for his small terracotta genre scenes. Having served as a modeller for the Ludwigsburg Porcelain Factory earlier in his career, the artist later worked in the same capacity for the Zurich Faience and Porcelain Factory in Kilchberg-Schooren. He taught at the newly founded Kunstschule in Bern from 1779 to 1815.
In his most impressive works, such as the spectacular Memorial for Ludwig Rudolf von Jenner (1806) in the Historisches Museum, Basel, Sonnenschein crystallises the tenebrous qualities of the sublime pushing his neoclassical figures into compositions of romantic emotion. The present relief dates from earlier in his career. Made in Zurich in 1780, the terracotta plaque retains the qualities of Rococo sensuousness which he must have learnt whilst working as a stuccoist in Stuttgart. The composition shows Venus recumbent on her bed, her body twisted to kiss her son, Cupid; in the background two putti are shown on a bed of clouds, holding an arrow (the traditional symbol of Cupid) and a garland. Sonnenschein models Venus with a sense of latent eroticism both in her contorted pose - legs opened, with one foot on the ground, the other bent behind her – and viewpoint. Sonnenschein depicts Venus from a slightly elevated position, allowing the viewer to look down on her naked form. The basic composition seems to have been based on a sixteenth-century Italian model, possibly after a print of the same subject.
As Burkard von Roda has pointed out, Sonnenschein is an exceptional technician in terracotta. The relief is modelled throughout with remarkable delicacy and freedom. Texture is everywhere exploited: from the crisp, intricate folds of the sheets, to the tassel and fringe of the canopy to Venus’s richly worked hair. Sonnenschein exploits the rilievo schiacciato with incised lines suggesting the continuation of the canopy, vase and volume of clouds.
Signed and dated and preserved in outstanding condition, within its original carved, gilt frame, this relief is an important addition to the known works by Sonnenschein who, despite remaining little known, was a fundamental exponent of European neoclassical sculpture.
- For Sonnenschein see Werner Bucher, ‘Valentin Sonnenschein’, in Bernisches Mibiliar des Klassizsmus vib Christoph Hopfengärtner, 1758-1843, und Zeitgenossen Plastiken von Valentin Sonnenschein 1749-1828, Ex. Cat., Bern (Jegenstorf Castle), 1986, pp.30-47 and Werner Bucher, Valentin Sonnenschein, unpublished PhD, University of Basel, 1989.