An Unusual Pair of c.1780s Plaster Wall Sconce Life Masks of Servants from Chateau Serris, France

Origin: French
Period: Louis XVI
Provenance: Chateau Serris Near Paris, France
Date: c.1780-90
Mask One: 10.5” H x 9” W x 4.5” D
Mask Two: 10” H x 8.25” W x 6.25” D

The life size and naturally proportioned thick plaster painted moulded effigy life masks modelled as sconces of former servants of Chateau Serris, near Paris, the subjects almost certainly of French-African ethnicity, survive from Louis XVI period France.

In entirely original condition with their cast iron hanging brackets the effigies only suffer from a few small chips to the most vulnerable areas with no cracks to either and as such, thankfully, are presented in good overall order considering their considerable age. There are some areas of light scratching and abrasion marks to the top surface pigmentation and one of the masks has chipped loss to one flank. One mask is wash painted in a lighter pigment than the other and there has been no restoration or over painting of any sort.

Traditionally these masks were taken from servants of the Chateau to ensure their service was always remembered by and although they have the resemblance to death masks they are essentially life masks, taken at a time when they would have been coming to the end of their service, but nether-the-less, very much alive. We cannot find any other examples like these. Life casting can be traced back as far as 2100 BC to the face of an Egyptian king whilst the modeling of famous people gained popularity in 14th century Europe. The most remarkable life-casting artist was Madame Tussaud. Born in 1760, she became famous for her London Wax Museum and it was probably her influence that is seen here, twenty years later, over in France.

By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries increasing numbers of black slaves began to arrive in France as domestic servants for their colonial masters. Occasionally, they escaped and sought refuge with sympathetic French subjects, and the two servants immortalised here must have had a rather good relationship with their masters to have had effigies made of them so we think that’s more than likely what occurred in this instance.

Whether or not these were used as lighting sconces is hard to say but they do have the depth needed to act as such. We picture them in the dark and aromatic alleyways of the French wine cellars, moodily backlit, with the candlelight playing on their faces.

The personalities of these servants have been wonderfully well captured, their characters frozen in time and still shining through, after well over two hundred years, giving an evocative picture of two seemingly very different men; a man of mischief and one of reluctance, who has been dragged into trouble far too many times; both immortalised for all eternity.