Like most historical societies, the Massachusetts Historical Society is filled not just with books, diaries, and letters, but also with the unexpected, such as silk dresses and intimidating military banners. It's also home to these lovely 18th c. French garden statues.
Cast from lead and painted, this pair is almost life-sized. They would have been the height of garden fashion when they were made in the late 18th c., for they represent the hero and heroine of Paul et Virginie, a romantic novel by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre.
Paul et Virginie was an international bestseller when it was published in 1788, with fans that included both Marie-Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte. It's the ultimate novel of the Enlightenment: the innocent friends-turned-sweethearts are raised on an idyllic Caribbean island, the Île de France (now Mauritius.) Here all the inhabitants live in a paradise of equality and harmony as true creatures of Nature, reflecting the popular writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
But of course there is A Conflict. Just as the young couple declare their love, a rich aunt entices Virginie to travel to France, where she will be educated as a French lady and inherit a fortune. On her return voyage, Virginie's ship founders just off the coast of her home island. Paul swims out to rescue her, but because of her newly-learned modesty, she refuses to shed her layers of Parisian clothing before the sailors, and she drowns, weighed down as much the false values of civilization as by her clothes. Bereft, Paul dies of a broken heart, and readers everywhere wept in delicious agony. (If that spoiler didn't ruin the story for you, you can download it or read it online for free here.)
Commercial tie-ins to popular fiction are hardly new, and 18th c. readers could buy prints, paintings, porcelain, and even clocks with a Paul et Virginie theme. These graceful garden statues would have been at the higher end of the market for memorabilia, and with their romanticized versions of bucolic dress, they must have added a charming touch to a country garden.
And thanks to a rare bit of luck, we can see exactly how they looked in such a garden. While it's unknown how or when the statues arrived in America, the MHS has the account books of Peter Chardon Brooks III, who purchased these statues (plus a third that is now lost) for $75 in 1842 for the the family estate in West Medford, MA. Summer, the 1864 painting of the estate, lower left, includes the statues standing near the pond (the detail, lower right, shows Paul with a red coat) - a spot that was the perfect idyllic setting for Paul and Virginie.
Many thanks to Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts, Massachusetts Historical Society, for her assistance with this post.
Above left: Paul, statue, cast lead, polychromed, France, c. 1787-1790. Massachusetts Historical Society.
Above right: Virginie, statue, cast lead, polychromed, France, c. 1787-1790. Massachusetts Historical Society.
Lower left & right: Summer, by George Loring Brown, 1864. Massachusetts Historical Society.