E. Gilliéron & Son’s Reproductions of Art from Greek Bronze Age on View at Metropolitan Museum

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Astonishing archaeological discoveries made during the extraordinarily successful excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at the ancient Greek site of Mycenae in 1876 and of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos on Crete, beginning in 1900, stirred popular interest in archaeology in the early 20th century and helped create a demand among museums and private collectors for high-quality replicas of antiquities from the newly identified Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. 

Emile Gilliéron, fils (1885–1939), Reproduction of the “Ladies in Blue” fresco. Painted plaster, 1927. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dodge Fund, 1927 (27.251) [Credit]: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Opened May 17 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Historic Images of the Greek Bronze Age: The Reproductions of E. Gilliéron & Son focuses on the work of Swiss-born Émile Gilliéron (1850–1924) and his son—also named Émile (1885–1939)—who were among the foremost art restorers of their time. Their work influenced the study of Aegean art and was integral to its widespread introduction throughout Europe and America. 

The installation draws from the Metropolitan Museum’s own collection of Gilliéron reproductions, which is the largest in existence. Highlights include a plaster reproduction of the “Throne of Minos” at Knossos, which was sold to the Museum by Evans himself; a plaster reproduction of the painted limestone sarcophagus from the Minoan settlement at Hagia Triada in Crete; an electrotype reproduction of the so-called gold “Mask of Agamemnon” from Mycenae; and numerous watercolors after Minoan and Mycenaean frescoes. 

Original works of art of the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures are on exhibition in the nearby Leon Levy and Shelby White Gallery for the Greek and Roman Study Collection and in the Robert and Renée Belfer Court for Early Greek Art. 

As early as 1896, the elder Gilliéron, who was already established in Greece as an eminent artist and archaeological draftsman in his own right, was making metal copies of important Mycenaean gold objects from molds taken directly from the originals and offering them for sale. In 1900, when Sir Arthur Evans started to discover many fresco fragments at Knossos, he hired E. Gilliéron père and later his son as the senior draftsmen responsible for reconstructing the fresco paintings at Knossos—the largest Bronze Age site on Crete and the probable ceremonial and political center of the Minoan civilization. 

The restored frescoes created by the Gilliérons with Sir Arthur Evans’s guidance remain some of the most recognizable images of Minoan art today, even though, in many cases, what is preserved from Minoan times is very fragmentary, and their appearance owes much to the Gilliérons’ creative abilities. The one-to-one scale copies in the medium of watercolor on paper, or in some cases painted plaster, allowed them to present accurately observed details alongside their proposal for the appearance of missing elements, in a manner that no photograph of that time could. 

Encouraged by Evans, the father and son formed a thriving business selling original watercolors after the frescoes and other reproductions of three-dimensional artworks, which they made directly from the originals, in many cases reworking the mold to recreate the object in its original, undamaged form. 

Among the watercolors on view will be reproductions of the famed Bull Leapers fresco, ca. 1450–1300 B.C.; the Cup-Bearer fresco, ca. 1450–1300 B.C.; as well as an early restoration by E. Gilliéron père of the “Priest-King” painted plaster relief, ca. 1525–1450 B.C., all from Knossos. Reproductions of three-dimensional objects include those of a dagger with an ivory handle, ca. 1600–1450 B.C., from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae; the Phaistos disk, ca. 1600–1450 B.C.; and a gaming board of intricate design, ca. 1750–1525 B.C., from Knossos. 

Because the Gilliérons advertised their replicas to museums worldwide, examples of their work can be found in the collections of many public institutions today.  

Source: Art Daily [May 19, 2011]

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