The present Small Kneeling Youth is certainly the best marble copy ever made of this famous and key step in the history of sculpture, at the end of the 19th century. On top of that, the provenance is by far one of the best for a piece of Art Nouveau and Wiener Werkstätte: Adolphe Stoclet and his house built in Brussels by Josef Hoffman between 1906 and 1911. Marble copies, but also in other material, are extremely rare. Only three other marbles are recorded, two in Belgian public collection, Ghent and Deinze, and one in a private collection in Switzerland. They are lower in quality, by the marble selected and details (see below for a complete comparison). To our knowledge, only two bronzes can be dated of the time, both in private collections in Ghent, among one is with a reduced plinth casted by La Maison Moderne. In addition, Emile Verhaeren had one plaster copy, now at the Royal Library in Brussels. It is actually visible in the famous painting by Theo Van Rysselberghe La Lecture par Verhaeren (Ghent). There were a few plasters and bronzes on the market, all late casts. This comparative survey of the still existing pieces emphasizes how exceptional is indeed the present work.
The Small Kneeling Youth is one of the Minne sculpture that had made the most sensation at the time. It is a leitmotif to which the artist granted a major place in his work. At the time, the artist had only tried the same position twice, Man and Woman Kneeling in 1889 (Puyvelde 8) and Sint-John the Baptiste in 1895 (Puyvelde 17), but in 1896 the Small Kneeling Youth opens a determined way to four major works, the present composition, the Relic Carrier in 1897, the Kneeling Man at the Fountain in 1898 and the Kneeling Youth in the same year (Puyvelde 24, 26 and 28). About those, in the first monograph on George Minne, Léo Puyvelde defines the kneeling youth figure as “l’image plastique la plus parfaite de l’âme qui se réfléchit sur elle-même, qui se complait à la méditation et qui a peur du tumulte de la vie” (see Puyvelde, p. 57). Puyvelde adds « Seuls les bras sont jetés au-dessus de leur poitrine: c’est un geste qui doit protéger ce qu’il y a de plus pur dans leur intimité, contre la tragédie de la vie qu’ils entrevoient et devant laquelle ils se sentent trop faibles”.
The work shows an astonishing tension and verticality. Symbolist by the feelings that it exudes, the work also denotes some relationship with the Art Nouveau, especially in the use of the decorative line. The examination of the Small Kneeling Youth shows how the undulating line seduced the artist: the curls curvilinear of the hair, the eyes almost round as well as the sinuous line that seems to skirt, even contain, the body of the teenager, are here to testify this.
Some contemporaries of Minne also spoke of “primitivism” to characterize his work, as Verhaeren wrote about the kneeling position that ”Minne incarne des sentiments d’incertitude et d’angoisse dans des figures oniriques, des êtres primitifs ou des figures nées quelque part en dehors de notre réalité”.
The present marble was in the fumoir [smoking-room] of the Palais Stoclet, Brussels, one of the most complete examples of the Gesamtkunstwerk ideal ever created and built by the architect Josef Hoffman. Its location is attested by a photograph used by Amalie Sara Levetus in 1914 for her reportage for the Moderne Bauformen, published in Stuttgart. Most probably Adolphe Stoclet purchased the present copy directly from George Minne. There is no evidence of any dealer involved in a transaction. The connection might have been done by his wife Suzanne Stevens, who was very close to the Belgian avant-garde. However, the realisation of the aesthetic programme of the House was
made under the leadership of Hoffmann and he him-self mobilised some of the greatest names in the Secession movement, with the realisation of complete works, elements or items of furniture: Koloman Moser, Gustav Klimt, Carl Otto Czeschka, Richard Lüksch, Michael Powolny, etc., and also of Belgian artists linked to the Secession group such as Fernand Khnopff and of course Georges Minne. So it is possible that the connection and the selection was made by Hoffman him-self. The artist had a huge influence and impact in Germany and Austria, thanks to Henry Van de Velde and Julius Meier-Graefe. In 1898, an important article appeared in the newspaper Pan by Meier-Graefe about Minne under the title The Plastic Ornament. After a traveling exhibition in Vienna, Budapest and Venice, Minne’s works were exhibited at the 8th Wiener Secession of 1900. Minne was one of the main artists in the exhibition and seventeen sculptures by him were to be seen, in plaster, marble, bronze and wood. His influence on artists such as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele and later also on Wilhelm Lehmbruck started at this point and is unmistakable. In the appreciation of Minne by the Viennese avant-garde, the industrialist Fritz Waerndorfer played an important role, due to his largest private collection of sculptures by Minne, along with works by Klimt and Jan Toorop.
It is remarkable that Josef Hoffman selected no less than seven sculptures by George Minne all located at dedicated places in the Stoclet house : the present one, the marbles of the Mother grieving over her Dead Child, the Small injured Figure I, Melancholia and the Youth, the bronze of the Mother grieving over her two Dead Children, the Kneeling Youth in white stone. (Puyvelde 2, 22, 36, 42, 5 and 28). The Small Kneeling Youth was placed with a mirror on its back, a process that Hoffman repeated several times in other buildings.
It is worth to mention how the Stoclet copy is more refined and completed for the work of details A first dissimilarity lies in the crotch since it is empty, unlike the other three copies. This gives both lightness and intensity. So are the treatments of the lines of the fingers, the nails, the hair is more marked and with more finesse. Some details, such as the fine ribs on the back of the knees, are not revealed in the other copies. It also has a stronger tension in the legs and back. Finally, the marble of the Stoclet copy is of a superior quality, without impurity, in contrary to that of Ghent for instance.
Definitely more attractive than the only three other copies known, the present Small Kneeling Youth is exceptional, and unique.