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Manitoba History: Panther and Python, a Reminder of Manitoba in a Paris Park

by Hubert G. Mayes
Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 17, Spring 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Panthère et Python, Parc Montsouris, Paris.
Source: Hubert G. Mayes

The intriguing piece of sculpture seen above, stands in the Parc Montsouris at the southern edge of Paris. It is in an open area of beautiful green lawn, and if the passerby knows how unsympathetic French park supervisors are towards people who venture onto lawns, he or she will probably give it a curious glance and move on. If, however, there is no guard in sight, the stroller who believes that a work of art has to be seen clearly to be fully appreciated might take the risk of walking across to get a closer look. The subject is dramatic: a panther and a python are facing each other, both poised to strike. On the left is a baby panther which has been killed by the python and is still in the grip of the reptile’s coils. The view from various angles reveals how superbly the artist has rendered the powerful body of the panther, the open jaws of the python, and the extreme tension of the moment. At the rear of the sculpture the artist’s name is clearly visible: Georges Gardet.

It is a name which would probably mean nothing to most observers. For a Manitoban, however, there might be a shock of recognition. Gardet was the sculptor who created the Golden Boy on the dome of the Manitoba Legislative Building, as well as the two massive bronze bison that stand on either side of the grand staircase, and figures of two great lawgivers in the Legislative Chamber. When I saw Panthère et Python in the spring of 1988, the knowledge that I was looking at a work by someone whose artistic presence has been part of the Manitoba scene since 1919 gave me a sense of being in familiar company—so much so that I dismissed any apprehension about the sudden appearance of a supervisor and slowly took a number of photographs.

I had already seen two of Gardet’s works in his native France, though at the time I did not know they were his. In 1986 I had come by chance on two very large bronze figures flanking the broad stairway leading to the Musee des Sciences in the city of Laval. One was a North American bison being attacked by a cougar, the other a tiger attempting to kill a huge tortoise. After returning to Manitoba, I was surprised to read in Symbol in Stone, Dr. Marilyn Baker’s excellent study of the construction of the Legislative Building, that it was Georges Gardet who had sculpted these two figures. Having been struck by the contrast between the violent movement depicted in the Laval pieces and the calm dignity of the Manitoba bison, I resolved to learn more about Gardet. Dr. Baker’s book provided valuable information, and Benezit’s Dictionnaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs was also useful.

Georges Gardet was born in Paris in 1863, the son of a sculptor. He studied at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The eminent artists who were his mentors at the latter institution soon became aware of his unusual talent. The Panthère et Python in the Parc Montsouris, which was shown at the Salon of 1887, was one of his early successes. The figures at the museum in Laval are also works of his youth. He received a series of honors during the 1880s and 90s, was made a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur in 1900, and in the same year exhibited his works at the World’s Fair. In 1900 he also won an American Grand Prix with a group of tigers intended for the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte. In 1908 a critic declared him to be the fore-most animal sculptor in France. His works can be seen in museums in Paris, Limoges, Hamburg, and Bucharest. There are also sculptures of hunting dogs at the castle of Chantilly, a group of stags and does at the Porte Dauphine in Paris, and one piece in the city of Roanne. In North America, in addition to the Manitoba works, there is an eagle adorning the Mexican Parliament Building. Gardet died in 1939.

In 1913, when Frank Simon, the English architect who designed the Manitoba legislative Building, began looking for a distinguished sculptor, he received a recommendation from Jean-Louis Pascal, one of his professors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, that Georges Gardet be engaged. He entered into negotiations with Gardet, and in the years that elapsed between then and the installation of the figures, the two men collaborated closely, exchanging many letters—all of them in French. Some of these letters have been preserved in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

This year, the fiftieth anniversary of Gardet’s death, would be a fitting time to remember and honor this French sculptor whose admirable works in, and on, the Manitoba Legislative Building have earned him a secure place in the art history of the province. A visit to the Building would provide an opportunity to take a fresh look at statues we have come to consider only as elements of a familiar decor. In addition, visitors to France and other countries might find it a stimulating experience to seek out more examples of Gardet’s work.

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