The sculpture group of Daphne (by Guillaume I Coustou) and Apollo (by Nicolas Coustou) illustrates a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which the nymph Daphne is chased by the sun god and transformed into a laurel tree in order to escape him. Each statue was placed in the center of one of the ornamental ponds in the park at Marly, around 1713-14. The group was installed in a grove in the Tuileries Gardens from 1798 to 1940. The accompanying sculpture depicting Daphne can be downloaded here.
The group of Apollo by Nicolas Coustou and Daphne by Guillaume I Coustou illustrates a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses (a work written in the early 1st century, recounting the transformations of gods and mortals into animals or plants). For having mocked Cupid, Apollo was struck by a golden arrow, and fell desperately in love with Daphne; Cupid then fired an arrow of lead at the nymph, so that she would spurn his love. The scorned sun god set off in pursuit of Daphne, who fled as fast as she could. Just as he caught up with her, she was transformed into a laurel tree. The laurel (Daphne, in Greek) then became Apollo's favorite tree.
These statues were two of the four running figures commissioned by the administration of the king's buildings for the park at the Château de Marly, together with the Hippomenes by Guillaume I Coustou (in the Louvre) and the Atalanta by Pierre Lepautre (also in the Louvre). Each statue was placed on a pedestal in the center of one of the ornamental ponds (Bassins des Carpes) around 1713-14: the running figures seem to be leaping above the water. We know how they were arranged thanks to a watercolor drawing in the Archives Nationales in Paris - the sculptures were designed to be placed so that they echoed each other's movements and met each other's eyes. They were installed in a grove in the Tuileries Gardens from 1798-1940, before entering the Louvre.
They are representative of the evolution of sculpture during the late reign of Louis XIV. The majesty and colossal dimensions of the statuary of Versailles gave way to sculptures that were full of grace and movement, and smaller in size (these examples are slightly smaller than life-size). In opposition to the pomp of Versailles, Marly represented the freedom of the rural life; dignity gave way to naturalism.
The vigorous modeling and dynamic movement of these sculptures recall Bernini's virtuoso work of 1625 on the same theme (Villa Borghese, Rome). But whereas Bernini sculpted the moment of transformation, the Coustou brothers chose to portray the prodigious speed of the desperate chase. Apollo almost topples forward, intent on his goal, his body forming a diagonal with his outstretched arm and leg. His speed is also expressed by his billowing drapery and windblown hair. Daphne is about to be caught, and shows her fear: her expression is theatrical and her body looks dislocated, its limbs in all directions. She reaches out imploringly, the disarray of her tunic reflecting her plight. A tree trunk stabilizes the sculptures - a veritable technical feat in view of the fragility of marble.
These statues have all the impetuousness of Roman Baroque, without its dramatic strength. Their slender elegance and vivacity suggest the advent of rocaille, the graceful, decorative style that emerged in early 18th-century France.