Commissioned in 1739 by Louis XV for the Chateau de Marly, the Marly Horses were sculpted in marble at a slightly larger-than-life scale by Guillaume Coustou the Elder. Following the destruction of the chateau and the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, the sculptures were moved to Paris and installed at the Place de la Révolution (formerly the Place de Louis XV and currently the Place de la Concorde), where they flanked the entrance to the Champs Elysées from 1795 until 1984, when they were restored and relocated to an indoor sculpture garden at the Louvre. Concurrently, replicas were produced to replace the originals at Marly and the Place de la Concorde.
The Marly Horses’ appeal for the French people, for whom they became state treasures once seized from the royal family, was due perhaps not just to the sculptures’ formal beauty, but also to their heroic, but otherwise ideologically nonspecific character: celebrating neither gods nor kings, they simply depict a taut struggle between a man and a beast. What that primary meaning connotes may vary, although a popular reading is hinted at in their nicknames, “The Frenchman” and “The American,” which suggest a gesture of revolutionary comradery. One can equally well see them as expressions of royal majesty or, particularly during the Vichy Regime of French collaboration with the Nazis during the early 1940s, even fascist neo-classicim.
It is this flexibility of meaning that must have appealed to Hollywood set designers, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, used small, 19th-century bronze replicas of the Marly Horses to decorate everything from aristocratic homes to bourgeois office interiors to the offices and hideouts of Nazi spies. I have spotted these replicas in over twenty films so far, and, in four films, I have spotted the original sculptures (or a drawing of them) in shots of Paris. Please keep an eye out for more, and let me know of any new discoveries. I will continually update this exhibit as I discover more Marly Horse appearances.