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Famous but Unknown

French Sculptors of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: The Reign of Louis XIV

by François Souchal
Bruno Cassirer (Oxford, England), Faber and Faber, Volume II: G-L, 460 pp., $200

The sculpture commissioned by Louis XIV for the grounds of his palaces at Versailles and Marly constitutes perhaps the finest, the most imaginative, and the most attractive of the artistic achievements of that king’s long reign. It is today certainly the most neglected. Although much has survived in one form or another, a great deal has been dispersed and reassembled in unsuitable sites, illustrations have (until the appearance of the present book) been largely unobtainable, and the little that has been written has rarely been stimulating or precise. Professor Souchal’s remarkable catalogue, now in the course of publication, will help to resurrect artists whose names have been all but forgotten, will give substance to others who are (as Degas hoped to be) “famous but unknown,” and will let us have some idea—but no more—of the magnitude and beauty of one of the most ambitious ventures of royal patronage ever conceived.

Sculpture had, of course, been installed in gardens long before Louis XIV’s reign, but never on such a scale and never in such variety. The practice seems in any case to have been out of favor for many years, and it is in Medici villas of over a century earlier that most of the precedents are to be found. The great Baroque sculptors of Rome—Bernini, Algardi, and their followers—almost never worked for gardens: their masterpieces were to be seen in churches, in town squares, or in private galleries. For in Rome, where antique statues were so plentiful, there was no need to commission modern work for this purpose, and the extraordinary impulse given by Louis XIV to French sculpture is no doubt due, in part, to his failure to acquire ancient sculpture on the scale he had hoped for. Copies of most of the more famous antiquities were made for him by the artists he had sent to Rome for the purpose, but this was not enough.

Water was, as so often, the focal point of the statues ordered, which were used as fountains or to decorate grottoes and the borders of pools, but as the grounds expanded so sculpture became increasingly emancipated from this traditional purpose. However, from the first, the sculpture had been arranged in an extraordinarily formal and ambitious manner. Thus the elaborate grotto which housed, among other groups, the single most famous piece at Versailles (Girardon’s Apollo and the Nymphs of Thetis), was set behind an elaborate façade in the form of a triumphal arch whose arcades were closed by iron grilles; and the combination of sculpture with architecture (or architectural vegetation) was to remain an important feature of the grounds.

New arrangements led to the commissioning by the minister of works, often in conjunction with Charles Lebrun, the king’s principal painter, of new types of statues. Ovidian rapes were perhaps to be expected, but Puget’s anguished Milo of Crotona seems to have been chosen by the artist himself and it certainly bears little relation to anything hitherto to be found in French or Italian gardens. In fact the plates of Professor Souchal’s first two volumes allow us for the first time to appreciate a variety of styles, talents, and themes which quite belies the old-fashioned cliché that, with a few outstanding exceptions, French sculptors of this period are tame and monotonous.

It is true that Rome—the Rome of antiquity and of the Baroque—haunted all the sculptors who worked for the king: but Coysevox, perhaps the greatest, never went there, and his adaptations of famous antique prototypes must have been based only on casts or copies. His reclining bronze Rivers on the Bassin Nord of the Parterre d’Eau at Versailles (the male Garonne and the female Dordogne) combine—as do those by the other artists employed on the scheme—Roman formulas with a wholly fresh response to the living body, as they gaze in awe at their surroundings. His Faun Playing the Flute (now in the Louvre, but designed as one of a group of figures for the gardens of Marly) appears startlingly close to a Neptune or Triton by Bernini in its sensuous, palpitating effect of animal vitality touched with pathos; his busts move with equal conviction between the grandiose and the informal.

Coysevox’s nephews, the Coustou brothers, both went to Rome and brought back to Marly a feeling for movement not previously seen in French sculpture, as well as an unusual sophistication in the grouping of figures, as can be seen in The Seine and the Marne, now in the Tuileries Gardens. And, with the help of Souchal’s small but excellent illustrations and succinct catalogue entries, we can watch Desjardins moving between delicate decoration for palace façades, elegant bas-reliefs and the poignant chained slaves (now at Sceaux) which celebrate Louis XIV’s triumphs in the 1680s—the statue of the king himself was destroyed in 1972; we can see Legros’s copy of Vetturia in Florence—a work which once aroused the most passionate excitement among artists and connoisseurs because it was thought to mark an improvement, on the original, but which now stands, forlorn and unnoticed, in the Tuileries Gardens. Le Lorrain’s wonderful Horses of the Sun, carved for the Hôtel de Rohan in the rue Vieille-du-Temple (so tiresomely difficult of access), appears even more isolated now that we can read of the many works by this great sculptor which have been lost or destroyed; but, on the whole, to turn the pages of these volumes is to see brought to life a forgotten world and to realize how much is missed on the usual visit to Paris or Versailles.

But welcome though it is, the book itself belongs to that inhibiting, as well as noble, tradition of scholarship which has been partly responsible for the very neglect it seeks to remedy. The curious historiography of French seventeenth-century sculpture has been largely conditioned by two factors. On the one hand, it has for some two hundred years been impossible to see as a whole the great decorative schemes of which the statues were intended to form a part. Many fine pieces had been removed from their sites even before 1789 and taken to the Tuileries Gardens and elsewhere. The revolutionaries continued this process on a drastic scale, totally devastating Marly itself and dismantling or smashing as many royal and aristocratic tombs as they could lay their hands on, as is demonstrated by the casualties recorded in Souchal’s catalogue. Thus major works by major artists slowly decay in the company of routine productions of the Third Republic or are isolated in rooms in the Louvre which appear to be perpetually closed to visitors: few art lovers have found it easy to envisage the impact they must once have made, as they can, for instance, with the actual palace of Versailles, stripped though it has been.

On the other hand, there has been little stimulus to exploration from the art market or collectors, no puffing in catalogues, no appearances in exhibitions or sale rooms, because the principal sculptors worked almost only for the king (and their masterpieces have thus belonged to the state ever since). There were small bronzes, of course, but not those small terracottas so plentiful in the eighteenth century and so prized by private collectors at the time and later. There may be a deliberate attempt at titillation in Professor Souchal’s assurance that we can rely on his complete discretion if we write to him at his home address to let him know of any hidden treasures in our possession (he does not give his telephone number but perhaps he is skeptical of the new French government’s promises to eliminate bugging), as also in the commendations of M. Wildenstein, one of the world’s leading art dealers, who has financed the whole enterprise: for the fact remains that all but a few of the sculptures in this catalogue are, as they always have been, out of reach of the market.

In these circumstances the study of French seventeenth-century sculpture was first put on a serious basis by the érudits of the second half of the nineteenth century. It is hard to exaggerate how much art historians today owe to these remarkable men, so utterly overshadowed now by the glamour of the great German theorists. Between about 1860 and 1914 civil servants, archivists, aristocrats, and men of letters, closely linked by friendship and by membership in the same associations, delved to incomparable effect into the archives carefully assembled over several hundred years by the highly efficient bureaucratic machine that flourished under French absolutism. Vast editions of letters and documents were published, throwing light on every aspect of French art—every aspect, that is, except its quality. For though a few of these researchers were themselves amateurs, they very rarely let their opinions or their feelings obtrude into their publications, and often there is little to indicate whether they even saw the works whose history they so brilliantly illuminated. Almost all documents were of equal value, all sources of equal potential—“the history of art,” in the words of one of them, “is to be found everywhere and in everything, in the most humorous pamphlets as in the most austere narrations.”

These researchers may, it has recently been suggested, have inspired the creation of Sylvestre Bonnard—the lovable old pedant, whimsically evoked by Anatole France, whose work in libraries and archives was liable to be interrupted by the temptations of “real life.” In many ways, however, they are much closer to the antiquarians who had flourished in France and Italy a century earlier, derided by the philosophes and yet (as Arnaldo Momigliano has shown) bringing to light the essential material out of which a truly great philosophical historian, such as Gibbon, could produce a lasting masterpiece. They are, in any case, to be distinguished from the connoisseur-dealers, such as Morelli, Helbig, and Berenson, who were their contemporaries.

Between 1881 and 1901 Jules Guiffrey one of the most active of these researchers, edited, in five beautifully indexed volumes, each with an average of fourteen hundred double-columned pages, the accounts of the Bâtiments duroi under Louis XIV. No publisher, no foundation would today think of undertaking such a task, but with its appearance it became possible for the first time to establish the chronology and the authorship of virtually all surviving sculpture (and furnishings of every kind) from the reign of Louis XIV. Guiffrey’s long introduction shows that he realized the excitement of the enterprise, as—through thousands upon thousands of detailed payments—he gradually saw in his mind’s eye the royal palaces being built and decorated, even if he acknowledged that the publication of similar material for the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries “would certainly have redounded more to our honor and given us greater pleasure.” But, as always, he was more interested in the archives themselves than in the works of art recorded in them.

It was, however, on the basis of his vast collection of documents, and others of a like nature unearthed by Guiffrey’s friends and colleagues, that in 1907 Stanislas Lami published his Dictionnaire des sculpteurs de l’école française sous le règne de Louis XIV.

Lami’s dictionaries, which came to cover the whole history of French sculpture, are among the most important and most ambitious works of their kind to have seen the light, and Professor Souchal (who, with his team of assistants, has equally grandiose projects in mind) pays due homage to them, while putting some distance between his own work and that of his great predecessor. Lami died in 1944, but we can find out less about his life and personality than about that of almost any scholar of three centuries earlier. What little can be ascertained, however, is of direct consequence to the study of French sculpture as it has developed ever since.

Lami, who sprang from a family of artists, was born in 1853, and after studying law, he became a sculptor.* Though he exhibited regularly in France and also in America, Russia, and Germany (where he won a gold medal), he enjoyed very little official success despite the constant demands he made on the state: of an early work, a head of Berlioz which he gave to the library of the Opéra, the inspecteur des beaux-arts wrote in 1866 that if accepted, it should be placed very high up with a large label saying “presented by the artist.” By far his most popular piece (which was acquired by the Luxembourg and much reproduced) shows a Great Dane gazing rather quizzically at a snail which is perched on the rim of his drinking bowl. Lami continued to produce work until at least 1908 but by then he had for nearly a quarter of a century spent his evenings with notes and card indexes engaged on what was still intended to be a comprehensive dictionary of the works of all schools of sculpture from antiquity until his own day.

The first volume, devoted to artists up to the sixth century AD, appeared in 1884. I have suggested that much French art-historical scholarship of the nineteenth century recalled the strenuous but neutral erudition of an earlier age. Lami, that promising and ambitious sculptor, produced a volume which can only be compared to those treatises of the seventeenth century written by men who devoted their lives to discussing the irretrievably vanished masterpieces painted by the artists of ancient Greece and Rome. Nothing is owed to the eye; no serious conclusions are drawn from those many replicas of well-known antiquities which were available; everything is deduced from the literature and from inscriptions.

By 1898, with the appearance of his second volume (covering the period between the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century), which saw the light just after his marble statue of La fille aux pigeons, Lami had decided to restrict his researches to the sculpture of France rather than of the world, and thereafter volumes appeared at irregular intervals until 1921. He then vanishes from sight (for he never published his planned volume on living sculptors)—an elusive pioneer to whom all those interested in the history of French art are permanently indebted.

But while Lami’s range and scholarship are extraordinary, his work is also striking from another point of view. The accomplished but thwarted creator of Berlioz, the Great Dane, and many other works in marble, plaster, and wax, of all sizes and subjects, who embarked on his researches in order to rescue sculpture from the neglect it had always suffered in comparison with painting, suppresses any indication of feeling or opinion in recording the achievements of those to whom he had sacrificed his own early ambitions. Only when he reaches his rivals or men whom he could have known personally can we occasionally trace his quietly expressed, but unmistakable, reactions. “I imagine,” wrote the author of the preface to one of his volumes, “that he had a secret predilection for those artists who have been ill-treated by fortune.” This may be true. Certainly Rodin, “who obtained simultaneously glory, honors, and a fortune,” proves almost too much for his self-control, and his career is summed up in three and a half pages of subdued malice.

Elsewhere, however, he gives us almost no indication of quality or of preferences: a minor craftsman, whose name is recorded only in an insignificant contract, appears to interest him as much as a major artist; we do not know whether he thought more highly of Puget or of Girardon; and we wonder in vain if we seek to inquire whether, like so many historians of the time, he felt that French sculpture had been corrupted by Italian influences. On all such issues he is silent.

Lami could work as he did because the very extensive documentation available to him about the reign of Louis XIV made qualitative judgments unnecessary in listing an artist’s achievements—quite unlike Berenson, for example, whose “Lists” of Italian Renaissance painters were appearing at much the same time and had to be largely based on (necessarily controversial) connoisseurship and backed up by some sort of theory. However, Lami does not even make it clear whether he has seen the works whose existence he records: Looking—our documents will do it for us.

Such an attitude is surprising in a creative artist, less so perhaps in a scholar. In many ways Professor Souchal has been compelled by the nature of his material to adopt the same attitude in his dictionary—though, unlike Lami, he faithfully tells us the present whereabouts of all the works he records, and, of course, his very plentiful plates allow us to make our own judgments. The great accumulation of documents assembled by Guiffrey and Lami (and by Souchal’s own team) can give him an assurance rarely attainable in the cataloguing of works of art. And yet the occasional exceptions can cause anxiety and throw some doubts about this and all dictionaries where authenticity is established by a simple process of inclusion or exclusion.

One example can be mentioned. Among the works catalogued as by Guillaume Coustou is a terracotta head in the Louvre said to be a portrait of Father Darérès de La Tour. It is reproduced, but—unlike most items in these volumes—no contemporary source is given for the attribution or the identification. It so happens, however, that Professor Souchal has written a separate monograph on the Coustou brothers, and by consulting this we can find out what we need. The bust was bought by the Louvre in 1839, and it is inscribed on the back of the pedestal “Coustou 1733” (since Souchal thinks that the inscription is neither by Coustou nor even contemporary with him, he does not mention it in his dictionary). By the end of the nineteenth century the sitter was identified, thanks to the existence of a very similar marble bust (reproduced by Souchal in both books) which itself is apparently close in appearance to an engraving (not reproduced in either).

An earlier scholar who discussed the problem considered the terracotta to be a replica of the marble, and not necessarily by Coustou, whose name would have been added merely to recall the original by him. Professor Souchal agrees that this is possible, but on the whole he comes down against the hypothesis on the grounds that its quality is too high for it to be by anyone else, even though the work is uncharacteristic and even though he cannot explain the relationship of the terracotta to the marble. The argument is thorough, fair, and probably convincing. But in the dictionary (which was published three years before the monograph) the work is accepted as an original by Coustou without a word of explanation.

Such drawbacks are inherent in dictionaries of this kind—and there are, of course, others of a related nature even if the abundant documentation makes them very rare—and it is hard to see how the author is going to avoid far greater dangers in the volumes which he hopes eventually to devote to the eighteenth century, where problems concerning attribution and location are enormously greater. Meanwhile, however, we can only be grateful for a major work which, for the first time, makes accessible to us achievements of the very highest order.

  1. *

    I am very grateful to Madame Anne Pingeot, conservateur of the Musée d’Orsay, for much useful information about Lami.

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