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 …

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