From Pigalle to Préault: Neoclassicism and the Sublime in French Sculpture, 1760-1840
by Alison West
Cambridge University Press, 324 pp., $90.00
Alison West rightly considers her subject to be unjustly neglected. Many of the French sculptures of which she writes have suffered physically, stashed away in museum basements or allowed to decay in churches. Others have been destroyed, either for ideological reasons, or because tastes changed, or, if they were made of precious metals, because of their scrap value. In this respect they are no different from sculptures of all ages. Plaster is vulnerable because it is a base material, easily chipped or broken, and horribly susceptible to damp. Bronze is vulnerable for the opposite reasons. But every art has its own vulnerability: drawings made good hair curlers, or spice wrappers, or linings for pie dishes or for trunks which were then lost at sea.
Intellectual neglect is another matter. Sculpture, long considered the representative art of the classical world, always struggled to maintain such a preeminence in the European tradition. West quotes the advice of Baron Vivant-Denon to Napoleon: “I must warn your Majesty that the taste of the nation inclines markedly towards painting rather than sculpture. I believe this is due to the vivacity of the national temperament,…its love for all sorts of sensations and its passionate character.” Popular taste today can accommodate the sculptor of exceptional genius (Michelangelo, Rodin) but tires at the thought of a school.
And then there is a subliminal downgrading of sculpture from one of the fine to one of the decorative arts. What is familiar, indeed highly prized, in French sculpture of the eighteenth century is a kind of work which will fit easily into a period decor—whatever bronze or terra cotta will sit happily on a mantlepiece or commode, with the odd ormolu clock and some expensive porcelain. The art of the period has a tendency to shade off into the category of the decorative: the Falconet who made the statue of Peter the Great, Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, is a sculptor, while the Falconet who designed models for Sèvres falls outside our purview.
There is neglect, benign or malignant, and there is another thing, which is called hatred. Across the period covered by Ms. West, roughly bisecting it, falls the shadow of the French Revolution. Public statues were brought down. Religious sculpture and the tombs of the aristocracy suffered terrible damage. The châteaux were emptied of their wealth. The former patrons of the artists were killed or dispossessed. The revolutionaries staged their festivals, for which new kinds of images were created, in perishable materials. But the images of the revolutionaries themselves did not prosper. There was no sculptural chef d’école to rival David, and there seems to be no sculptural image to rival David’s Marat as an icon of the period.
To a striking degree, Alison West sees the concerns of the postrevolutionary sculptors as continuous with those of the prerevolutionary period. The desire to praise famous men for their achievements, the ambition to emulate the art of ancient Greece and Rome, the desire, per contra, to …