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Lost Treasures

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 contribute to an authentic and distinctive national tradition—all these concerns of sculptors are dated back to the early period of her survey. The world of these artists always had an international dimension: they were aware of the way, for instance, the English were honoring their famous men with statues in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and they thought the French should emulate such practices. They were drenched in classicism, and for a while Paris even possessed the greatest sculptures of ancient Rome. They studied in Rome, and often overstayed their allotted period. They were alert to the international influence of Sergel, Canova, Flaxman.

But they were aware, as well, of having in their tradition something that the other countries of Europe did not share, an exclusive, national art. Favorite among the sixteenth-century sculptors was Jean Goujon, whose work was well known both from the courtyard of the Henri II Louvre and from the Fountain of the Innocents. A puzzlingly original artist who seems to have sprung into maturity on the road from Rouen to Paris, Goujon worked largely in low relief, conjuring up figures of elegantly mannerist proportions, swathed in bravura drapery the execution of which was entirely his own invention. Nothing in Italian sculpture remotely resembles it. In the eighteenth century, various sixteenth-century works were wrongly attributed to Goujon, including the statue of Diana from the Chateau d’Anet, which Houdon closely imitated in his large terracotta figure of Diana, now in the Frick. But a more typical Goujonism set out to imitate those swirling low reliefs, whose explicit influence can be seen in the early-nineteenth-century additions to the Louvre, on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, and, at the end of West’s chosen period, and very much transformed, in the bronze reliefs of Auguste Préault, who said: “I am a connoisseur of Michelangelo, of Jean Goujon, of Germain Pilon.”

The other great favorite forbear of these sculptors was the seventeenth-century master from Marseille, Pierre Puget, the “French Michelangelo,” whose statue of Milo of Crotona being attacked by a lion (Louvre) gave the sculptors of the next century a standard to emulate or surpass. Hercules Resting, known as the Gallic Hercules (bafflingly, until one learns that the base of this figure used to have on it a prominent royal fleur-de-lys, which was chiseled off during the Revolution), was influential. Hercules has a strikingly offbeat, ugly face, and it was thought characteristic of Puget that he dared risk an expressive ugliness. His great relief Alexander and Diogenes makes Alexander’s retinue both ugly and threatening.

One of the least-expected admirers of Puget is the sculptor who was simply called Clodion, best known today as a fashioner of sweetly erotic reliefs, vases, and figurines. The familiar Clodion is precisely the sort of sculptor who fits admirably into the period decor, beside the clock on the mantlepiece. But Ms. West observes that Clodion had the whole range. He could work in the lowest relief, lightly drawing on the surface of the clay in the way that Donatello, on occasion, simply scratched the surface of the marble. And he executed deeper reliefs, designed to be visible from a distance, to decorate the upper stories of Parisian hôtels, work that shows the influence of Goujon.

Clodion has been the victim of a trick of historical perspective. He is largely forgotten as the monumental sculptor he also aspired to be, although West, who throughout her study stays resolutely away from the boudoir, does much to restore the balance. One is obliged to turn to evidence of missing works. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston owns a terra cotta called The Deluge, in which a father helps his half-dead son to higher ground, while an exhausted woman loses her grip on a tree stump, and is to be washed away, leaving a child behind. A glance at a photograph might suggest that this indeed monumental group must be at least life-size. But that is only an indication of the strength of the conception. The twenty-one-inch terra cotta served as a model for a life-size plaster group which, although it was much admired and won a prize in the Salon of 1801, was never executed in marble. This was the sixty-three-year-old artist’s attempt to catch the eye of Napoleon, and it’s subject no doubt had resonance for those who had lived through the Terror. But a failure to secure a commission for a marble ver-sion was ultimately fatal to the large group. Clodion gave it to the Senate, who put it on display at the Luxembourg Palace. And there, at some point, it vanished.

Plaster is accident-prone. Another full-scale figure by Clodion, a statue of Cato of Utica, suffered the loss of an identifying sword (the sword with which Cato committed suicide). When the blade snapped off, the figure—with a mysterious swiftness—became unidentifiable. Between 1830 and 1900 the statue was believed to have been destroyed, although it was in fact all the time on display—also in the Luxembourg Palace. It had, on losing its attribute, turned into an Epaminondas.

A final example of Clodion’s ill luck in the matter of survival is the Calvary executed for the jubé, or rood screen, in the Rouen Cathedral. In 1773, a medieval screen was dismantled and plans were put in place for a new screen in the classical taste, with four Ionic columns and a frieze of vines and corn (representing the eucharistic bread and wine) topped with a balustrade supporting four units. It was a light, open structure of the greatest elegance, whose only fault, unrecognized at the time, was that it trespassed upon the prestigious Gothic of Rouen. On either side of a central opening stood an altar, for one of which Clodion received the commission. His statue of Saint Cecilia and the accompanying relief of her death scene so pleased the cathedral authorities that he was asked to design a Calvary, the model of which he presented in 1785.

The figures of Christ, the Virgin, and Saint John were executed in gilded lead, and set up just a year before the Revolution. In 1792 the cathedral was demoted to the status of a parish church, and the revolutionary authorities considered removing the two side chapels in order to improve the congregation’s view of the high altar. It is in the nature of such chancel screens that they create areas of mystery and privilege, which the vulgar, or the laity, are not allowed to penetrate. So one can see that there would have been some political force behind the proposal to open up the view. The chapels survived, but the Revolution needed all the valuable metal it could lay its hands on. Fittings of copper and bronze were removed to be melted down, and with them went the gilded lead figures of the Virgin and Saint John. In 1793, at the height of the cult of Reason, there were demands for the removal of Clodion’s Crucified Christ. But theater prevailed over iconoclasm. The nave of the cathedral was turned into an amphitheater, and the screen was decorated and draped with a trophy of flags and a large Phrygian cap, for which the crucifix no doubt provided the support, bearing the inscription “L’union fait la force.”

Saved by the camouflage of this revolutionary mise en scène, the Rouen screen entered an increasingly hostile nineteenth century—considered to be a scandalous piece of Greek art, disfiguring a Gothic monument. It was dismantled in the 1880s, when the chapels were removed to the aisles. The Ionic columns and their elegant frieze, after four decades as architectural scrap, were reassembled as an ornament to the city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, where they can be seen today. The Christ was hung seven or eight meters high on the cathedral wall. During the bombardment of 1944, it came crashing to the ground and smashed. Such was Clodion’s luck.1 Clodion was undoubtedly, at his best (which often means “when we are not looking at a fake”), one of the most gifted sculptors of the period. One should not judge him on the basis of his most trivial work—he designed several mausoleums for pets—but on the whole scope of his achievement. The Louvre is the best place to view his larger reliefs. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a wonderful curiosity, a Model for a Monument commemorating the balloon ascent of the physicists Charles and Robert. The monument was designed for the Tuileries but never executed. The model must surely, dated 1784, be the earliest sculpture to celebrate air travel.

At the beginning of the period covered by West’s study, the makers of portrait busts tried dispensing with wigs, in order to restore their subjects to a more natural condition. A contemporary critic remarked, “They think they have given them the air of Philosophers and I think they merely look like beggars.” We learn of a statue sent to the 1763 Salon, depicting a naked Christopher Columbus lifting some drapery off a globe, to reveal America; of Pigalle’s projected Joan of Arc, which would show her as Pallas, with a leopard, the English at her feet. By the end, with Préault’s bronze relief, Tuerie (fig. 319; see illustration on facing page), we enter a lawless world of self-expression. The plaster for this ferocious depiction of slaughter was hung at the 1834 Salon, “like a criminal from the gibbet,” to warn where the “frenzy of rebellion” might lead.

Préault is another of those whose work we only partly know. Unable to sell it, he had to keep destroying old work to make way for new in his studio. And then, in 1871, a powder magazine exploded near his home, destroying his studio and its contents. We seem to have lost the Préault relief that his friend Daumier owned, which was entitled Two slaves cutting the throat of a young Roman actor, but the title is enough to make us see what Théophile Gautier meant when he said of Préault: “He alone has continued in sculpture the movement begun by Victor Hugo and Delacroix.”2 The Romantic movement, that is, which would culminate and exhaust itself in the studio of Rodin.

Impressive overall, West’s study is pitched resolutely at the specialist reader, and this, perhaps, is a pity, since the subject is of profound interest to anyone who wishes to pay attention to, and begin to appreciate, such Parisian monuments as the triumphal arches, the pediments of the Panthéon and the Madeleine, the Louvre itself and so much of its collection, not to mention such objects of pilgrimage as Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides. As West points out, we see in this last-mentioned an echo of the monumental language of the lost imagery of the revolutionary festivals. Much of what West is talking about we have walked past, or been driven past, or been herded past, without pausing to give it thought. It has contributed to our general impression of Paris—our general impression of France—without detaining us with its individual qualities. We are always exhausted, or in a hurry, or on our way somewhere else. But we should allow ourselves to be detained. The sights we saw on our first trip to Paris—the Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile, the Louvre—should call us back again in a calmer spirit. It is remarkable how famous a monument can be, and how neglected at the same time.

  1. 1

    The figure of Christ was subsequently restored and replaced in the cathedral. A photograph on display in the cathedral shows how drastic the damage had been. The story of this ill-fated project is told by Marie Pessiot in “Les jubés de la cathédrale de Rouen,” in Clodion et la sculpture française de la fin du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: La documentation française, 1993).

  2. 2

    Cited by Charles W. Millard in Auguste Préault: Romanticism in Bronze 19th-century Masters—6 (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 1997).

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