AFTER Goujon, Clodion is the great name in French sculpture, until we come to Houdon, who may almost be assigned to the nineteenth century. There were throughout the eighteenth century honorable artists, sculptors of distinction beyond con-test. But sculpture is such an abstract art itself that the sculpture which partook of the artificiality of the eighteenth century has less interest for us, less that is concrete and appealing than even the painting of the epoch. It derived its canons and its practice from Pugetthe French Bernini, who with less grace and less dilettante extravagance than his Italian exemplar had more force and solidity. With less cleverness, less charmfor Bernini, spite of the disesteem in which his juxtaposition to Michael Angelo and his apparent unconsciousness of the attitude such juxtaposition should have imposed upon him, cause him to be held, has a great deal of charm and is extraordinarily clever he is more sincere, more thorough-going, more respectable. Coysevox is chiefly Puget exaggerated, and his pupil, Coustou, who comes down to nearly the middle of the eighteenth century, contributed nothing to French sculptural tradition.
But Clodion is a distinct break. He is as different from Coysevox and Coustou as Watteau is from Lebrun. He is the essence of what we mean by Louis Quinze. His work is clever beyond characterization. It has in perfection what sculptors mean by color that is to say a certain warmth of feeling, a certain insouciance, a brave carelessness for sculpturesque traditions, a free play of fancy, both in the conception and execution of his subjects. Like the Louis Quinze painters, he has his thoughtless, irresponsible, involuntary side, and like themlike the best of them, that is to say, like Watteau he is never quite as good as he could be. He seems not so much concerned at expressing his ideal as at pleasing, and pleasing people of too frivolous an appreciation to call forth what is best in him. He devoted himself almost altogether to terra-cotta, which is equivalent to saying that the exquisite and not the impressive was his aim. Thoroughly classic, so far as the avoidance of everything naturalistic is concerned, he is yet as little severe and correct as the painters of his day. He spent nine years in Rome, but though enamoured in the most sympathetic degree of the antique, it was the statuettes and figurines, the gay and social, the elegant and decorative side of antique sculpture that exclusively he delighted in. His work is Tanagra Gallicized. It is not the group of ” The Deluge,” or the “Entry of the French into Munich,” or “Hercules in Repose,” for which he was esteemed by con-temporaries or is prized by posterity. He is admirable where he is inimitablethat is to say, in the delightful decoration of which he was so prodigal. It is not in his compositions essaying what is usually meant by sculptural effect, but in his vases, clocks, pendants, volutes, little reliefs of nymphs riding dolphins over favoring breakers and amid hospitable foam, his toilettes of Venus, his façade ornamentations, his applied sculpture, in a word, that his true talent lies. After him it is natural that we should have a reversion to quasi-severity and imitation of the antique–just as David succeeded to the Louis Quinze pictorial riotand that the French contemporaries of Canova and Thorwaldsen, those literal, though enthusiastic illustrators of Winckelmann’s theories, should be Pradier and Etex and the so-called Greek school. Pradier’s Greek inspiration has some-thing Swiss about it, one may sayhe was a Genevan though his figures were simple and largely treated. He had a keen sense for the feminine elementthe ewig Weiblicheand expressed it plastically with a zest approaching gusto. Yet his statues are women rather than statues, and, more than that, are hand-some rather than beautiful. Etex, it is to be feared, will be chiefly remembered as the unfortunately successful rival of Rude in the Arc de Triomphe de l’Êtoile decoration.
( Originally Published 1892 )
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