French Art – Houdon, David D’ Angers, And Rude

HAVING in each case more or less relation with, but really wholly outside of and superior to all ” schools ” whatever—except the school of nature, which permits as much freedom as it exacts fidelity —is the succession of the greatest of French sculptors since the Renaissance and down to the present day . Houdon, David d’Angers, Rude, Carpeaux, and Barye. Houdon is one of the finest examples of the union of vigor with grace. He will be known chiefly as a portraitist, but such a masterpiece as his “Diana ” shows how admirable he was in the sphere of purely imaginative theme and treatment.

Classic, and even conventionally classic as it is, both in subject and in the way the subject is handled—compared for example with M. Falguière’s “Nymph Hunting,” which is simply a realistic Diana—it is designed and modelled with as much personal freedom and feeling as if Houdon had been stimulated by the ambition of novel accomplishment, instead of that of rendering with truth and grace a time-honored and traditional sculptural motive. Its treatment is beautifully educated and its effect refined, chaste, and elevated in an extraordinary degree. No master ever steered so near the reef of ” clock-tops,” one may say, and avoided it so surely and triumphantly. The figure is light as air and wholly effortless at the same time. There has rarely been such a distinguished success in circumventing the great difficulty of sculpture—which is to rob marble or metal of its specific gravity and make it appear light and buoyant, just as the difficulty of the painter is to give weight and substance to his fictions. But Houdon’s admirable busts of Molière, Diderot, Washington, Franklin, and Mira-beau, his unequalled statue of Voltaire in the foyer of the Français and his San Bruno in Santa Maria degli Angell at Rome are the works on which his fame will chiefly rest, and, owing to their masterly combination of strength with style, rest securely.

To see the work of David d’Angers, one must go to Angers itself and to Père-Lachaise. The Louvre is lamentably lacking in anything truly representative of this most eminent of all portraitists in sculpture, I think, not excepting even Houdon, if one may reckon the mass as well as the excellence of his remarkable production and the way in which it witnesses that portraiture is just what he was born to do. The ” Philopoemen ” of the Louvre is a fine work, even impressively large and simple. But it is the competent work of a member of a school and leaves one a little cold. Its academic quality quite overshadows whatever personal feeling one may by searching find in the severity of its treatment and the way in which a classic motive has been followed out naturally and genuinely instead of perfunctorily. It gives no intimation of the faculty that produced the splendid gallery of medallions accentuated by an occasional bust and statue, of David’s celebrated contemporaries and quasi-contemporaries in every field of distinction. It is impossible to overestimate the interest and value, the truth and the art of these. Whether the subject be intractable or not seems to have made no difference to David. He invariably produced a work of art at the same time that he ex-pressed the character of its motive with uncompromising fidelity. His portraits, moreover, are pure sculpture. There is nothing of the cameo-cutter’s at about them. They are modelled not carved.

The outline is no more important than it is in nature, so far as it is employed to the end of identification. It is used decoratively. There are surprising effects of fore-shortening, exhibiting superb, and as it were unconscious ease in handling relief —that most difficult of illusions in respect of having no law (at least no law that it is worth the sculptor’s while to try to discover) of correspondence to reality. Forms and masses have a definition and a firmness wholly remarkable in their independence of the usual low relief’s reliance on pictorial and purely linear design. They do not blend picturesquely with the background, and do not depend on their suggestiveness for their character. They are always realized, executed—sculpture in a word whose suggestiveness, quite as potent as that of feebler executants, begins only when actual representation has been triumphantly achieved instead of impotently and skilfully avoided.

Of Rude’s genius one’s first thought is of its robustness, its originality. Everything he did is stamped with the impress of his personality. At the same time it is equally evident that Rude’s own temperament took its color from the transitional epoch in which he lived, and of which he was par excellence the sculptor. He was the true inheritor of his Burgundian traditions. His strongest side was that which allies him with his artistic ancestor, Claux Sinters. But he lived in an era of general culture and æstheticism, and all his naturalistic tendencies were complicated with theory. He accepted the antique not merely as a stimulus, but as a model. He was not only a sculptor but a teacher, and the formulation of his didacticism complicated considerably the free exercise of his expression. At the last, as is perhaps natural, he reverted to precedent and formulary, and in his ” Hebe and the Eagle of Jupiter” and his “L’Amour Dominateur du Monde,” is more at variance than anywhere else with his native instinct, which was, to cite the admirable phrase of M. de Fourcaud, extérioriser nos ideés et nos âmes. But throughout his life he halted a little between two opinions—the current admiration of the classic, and his own instinctive feeling for nature unsystematized and unsophisticated. His ” Jeanne d’Arc” is an instance. In spite of the violation of tradition, which at the time it was thought to be, it seems to-day to our eyes to err on the side of the conventional. It is surely intellectual, classic, even factitious in conception as well as in execution. In some of its accessories it is even modish. It illustrates not merely the abstract turn of conceiving a subject which Rude always shared with the great classicists of his art, but also the arbitrariness of treatment against which he always protested. With-out at all knowing it, he was in a very intimate sense an eclectic in many of his works. He believed in forming a complete mental conception of every composition before even posing a mode], as he used to tell his students, but in complicated compositions this was impossible, and lie had small talent for artificial composition. Furthermore, he often distrusted—quite without reason, but after the fatal manner of the rustic—his own intuitions. But one mentions these qualifications of his genius and accomplishment only because both his genius and accomplishment are so distinguished as to make one wish they were more nearly perfect than they are. It is really idle to wish that Rude had neglected the philosophy of his art, with which he was so much occupied, and had devoted himself exclusively to treating sculptural subjects in the manner of a nineteenth century successor of Sluters and Anthoniet. He might have been a greater sculptor than he was, but he is sufficiently great as he is. If his “Mercury” is an essay in conventional sculpture, his “Petit Pêcheur ” is frank and free sculptural handling of natural material. His work at Lille and in Belgium, his reclining figure of Cavaignac in the cemetery of Montmartre, his noble figures of Gaspard Monge at Beaune, of Marshal Bertrand, and of Ney, are all cast in the heroic mould, full of character, and in no wise dependent on speculative theory. Few sculptors have displayed anything like his variety and range, which extends, for example, from the “Baptism of Christ” to a statue of “Louis XIII. enfant,” and includes portraits, groups, compositions in relief, and heroic statues. In all his successful work one cannot fail to note the force and fire of the man’s personality, and perhaps what one thinks of chiefly in connection with him is the misfortune which we owe to the vacillation of M. Thiers of having but one instead of four groups by him on the piers of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile. Carpeaux used to say that he never passed the ” Chant du Départ” without taking off his hat. One can understand his feeling. No one can have any appreciation of what sculpture is without perceiving that this magnificent group easily and serenely takes its rank among the masterpieces of sculpture of all time. It is, in the first place, the incarnation of an abstraction, the spirit of patriotism roused to the highest pitch of warlike intensity and self-sacrifice, and in the second this abstract motive is expressed in the most elaborate and comprehensive completeness—with a combined intricacy of detail and singleness of effect which must be the despair of any but a master in sculpture.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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