Metropolitan Museum – French Sculpture

The well-known action of the State of Virginia to procure a portrait statue of George Washington, resulted, at the instance of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, in the visit of Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) to Mount Vernon in 1785. From casts then taken of Washington’s face, and measurements of his figure, Houdon made the statue which is now in the Rotunda of the Capitol at Richmond, and is regarded as the best representation of the face and figure of Washington. A replica of this statue is found in the Museum, together with one of the several busts which Houdon made from the original masks.

A marble bust of Franklin by Houdon is in the same grand style in which he made his bust of Moliere — the personal interest accentuates every detail of physiognomy.

Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875) has a place in the history of art more nearly unique, perhaps, than that of any of the great artists. He has been called the Michelangelo of the animal kingdom. He has given us animals, motionless and at rest, or in movement and tense attitude. The forms offer an harmonious union of anatomical truth and artistic truth —his prime tenet being to produce idealized naturalism. Barye’s choice of bronze as his medium was intentional, since the tenacity of bronze allows of freer outline with but small supports, and the out-line, the drawing was the chief object of his style.

A cast of one of Barye’s masterpieces, ” Lion Crushing a Serpent,” was presented to the Museum by the French Government. The original stands in the Tuileries Gardens. It is a comparatively early work, being first exhibited at the Salon of 1833. The details of the group are not so broadly handled as in Barye’s later work, and the composition is somewhat confused, but it is full of energy and realism. We do not see here the circus lion with his bowling-ball, but a snarling, bristling, ferocious beast of prey, pinning under his claws the writhing reptile. The bronze ” Centhaur and the Lapithae ” is a group imbued with the Greek sentiment and character, while it has all the life and warmth of modern work. In the ” Crocodile and Antelope ” one almost smells the menagerie, its vivid vitality compelling attention. As realistic and as powerful a group is the ” Tiger Devouring a Gazelle.”

Properly belonging to the examples of modern French sculpture are some casts of the work of Paul Dubois (1829-1905). Dubois was a personality of very positive idiosyncrasy, and may be regarded to have been the strongest of the academic group of French sculptors. His statue of a ” Florentine Singer ” is a conventional conception, faultlessly executed. He was a follower of the Renaissance spirit of perfect workmanship of detail, to which idealism was subjected. Hence his portrait busts lack the subjective spirit, although objectively they are flawless.

A marble statue ” Ariadne,” by Aime-Millet, is in the same perfect academe style, over-careful in execution, and regarded as complete by the Philistine.

The latest modern French effort is seen in two statuettes by Leo Laporte Blairsy, ” Laitiere de Bruges,” and ” Les Rameaux.”

Fortunately we find here the two greatest men in the new movement in Sculpture represented by original work Rodin and Dallou.

Rodin’s revolt against the accepted convention of sculpture may be likened to the romanticist revolt of Gericault and Delacroix against David and Ingres — the revolt of nature against classified canons.

The first pass in the duel between Rodin and the aesthetic tastes of literary drapers and haberdashers was made when his L’ Age d’Airain ” was exhibited at the Salon of 1877. The character of the modelling of this statue was so unusual, and its general effect so lifelike that some members of the jury suspected that it was not a genuine piece of sculpture, but a reproduction from moulds pressed on the living model, and, therefore, not entitled to admission. The possibility of greater genius and a more consummate artist arising outside of their own little coterie, never entered the head of these sapient jury-men. The statue was well-nigh refused admission, and only the insistence of Adrian Gaudez and Edmund Turquet prevented this. A replica of this ” Bronze Age ” — which the French government bought and placed in the Luxembourg — has now an honoured place here at the foot of the grand stairway.

One of Rodin’s latest works, a marble, ” The Hand of God,” is a huge hand modelled with all the science of an anatomist, physiologist, and necromancer combined, and all the art the sculptor can show in fashioning the whole body. In the palm is a miniature Adam and Eve revolving from the clay that serves to make them. The head of his much praised and much reviled. ” John the Baptist ” is also shown in bronze.

It is difficult to explain clearly and concisely the oft vague gropings. of an artist’s mind. It may, therefore, only be suggested that the reason Rodin often leaves so much of the unfinished block, and does not give the outline free is, as he himself has said, ” that sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump, not of clear, well-smoothed figures. Finish kills vitality.” Rodin is a profound student of light and shade, and by deliberate amplification of the surfaces of his statues, avoiding dryness and harshness of outline, he secures a radiancy of luminosity. He handles values in clay, as a painter does his tones. His work reminds one most of Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro, which creates the illusion of reality. The most typical example of this is his own favourite work, ” The Thinker,” which is shown here in plaster cast. Although the pose is distorted and unnatural, it represents with psychological exactness the emotion of being oppressed and almost over-mastered by the workings of the brain. Whatever canting terms blind prejudice hurls at the man who broke with convention, he will never be called insignificant or mediocre. He is a master among men.

The only sculptor who comes near to Rodin in eminence is Jules Dalou. His aversion to convention is scarcely less uncompromising. There is, however, less of a note of melancholy in his realism, so often found in Rodin. His vivacity excludes the pathetic. He cares for the essence of life, less for its phenomena. His ” Maternal Love,” and the statuettes ” Bather Crouching and ” Bather Sitting ” show how full of colour, how exuberant in nuances his work may be. It is to be regretted that, having less of the defiant resistancy of Rodin, his decorative instinct is of late drawing him some-what into the slur of the modern art movement that is so much like the Renaissance when the Venetians had become supreme.