19th Century Sculpture
The nineteenth century was an age of perpetual
crisis in which a growing conflict of interest between the best artists
and the public led to a sense of deep frustration on both sides. Never
before had sculptors to endure such hostility or have their talents deployed
so insensitively. This was largely the consequence of the growing alienation
of the artist from society that was both a cause and consequence of the
romantic movement, but sculptors were more vulnerable than other artists.
One reason for this is obvious; the materials for sculpture
cost more. No sculptor could erect a large monument without a commission,
and they were there more than ever at the mercy of public opinion in the
form of town councils and committees, who, by and large, had little patience
with artistic subtleties. While painters could often find a small group
of sympathetic patrons to keep them going, sculptors were obliged to come
to terms with public taste, with the consequence that many of them were
forced to work in two different styles: an academic
art style for public commissions and a freer, more spontaneous expression
in their studios.
According to Sir Joshua Reynolds, sculpture could only aspire to the most elevated category of art, the art of idealization, because the imitation of the transitory effects of nature violated the essential character of stone and bronze. Sculptors were, therefore, denied the opportunity to work on the problems of the depiction of vision and nature that were so fruitful to romantic painters, and were obliged to confront the problem of public allegory, which had been made even more complicated by the French Revolution. The Enlightenment had already called into question the use by sculptors of personifications that show men as divine beings, and after the French Revolution Christian symbols were discredited as 'vestiges of feudalism and superstition'. Only appeals to patriotism, liberty and posterity were acceptable in allegorical terms; a helmeted or laurel-leafed Minerva figure may be La France, Liberty or even Fame; and in England, either Britannia or Victory. The change can be seen in the fate of the pediment of the Pantheon in Paris. As the Church of La Madeleine the pediment was adorned by a baroque frieze of Angels Carrying a Cross by Coustou, but after its secularization following the Revolution this pieces of baroque sculpture was replaced by a patriotic subject carved by Moitte in 1791. Finally, this was replaced in 1830 by the frieze by David d'Angers of La Patrie distribuant des Couronnes au Genie.
The power of the jury of the Salon,
whom the sculptor Preault called 'les reptiles de l'Institut'. was a dominant
factor in the situation throughout the nineteenth century in France. Despite
changes in regime the jury remained unwavering in its academic taste,
but rather than imposing on the Salon a classical severity it encouraged
a harmless timidity of approach that was calculated to appeal to the 'juste-milieu'.
The most successful practitioner of the Salon style in the first half
of the century was James Pradier (1790-1852), whose style manages
to be rococo, classical and
realist simultaneously to the point of total stylelessness. His success
was to Baudelaire indicative of the feebleness of contemporary sculpture.
'An excellent proof of the pitiable state of sculpture today is the fact
that M. Pradier is its king. His talent is cold and academic. He has spent
his life fattening up a small stock of antique torsos and equipping them
with the coiffures of kept women.'
Auguste Preault (1810-79) was exceptional in taking an uncompromisingly romantic view of his work. He emerges from the occasional references in writings of the time as a complete bohemian: a man of sharp wit whom Baudelaire recognized as the only fellow spirit working with a chisel, and as contemptuous of the 'Caribs' and the 'sculpturizers' as himself. Baudelaire quotes him as saying, 'I am a connoisseur of Michelangelo, of Jean Gaujon, of Germain Pilon; but of sculpture I am a complete ignoramus.' Writers of the time felt that sculpture was the art least fitted for the expression of romanticism, but Preault seems to have set out deliberately to challenge this view by attempting the expression of intense personal emotion within the framework of relief sculpture. Tuerie (1834) lacks a clearly defined subject and was conceived as a fragment, but the anguish of the victims finds no parallel in the visual arts of the century until Rodin's bronze sculpture of The Burghers of Calais. The relief of Ophelia (1843), is equally astonishing, for if one did not know that it was originally conceived in 1843 one might well mistake it for an art nouveau production of the turn of this century. One can find echoes of the sculpture of the French sixteenth-century artist Jean Goujon, but almost nothing of the great classical* tradition that nourished his contemporaries.
Preault was born in 1809 and studied in
the studio of David d'Angers. He made his Salon debut in 1833 with a bas-relief
of the Death of the Poet Gilbert, from Stello by Alfred
de Vigny, and La Misere which shows a girl dying in her mother's
arms, but his works were continually refused by the Salon until 1839,
although they were much admired by romantic writers.
David d'Angers (1788-1856) was considered in his day to be the essential romantic sculptor but his public performances, like the pediment of the Pantheon, are dull and academic. His work shows more clearly than other artists, the hiatus between private and public work, and he was never able to carry the spontaneity of his terracotta sketches through into his monumental work. He commemorated the great men of Europe in a series of portrait medals which are sharply characterized but monotonous in technique.
The romanticism of Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) parallels the paintings of Delacroix which celebrate the strength and power of exotic animals. He is best known as the first of the animaliers, who produced bronzes by the thousand through the cheap and coarse sand-casting process, but he himself preferred to work in the more costly and painstaking cire-perdu (lost-wax) method, for the sake of preserving his original handling of the surface.
Unfortunately his craftsman-like fastidiousness was against the trend of the time, which called for ever cheaper reproductions, and the very quality of his work on a small scale led to a great number of casts of indifferent calibre being made from his bronzes without his consent. Barye also made a notable contribution to what may be called historical romanticism. For his official commissions he adopted an archaic Grecian style based on pre-classical marble sculpture, in which a sense of impetuous movement is reconciled with an hieratic use of gesture, as in the example illustrated of Theseus Fighting the Centaur Bienor. This interest in 'primitive' forms of art can be paralleled in the activities of the 'Florentines' led by Felicie de St Fauveau (1799-1886), who based her style on the Florentine** proto-Renaissance of the trecento, and whose principal work is an elaborate monument to Dante. The activity of these artists, who sought to replace the traditional models by works of periods that had recently returned to favour, led Quatremere de Quincy to remark that 'Florence and Athens were places of perdition'.
Romantic sculptors had explored a variety of alternatives to academic orthodoxy, but in the first half of the nineteenth century the baroque remained unacceptable, being regarded still as a facile and meretricious style. In the second half of the century with the Second Empire, there was a growing nostalgia for the light-heartedness of the eighteenth-century court style and the work of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75) was to find favour despite the continuing intransigence of the Salon. In Carpeaux's sculpture a freshness of response and handling came together with a bacchanalian feeling that had its closest precedents in seventeenth-century painting. Carpeaux began as a pupil of Rude and in 1853 he went to Rome where he remained for a number of years. He completed there a group of Ugolino and his Children in 1860 that was highly praised in Rome but coldly received by the Institut in Paris. It is the most complete expression of nineteenth-century eclecticism. The subject, which is taken from Dante, was popular with English romantic painters of the late eighteenth century but was considered as too harrowing by later artists. Carpeaux's treatment of the subject is naturalistic, but the composition and surface handling reveal a wide range of influences. The composition immediately reminds one of the Laocoon, but the powerful sense of inner anguish recalls the High Renaissance tradition of Michelangelo and looks forward to Rodin. It is unashamedly academic in the sense that it shows great learning and impeccable technique, but its high seriousness was not attempted again by Carpeaux.
After his return to Paris his plastic art no longer sought the sublime but explored the possibilities of light and shade and rhythmical movement that culminates in his masterpiece, La Danse of 1868-9, for the facade of the Opera. Carpeaux was able to sidestep the disapproval of the academics because of the favour of Napoleon II and his family, but this did not protect him from abuse and La Danse became a cause celebre in its public position. To Rodin and his fellow students at the time its freshness of approach was a revelation, but its detractors saw it as an attempt to create a monument to eroticism. It brought the freedom of handling that had formerly been associated with the small terracottas of Clodion and Marin into a public work, and it repudiated the patriotic and civic content of Rude's Marseillaise. It stands as a work of art in its own right and its quality lies in the exultant movement of the figures and the complexity of the spatial relations, while the sense of transient movement had scarcely been attempted since the baroque. Like the baroque it laid itself open to the charge of frivolity, and even Rodin, who had learnt a great deal from Carpeaux, felt that Rude's Marseillaise was the more profound work.
His more intimate studies and sketches show a greater exploration of the broken surface and silhouette. In the portrait of Dr Flaubert, the freedom of the modelling creates a sense of animation that reminds one of Bernini's portrait of Scipione Borghese. While academic sculptors of the time still used a polished surface, Carpeaux liberated the expressive possibilities of the surface almost to the point of abstraction, but not at the expense of three-dimensional structure. This deliberate lack of finish, a revolutionary development in sculpture, led to the gradual breaking down of the barrier between sketch and finished work.
Carpeaux's sensuality was adapted to the
demands of decorative sculptors of the 1860s by Ernest Carrier-Belleuse
(1824-87) who had the largest workshop devoted to the production of bronze
portrait busts and ornaments. He was
described by Edmond Goncourt as the Clodion of his time, and his
work undoubtedly owes a lot to small terracottas of that master, but he
worked on a much larger scale and his handling has something of the freedom
of Carpeaux, particularly in the hair of the Bacchante illustrated.
His real importance, however, lies in the fact that Rodin was employed
by him in his workshop, and gained great facility by turning out a large
number of terracotta models for his master.
The romantic movement had little impact on English sculpture and nothing comparable in vitality to the best French products appeared in England until the career of Alfred Stevens and, after him, Frederic Leighton. Little alternative was offered to the sterile academic realism of the artists of the Albert Memorial (see Irish Sculpture and John Henry Foley), who achieved a deadly competence of technique at the expense of artistic vitality. Fine portrait busts were occasionally produced, but the subtly deadening effect of mechanical reproduction and enlargement undermined the expression of artistic personality, while the development of artificial stone that could be cast and worked easily. such as Coade stone, meant that even large-scale stone sculpture could be treated as a commodity for mass production.
John Gibson (1791-1866), who was discovered by the Liverpool connoisseur William Roscoe, tried to preserve into the second half of the century the integrity of neoclassicism that he had learned from his masters Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and Bertel Thorwaldsen (1868-1944) but he succeeded only by working for most of his life in Rome. The severity of his work is tempered by a close study of the human body, but the work of the American Hiram Powers (1805-73) shows a striving after purity of form that all too frequently becomes merely insipid. The classicists of the nineteenth century should not, however, be seen only as retardataire in style; they preserved the ideal of purity of form that was to flower again in the work of Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) and Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), who sought, at the end of the century, an alternative to the 'beefsteak' art of Rodin. (Note: For details of the earlier era of Neoclassicism, see: Neo-Classical Sculptors.) Alfred Stevens was the only sculptor before Sir Alfred Gilbert to possess the gifts that might have brought English sculpture out of its provincialism. but his career was one of perpetual frustration and only his powerful maquettes give a true idea of his Michelangelesque qualities and ambitions. See also: American Sculptors.
We now come to the most outstanding plastic artist of the nineteenth-century, and the greatest sculptor since Mannerism, if not before: Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).
See also 20th Century Sculptors.
For a list of the world's best ever
stone/wood-carvers, see: Greatest Sculptors.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCULPTURE