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Sculpture
(Part 14)




French Sculpture - 18th Century.

In the following century Jean Antoine Houdon (1740-1828), a sculptor of most exceptional power, produced some works of the highest merit at a time when the plastic arts had reached a very low ebb. His standing colossal statue of S. Bruno in S. Maria degli Angeli at Rome is a most noble and stately piece of portraiture, full of commanding dignity and expression. His seated statue of Voltaire in the foyer of the Théâtre Français, though sculpturesque in treatment, is a most striking piece of lifelike realism. Houdon may in fact be regarded as the precursor of the modern school of French sculpture of the better sort. About the middle of the 18th century a revolution was brought about in the style of sculpture by the suddenly revived taste for antique art. A period of dull pseudo-classicism succeeded, which in most cases stifled all original talent and reduced the plastic arts to a lifeless form of archaeology. Regarded even as imitations the works of this period are very unsuccessful : the sculptors got hold merely of the dry bones not of the spirit of classic art ; and their study of the subject was so shallow and unintelligent that they mostly picked out what was third-rate for special admiration and ignored the glorious beauty of the best works of true Hellenic art. Thus in sculpture, as in painting and architecture, a study which might have been stimulating and useful in the highest degree became a serious hindrance to the development of modern art, and this not only in France but in the other countries of Europe ; in France, however, the victories of Napoleon I. and his arrogant pretension to create a Gaulish empire on the model of that of ancient Rome caused the taste for
pseudo-Roman art to be more pronounced than elsewhere. Among the first sculptors of this school were Antoine Chaudet (1763-1810) and Joseph Bosio (1769-1845). The latter was largely employed by Napoleon I.: he executed with some ability the bronze spiral reliefs round the column of the Place Vendôme and the statue of Napoleon on the top, and also modelled the classical quadriga on the triumphal arch in the Place du Carrousel. Jacques Pradier of Geneva (1790-1852) produced the Chained Prometheus of the Louvre and the Niobe group (1822). He possessed great technical ability, but aimed in most of his works at a soft sensuous beauty which is specially unsuited to sculpture. François Rude (1784-1855) worked in a style modelled on Greeco-Roman sculpture treated with some freedom. His bronze Mercury in the Louvre is a clever work, but his statues of Marshal Ney in the Luxembourg Gardens and of General Cavaignac (1847) in the cemetery of Montmartre are conspicuously bad. The reliefs on the pediment of the Panthéon are by Pierre Jean David of Angers (1789-1856); his early works are of dull classic style, but later in life he became a realist and produced the most unsculpturesque results. A bronze statue of a Dancing Fisher-lad modelled by François Joseph Duvet, now in the Luxembourg collection, is an able work of the genre class. Other French sculptors who were highly esteemed in their time were Ottin, Courtet, Simart, Etex, and Carpeaux. The last was an artist of great ability, and produced an immense number of clever but often very offensive statues. He obtained the highest renown in France, and wras a typical example of the sad degradation of taste which prevailed under the rule of Napoleon III.


Footnotes

564-1 See Chesneau, J. B. Carpeaux, sa vie, &c., Paris, 1880.






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