Bronzes français de la Renaissance au Siècle des Lumières

Cast in Bronze : French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution

Paris, Musee du Louvre, from 22 October 2008 to 19 January 2009.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, from 23 February to 24 May 2009.
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, from 30 June to 27 September 2009.

1. Jean Rancy
(activ from 1529 to 1568)
Dame Tholose, 1544
Bronze - H. 143 cm
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins
Photo : D. Rykner

Like the exhibition (we saw it in Paris), of transient quality by its very nature, the catalogue which accompanies this retrospective on 16th to 18th century French bronzes is to be generously commended. It is the result of years of research allowing the detailed study of an extensive number of works in European and American museums. Although this is a collective work, the texts reflect a unity and complementarity which come from careful editing. Containing a wealth of essays, it offers extremely thorough entries for each of the objects on display. However, only a few artists receive detailed biographies. We would have liked to know more about certain sculptors who are little-known such Jean Rancy (ill. 1) or David and Antoine de Chaligny. Illustrations are abundant, with each sculpture reproduced from different angles.
No point is left out, including technical aspects which are so important for an art form which is also an industry : the composition of the bronzes and the respective participation of the sculptors, founders-casters, that is those who pour the metal into the cast, and the founders-engravers who finish the relief after the bronze has cooled off.
Producing a bronze is in fact a collaborative work. Examples of authors who are also founders are rare : Barthélemy Prieur, Corneille van Clève and Antoine Coysevox are some of these complete artists. But even they were assisted in the casting process which cannot be done alone. In two or three cases in fact, the distinction is not clear : thus a mascaron (or grotesque mask) on a door at the Hotel de Ville attributed to Henri Perlan (cat. 54) cannot, in all fairness, be ascribed to the founder who only accomplished a design by a still anonymous sculptor. These problems are all the more complex in those cases where a founder worked for several different sculptors or when a sculptor used different founders.

Using the word bronze is slightly misleading. In a strict sense, this is an alloy of copper and pewter, whereas French bronzes are often made up of brass, a mixture of copper and zinc, or even four-fold alloys adding lead, zinc and pewter (the latter in reduced quantities) to the copper. We shall use the term “bronze”, as all historians have for a long time) in a generic sense. Although most of those exhibited here have undergone chemical tests, we should be wary of interpreting the results, often not enough to allow for definitive conclusions : a similar composition does not mean that both works come from the same workshop, no more than important differences might imply that these come from different sculptors.

2. Pierre Puget (1620-1694)
Perseus and Andromeda, Louvre (Left) and
Abduction of Helen, The Detroit Institute of Art
Exhibition : French Bronzes at the Louvre
Photo : D. Rykner

Given the number of works displayed, the Louvre was forced to present some of them in the Marly et Puget courtyards, mixed in with the permanent collections. This visit, shown by green markers, has its advantages as well as drawbacks. It allows for some productive comparisons – such as the Abduction of Helen by Paris by Pierre Puget (cat. 63) which is displayed alongside the marble Perseus and Andromeda by the same sculptor (ill. 2) – but the eye is drawn every which way during the visit. The viewer ends his tour feeling somewhat exhausted and tends to rush through the works at the end of the show devoted to the second half of the 18th century.

We will limit ourselves here to a selection of a few sculptures which have recently reappeared or are less well-known and point out some interesting connections.
For lack of space at the beginning of the exhibition, the Belvedere Venus (cat. 1) after Antiquity, cast under the supervision of Primatice for Francis I, is in the Marly courtyard. And yet the catalogue starts logically with her, not only for chronological reasons but also to underscore from the start the double influence exerted by Antiquity and Italy in a very important way on French bronzes. A fundamental difference with Italy however is made clear in the first catalogue essay (p. 21) : “unlike Italian Renaissance statuettes, these sculptures cannot be held in the hand”. Except for a few figures by Barthélemy Prieur presented at the beginning of the show, the visitor cannot help but be impressed by the monumental aspect of these bronzes, even when they measure simply tens of centimeters. Here we can once again wonder just how pertinent it is to conserve these bronzes in the Département des Objets d’Art when they are so obviously related to the art of sculpture. It would be more logical to include in the permanent collection, as is the case here, the Funeral Genies from Thou’s tomb (cat. 14 and 15), as well as the figures of Marie de Médicis as Juno and Henri IV as Jupiter, acquired by the Louvre in 1985 (cat. 18 and 19).

3. Barthélemy Prieur (c. 1536-1611)
Neptune and
Three Sea Horses
, 1583
Bronze - 90 x 60 x 51 cm
Melun, Musée Municipal
Photo : D. Rykner

4. Barthélemy Tremblay (c. 1568-1636)
Martin Fréminet, Painter to the King, 1622
Bronze - 47.4 x 47.4 x 24.8 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre/P. Philibert

A Neptune and Three Sea Horses by the same Barthélemy Prieur (ill. 3 ; cat. 16) are the result of a beautiful discovery made recently by Bertrand Jestaz who published it for the first time in 2002 under the correct attribution [1] . This group for a fountain, held at the Musée municipal de Melun and of remarkable quality, is probably the one documented in a commission from 1583 for the sculptor.
Let us also point out two new attributions revealed during this exhibition [2] : a Diana with Deer from Dresden (cat. 43) attributed with some doubt to Guillaume Bertelot and, above all, the bust of Martin Fréminet, painter to the king (ill. 4) thought to be anonymous for a long time or attributed to Hubert Le Sueur, and which is now known without a doubt that it is by Barthélemy Tremblay thanks to the discovery of the contract drawn up for a tomb on which it was located. The bust of Louis XIII from the Louvre (cat. 47) is presented here under Francesco Bordoni’s name to whom it was attributed only a few years ago. As a matter of fact, it now seems surprising that it could have been previously associated with Jean Varin by analogy with his bust of Cardinal de Richelieu (Bibliothèque Mazarine ; cat. 48) when the two works are in fact so different.

5. Pierre Ier Biard (1559-1609)
Fame, 1597
Bronze - 134 x 120 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre/P. Philibert

One of the attractions of the exhibition is the fact that it allows for juxtapositions and comparisons, either of different versions of casts from the same model, or of the definitive work and its model in a different material. For example, the visitor can see, side by side, the bronze group by Gilles Guérin, from the Musée Carnavalet, representing Louis XIV Crushing the Fronde and its clay model, acquired by the Louvre not long ago (cat. 53 a and b).
Among the many objects from private collections, there is notably the Agitated Neptune by Michel Anguier (cat. 5-) which reminds us that this sculptor worked in Rome with Bernini. He is one of the artists best represented in this exhibition (and one of the rare examples receiving a detailed essay).
When entering the Marly courtyard, visitors can see Dame Tholose (ill. 1 ; cat. 3), a figure which used to be on top of the Dupuy column in Toulouse which has very wisely been put on deposit at the Musée des Augustins. This allegory is by Jean Rancy whom we mentioned above and who, like Pierre Biard’s Fame from the Louvre (ill. 5 ; cat. 36) displayed nearby, is inspired directly by Italian Mannerist models, particularly Mercury by Jean de Bologne.

6. Louis Garnier (c. 1638-1728)
Simon Curé (c. 1680-1734)
Augustin Pajou (1730-1809)
The French Parnassus
Bronze - 260 x 235 x 230 cm
Versailles, Musée national du château
et de Trianon
Photo : D. Rykner

But the most extraordinary object, constituting a veritable revelation and which we hope - as implied by the catalogue entry – will not return to the darkness of the reserves, is undoubtedly The French Parnassus (ill. 6 ; cat. 98), which was meant to be the model, designed by Evrard Titon du Tillet, for a monument to the nation’s great men, never completed, which prefigured the projects in the second half of the 18th century and under the July Monarchy celebrating French history. On a large rock, fourteen main figures and twenty-two winged genies appear on three levels, along with numerous medals and phylacteries. Alas, two centuries of unexplained negligence (19th and 20th) inside the Bibliothèque Nationale, then in storage at Versailles, caused the disappearance of many of the attributes on the figures and most of the medallions and phylacteries. The Parnassus is still, even devoid of many of its elements, particularly impressive, and we are happy that once back in Versailles it will be given due honour in the rooms of the Musée de l’Histoire de France.

7. François Lespingola (1644-1705)
Dido on the Funeral Pyre
Bronze - 59.3 x 63 x 42 cm
Dresde, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Skulpturensammlung
Photo : Hans-Peter Klut-Elke Estel

A whole group of bronzes cast at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century can be connected to painting due to the rich compositions and to the fact that they are best seen from one angle and based on their subject. This is the case for the works by Francois Lespingola, who did several scenes from the life of Hercules [3] and a stunning Dido on the Funeral Pyre (ill. 7), those by Philippe Bertrand (Ceres and Triptolemus, cat. 108 and Venus Asking Vulcan for Arms) and certain works by unidentified artists (Pluto Abducting Proserpine in a Chariot – cat. 102, Time Witnesses the Triumph of Honour, Integrity and Prudence over Vice,…). The bronzes of this period, notably those by Philippe Bertrand, are influenced by contemporary Florentine artists such as Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi and Giovanni Battista Foggini.

8. Roger Schabol (founder) from
Martin Van Den Bogaert called
Desjardins (1637-1694)
Louis XIV on Horseback
Bronze not repaired neither chiselled -
52.4 x 37.8 x 18 cm
Copenhague, Statens Museum for Kunst
Photo : Statens Museum for Kunst

9. Martin Van Den
called Desjardins (1637-1694)
Louis XIV on Horseback
Bronze - 44 x 40 x 19.5 cm
Queen of England’s collection
Photo : D. Rykner

In the Puget courtyard visitors will find different reduced replicas of monuments to Louis XIV and Louis XV, most of which were destroyed during the Revolution. Two essays are devoted to them in the catalogue. Unfortunately, the reduced version of the Desjardins equestrian statue from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhaguen (ill. 8 ; cat. 88b), unfinished and still showing all the jets and air-holes, is not exhibited here at the Louvre (it is going to New York and Los Angeles however). This almost surrealistic object enables us to understand how a lost wax bronze is produced, and the work remaining to be done after the metal is cast and turned solid. Another replica (ill. 9 ; cat. 88a) of this sculpture, perfectly finished in this case and of very high quality, is in the Queen of England’s collection. Visitors will notice here that many of the works come from British royal collections, proof of the taste of European sovereigns for French bronzes (a subject covered in one of the essays).
The comparison of two reduced copies of Louis XV by Edme Bouchardon (ill. 10), respectively by Louis-Claude Antoine Vassé and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, illustrates how popular the equestrian monument in the Place Royale (today in the Place de la Concorde) was and how it was widely reproduced in the form of small models by sculptors who were just as prestigious.

10. After Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762)
Louis XV on Horseback
On left, by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (Versailles)
On right, by Louis Claude Antoine Vassé
(Queen of England’s collection)
Bronze - 44 x 40 x 19.5 cm
Exhibition : French Bronzes at the Louvre
Photo : D. Rykner

The exhibition finishes with the second half of the 18th century, with the by then neo-Classical works of Houdon, Boizot and Philippe-Laurent Roland. Of special note is the group Belisarius and his Guide by Antoine-Denis Chaudet (Metropolitan Museum ; cat. 143) which can be related to David, not only for the similarity in subjects with the painting from Lille, but also because the original figure of Belisarius can be found in a drawing by David dedicated to Chaudet. This triumph by Classicism should not overshadow the fact however that a pre-Romantic movement was already starting. A curious bas-relief from the Victoria & Albert Museum (cat. 128), a complicated allegory, is just one example. The fantastic winged figure of Death fleeing on the left recalls some of the contemporary figures by Blake and Fuseli. Although the number of bronzes decreased during the revolutionary period up to the Restoration, the technique flourished again under the July Monarchy thanks to Romantic sculptors. Visitors who would like to continue exploring the world of French bronzes need only walk a bit further to pursue their study among the permanent collections.

Geneviève Bresc-Bautier end Guilhem Scherf (ed.), Cast in Bronze : French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution

Visitor Information The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, New York, 10028-0198. Phone : + (1) 212 535 7710. Open daily except Monday from 9.00 - 17.30, Friday and Saturday through 21.30. Rates (suggested) : $20, $15 (Senior) and $10 (Students).


Version française

Didier Rykner, dimanche 22 février 2009


[1] Bertrand Jestaz, « Un Neptune de bronze de Barthélemy Prieur », Revue de l’Art, n° 136, 2002-2, p. 55-61.

[2] This exhibition has enabled many discoveries. Let us also point out, in the catalogue, the publication of a red chalk drawing, unedited, by Antoine Coysevox in preparation for the Louis XIV equestrian monument in Rennes (held at the BnF, reproduced on p. 308)..

[3] We would like to point out a slight mistake in the entry for Hercules Strangling the Serpent Sent by Juno by Lespingola : Hercules is killing two serpents, not just one. The attribution to Lespingola, widely accepted, was confirmed thanks to the exhibition which allowed the comparison with the group of Dido on the Funeral Pyre. The Louvre acquired a version of Hercules and Hydra by Lerne, not presented in the catalogue, in 2008 after the catalogue was finished, through “dation” or payment in kind ; the base was cast in sand whereas the group itself was done in lost wax, being of somewhat lesser quality

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