David d’Angers, the Faces of Romanticism

Paris, Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Richelieu site, from 22 November 2011 to 25 March 2012.

1. Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788-1856)
Albert de Luynes, 1840
Plaster - D. 17 cm
Paris, Cabinet des médailles
Photo : BnF

In 1844, the Cabinet des médailles received David d’Angers’ donation of the entire set of original plaster casts for his medallions, which then joined the collections permanently after his death in 1856. These works, invaluable steps in the creative process, represented a facet of 19th century plaster sculpture which fell victim to 20th century disinterest, until the late 70’s, and resulted in a wave of destruction, all the more incredible as it happened in museums. Nor could one even legitimately claim a lack of space, in many cases the purported pretext for what was in fact an act of vandalism.
The plaster medallions at the Bibliothèque nationale, although not entirely forgotten [1] were progressively set aside then relegated to the attic, resulting in partial destruction. Recently rediscovered by Inès Villela-Petit qnd Thierry Laugée, there now remain barely 150 of the initial 358...

2. Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788-1856)
Jules Michelet, 1834
Plaster - D. 15.3 cm
Paris, Cabinet des médailles
Photo : BnF

The exhibition organized until 25 March 2012 by the Cabinet des Médailles presents 45 of these objects (ill. 1 and 2) accompanied by some casts with the same provenance (ill. 3), as well as 62 bronzes (ill. 4) which were formerly part of the Achille Devéria collection. These restored plaster casts, as explained in the catalogue, reveal an extremely fine quality of execution as they are the first copies directly produced, via a plaster mold, of David d’Angers’ wax models. They then served to make a new mold which was used to create the "chef-modèle" or pattern in bronze for the execution of the final medallions by the founder. A wax model representing Jean-Baptiste Kleber was recently donated to the Cabinet des Médailles (see news item of 31/12/11).
The presentation of the exhibition is very understated with the sculptures shown in the display windows located on the museum’s mezzanine. Some medallions appear in all three forms : the mold, the plaster cast and the bronze.

3. Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788-1856)
Augustin Dupré, 1833
Oiled plaster cast - D. 18.5 cm
Paris, Cabinet des médailles
Photo : BnF

4. Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788-1856)
Augustin Dupré, 1833
Bronze - D. 17.2 cm
Paris, Cabinet des médailles
Photo : BnF

Although the exhibition staging is thus reduced to its most simple expression, and in any case perfectly adequate for the enhancement of the works here, the catalogue on the other hand is a fine achievement, and to our knowledge the most complete publication available until now on David d’Angers’ medallions. Each of the objects on display is accompanied by an excellent entry explaining the artist’s ties with the figure portrayed as well as the conditions in which the medallion was executed. We would regret only (besides the lack of index and, even more puzzling, that of a bibliography) that the question of the different founders is not looked at further.
There is also a useful inventory of existing medallions in an appendix. However, this catalogue is not a substitute for an exhaustive catalogue raisonné which has still not been written. Such a work would enable us, for example, to determine the different founders behind each model.

What will happen to the Cabinet des Médailles ? The BnF project for it, insofar as we know, has not changed (see article in French). David d’Angers had donated his works so that they could be shown to the public on a permanent basis, not just occasionally during a temporary exhibition [2] The committee directed by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing for the Hôtel de la Marine referred directly to the Cabinet des Médailles as a possible inclusion in the collections for the building at the Place de la Concorde (see news item of 12/7/11 in French). This would probably be the perfect solution for it, since the BnF wishes to transform this museum into a "Gallery of Treasures", automatically excluding David d’Angers’ medallions along with thousands of other objects.
Finally, there are also some extremely pessimistic rumors circulating, alas, about the staircase leading to the Cabinet, with a demoliiton project still planned, contrary to what had appeared to be decided (see news item of 22/4/10 in French). We will speak about this affair again soon.

Curators : Inès Villela-Petit and Thierry Laugée

Thierry Laugée and Inès Villela-Petit, David d’Angers, les visages du romantisme, Editions Gourcuff-Gradenigo, 2011, 180 p., 29 euros. ISBN : 978-2-35340-113-0.

Visitor information : Cabinet des médailles, BnF Richelieu, 5 rue Vivienne, 75002 Paris. Tel : +33 (0)1 53 79 37 29. Open Monday to Friday from 1 pm to 5.45 pm, on Saturday from 1 pm to 4.45 pm and on Sunday from 12 noon to 7 pm. Free entrance.

Didier Rykner, mardi 10 janvier 2012


[1] In 1990, in the catalogue for the exhibition Aux grands hommes, David d’Angers, Fondation de Coubertin, Viviane Huchard wrote (p. 68) : "Mrs. David donated, in April 1856, all of her husband’s plaster medallions (many have disappeared since)".

[2] As evidenced in a letter written to the artist by Joseph Naudet, Director of the Bibliothèque royale (quoted in the catalogue p. 8, note 17).

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