Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886), the Amazon of Sculpture

Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne, from 16 February to 19 May 2013.
Paris, Musée d’Orsay, from 10 June to 15 September 2013.

1. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Cast by Jean-Honoré Gonon (1780-1850)
Lamp of the Archangel Saint Michael, 1832
Patinated, Gilted, Silvered
and Painted Bronze, Glass, Lapis
90 x 34 x 3.6 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée d’Orsay/P. Schmidt

We have already spoken on two occasions about the exhibition at the Historial de Vendée on Félicie de Fauveau (here and here), one of the best French sculptors of the 19th century [1]. Everyone knows how cinema has helped to make Camille Claudel, another great woman sculptor of that era, a familiar figure. There is no denying that Félicie’s adventurous life would make for a fascinating film bringing her fame, given an exceptional talent, beyond just the restrained circle of today’s connaisseurs. However, we fear that her battles might not be considered very politically correct in our current context as she was entirely devoted to the royalist cause, even participating in an active manner in the revolt of 1832 which was supposed to place the young Duke of Bordeaux on the French throne, in order to replace Louis-Philippe.

Regardless of political loyalties, the exhibition in Vendée is remarkable in every way. First of all, the museum setting was superbly carried out by the establishment director and curator of the show, Christophe Vital. Visitors can walk around the free-standing statues to admire them from every possible angle and the mauve coloured walls provide a harmonious backdrop to the marbles and bronzes. We hope that the Musée d’Orsay which, despite the chronology (due to her dates, the artist falls within the bounds of the Louvre), will soon present this retrospective, will know how to enhance Félicie’s works just as successfully [2].
It is important to note that Félicie de Fauveau is truly an artist of the highest caliber, in no way inferior to the best Romantic sculptors some of whom recently enjoyed monographic exhibitions, such as Triqueti and Rude (see article, in French].

Her political commitments however make her something of an exception among the sculptors of her time, most of them having rallied the cause of Louis-Philippe, as the Orleans family was often a generous patron.
This was not the case for Félicie who, after the attempted coup d’état, chose to exile herself in Florence where she spent the rest of her life, producing portraits of monarchists, religious works and creating extravagant art objects (like the Saint Michael lamp -ill. 1 - recently acquired by the Louvre and which stands out in the exhibition here), though she never forgot her native Vendée.
In fact, this particular aspect of her life and work is the focus of the publication prepared by the Historial. It includes essays on the subject along with a simple list of the objects displayed. The Musée d’Orsay was in charge of the more general monograph which accompanies the show and, unfortunately, we find the same flaws as in most of the works it has published recently : a total lack of entries, the catalogue itself (if we can call it that) consisting in fact of a picture album of the works on view. Luckily, this second publication offers a great number of very instructive essays which in part makes up for this shortcoming - but not entirely [3].

2. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Self-portrait with Greyhound, 1846
Potsdam, Stiftung Preussische
Schlösser undd Gärten
Photo : D. Lindner

3. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Bust Portrait of the Marquise de Boccella, 1851
Private Collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

The visit begins with a marble Self-portrait of the artist accompanied by her dog (ill. 2). Those not familiar with Félicie’s physical appearance (also found in a charcoal drawing recently acquired by the Historial), may be seriously disappointed after picturing her perhaps, as we certainly did, that she was a diaphanous young woman, blending the qualities of Joan of Arc and those of Marie d’Orleans. This is not the case in no uncertain terms : Félicie Fauveau was a stocky matron, not the least bit feminine and far from the Romantic heroine we had imagined.
Her art, however, is a delicate thing. We don’t know which to admire the most : her finely chiselled bronzes of which one of the most beautiful examples, besides the lamp mentioned earlier, is the splendid Hausse-col for the duchesse de Berry recently acquired by the Historial, or her marble portraits (she only produced fifteen) which she executed mostly after arriving in Florence (ill. 3) and which clearly show a strong Italian Renaissance influence, while also revealing, as pointed out in the catalogue, a very pronounced Medieval taste for attributes which identify the model ("The portrait, in Félicie’s work, can be read as much as looked at."). The most original element in her pieces comes no doubt from the frame surrounding them, at times representing a shell, at others a roll of leather, or even an architectural structure.

4. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Holy Water Font of Saint Louis, c.1840
Marble, Gold and Colors Heightenings
Firenze, Palazzo Pitti
Photo : A. Quattrone, Firenze

5. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Christ on the Cross, 1857
Private Collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

6. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Christ on the Cross, detail, 1857
Private Collection
Photo : Adrien Goetz

Architectural forms also make frequent appearances in Félicie Fauveau’s religious works. The exhibition shows several examples of holy water fonts (ill. 4), where a sculpture in very high relief stands out against a sculpted architectural frame, here again inspired by both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
But the most beautiful work is no doubt her Christ on the Cross (ill.5), a wooden sculpture held in a private chapel. This Christ not only suffered from being crucified, he also presents other "stigmata", a considerable number of worm holes (ill. 6) showing the kind of conditions it had been kept in (or still is). We have rarely encountered such a moving sculpture. Threatened with permanent damage, then rescued thanks to the restoration carried out for the exhibition, it is also the symbol of all the unknown masterpieces which sometimes disappear amid general indifference but which art history often helps in saving.

7. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Angels, 1857
Pencil with Watercolor Heigtenings
Ecosse, The Earl of Crawford and Balcarres
Photo : National Library of Scotland

8. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Christ on the Cross, detail, 1857
Private Collection
Photo : Adrien Goetz

We should also note that the three angels appearing in the upper three extremeties of the cross were prepared in beautiful drawings (ill. 7 and 8) found in an important album residing in Scotland as Félicie de Fauveau worked for Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Crawford.

9. Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886)
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, 1846
Saint-Pétersbourg, Musée-réserve d’État de Peterhof
Photo : D. R.

Another fascinating piece (the exhibition is so beautiful that we would like to talk about everything in it) is the large, free-standing sculpture representing Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (ill.9) and a project for a fountain indicating the work is by Félicie and Hippolyte de Fauveau. Thus we also learn that her brother helped in executing many works, even sculpting the marble as an assistant, explaining the reason for this double attribution also found for a portrait.

The exhibition ends with fragments of a sculpted frame, the remains of the one for The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche which we know had been damaged (see here) and thought to be lost due to a flood. The painting survived but not the frame, alas. The work was commissioned by Count Anatole Demidoff for whom Félicie de Fauveau produced an entire decor for his home in San Donato, including a monumental fireplace. almost everything has disappeared but art enthusiasts can travel to London to see the Wallace Collection and look at the large Paolo and Francesca by Ary Schaffer which still has its frame designed by Félicie but could not make it to the exhibition as it is never lent together with the painting. No matter : the works on view at the Historial, and in a few weeks at Orsay, are cause enough to rejoice.

Curators : Guy Cogeval and Christophe Vital (general curator), Sylvain Bellenger and Jacques de Caso (scholarly curators).

Collective work, Félicie de Fauveau et la Vendée, Somogy Editions d’Art, 2013, 80 p., 15€. ISBN : 9782070140084.

Under supervision of Sylvain Bellenger and Jacques de Caso, Félicie de Fauveau, l’amazone de la sculpture, Gallimard, 2013, 256 p., 45 €. ISBN : 9782070140084.

Visitor information : Historial de la Vendée, 85170 Les Lucs-sue-Boulogne. Tel : +33 (0)2 51 47 61 61. Open every day except Monday from 10 am to 7 pm. admission : 8€ (full price), 5€ (reduced rate).

Version française

Didier Rykner, mercredi 8 mai 2013


[1] We refuse to use the term "sculptress".

[2] We should point out, however, that the Historial de Vendée juxtaposes the works by Félicie de Fauveau with those of Romantic sculptors, which will not be the case in Paris.

[3] As we only saw the proofs, without the appendices, we do not know if these will be complete or not. Neither of the catalogues give the measurements of the works, a very surprising fact (we can therefore not provide them for our readers in the legends here).

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Exhibitions : Signac, the Colors of Water

Next article in Exhibitions : Strokes of Genius