‘David d’Angers: Making The Modern Monument’ At The Frick Collection

Photo: Michael Bodycomb

In 1816, d’Angers received his first major state commission, which was for a statue memorializing the Seventeenth Century French general known as the Grand Condé (1621–1683). As he did repeatedly in his career, d’Angers defied tradition to create a dynamic work capturing the general, coiled like a snake ready to strike, about to throw his baton at the enemy and charge his troops, 1817; bronze, 14 by 6 7/8 by 5½ inches. Private collection.

NEW YORK CITY — Pierre-Jean David d’Angers was among the leading sculptors of the Nineteenth Century, yet is little known in America today. The Frick Collection’s new exhibition, “David d’Angers: Making The Modern Monument,” on view through December 8, aims to rectify that. It is the first major exhibition on the artist in the United States.

A prolific sculptor who Victor Hugo dubbed the “Michelangelo of Paris,” d’Angers (1788–1856) created some of the most ambitious public monuments of the Romantic era, gracing Paris streets and cemeteries. He literally changed the face of public sculpture, decrying the many mythological nudes that had prevailed in his time, with his monuments to illustrious figures of the present.

This exhibition includes about 45 works by d’Angers on paper and in wax, terracotta, marble, bronze and plaster, as well as rare Nineteenth Century reproductions of his work in photographs and engravings. Many of the works have never been exhibited before, with key loans coming mostly from North American collections.

“He thought art was an important way of engaging the public and monuments were the place to do that because they were such great public structures that would be seen by many, many people,” explained guest curator Emerson Bowyer, who has studied d’Angers for three to four years. As part of a fellowship with the Frick, the idea was to put together a small exhibition. Over the last two years as Bowyer developed this exhibition, it grew into much more and is quite a significant undertaking.

The artist was prolific, and this exhibition, while not overwhelming in size, ably surveys the depth and scope of his body of work. Fittingly, d’Angers’s early “tête d’expression” bust “La Douleur” (1811, Roberta J.M. Olson and Alexander B.V. Johnson) is the first piece seen when walking into the Frick’s Lower Gallery, and it sets the tone for the whole exhibition.

The bust won top prize in the École des Beaux-Arts’ 1811 expressive head competition in Paris. The work exemplifies a technique that was employed in nearly all his works. Despising the “nullity” of classic sculpture popular from ancient times, which seemed to lack any life, d’Angers excelled at blending idealized classicism with the challenges posed by a fleshy, living body. He always preferred to make the initial sketch from life, and, indeed, his exacting study of facial features is what makes his works so lifelike.

“La Douleur” blends classical sculptural types with a detailed study of a posed, fashionably side-whiskered model. One of two casts made during his lifetime, the work retains the raised seams from its original molds, ensuring modern audiences of the plaster’s authenticity. In this work, the artist uses more than the face to convey pain and raw emotion; the neck and shoulders are also constricted in pain, adding to the sculpture’s powerful effect.

Covering some 50 years of d’Angers’s career, the exhibition ends with some of the last portrait medallions he created, including his depiction of French painter Rosa Bonheur in 1854.

The themes of homage, celebrity and the changing face of public monuments are explored through the wonderful medals, portrait busts, bas-reliefs and statuettes that are brought together in the exhibition and details his quest to modernize public sculpture.

An ardent Republican and outspoken politician as well as artist, teacher and writer, d’Angers was no stranger to controversy and not just for his works that dared to defy the conventions of sculpture tradition. Near the end of his life, in 1851, he was arrested and exiled after opposing Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’état. He traveled extensively through Greece, the Ottoman Empire and Italy before returning to France in 1853.

One of the first works by d’Angers that made its way into an American collection was a privately commissioned portrait depicting the wife of Captain Henry Robinson (1782–1866), who operated a shipping firm between New York and Le Havre. The artist rarely did busts of women, and none exemplify the same expressive intellect of their male counterparts. This bust is as cool and reserved as the marble from which it is carved. D’Angers relished the depiction of hair, and Robinson’s up-to-date coiffure makes quite an architectural statement.

He is widely familiar for his gallery of “great men,” which he immortalized through the hundreds of portrait medallions (bronze and marble) for which he is well-known. These works, which were nearly always noncommissioned, were well collected. Critic Alphonse Esquiros wrote that a medal “has the advantage of being a monument in circulation, and puts an idea in everyone’s hands.”

In encyclopedic fashion, d’Angers sketched fellow artists, writers, scientists, politicians and celebrities living in France and all over Europe. Seeing his role as a historian to capture his time period for posterity, he celebrated such “celebrities” as Hugo, Delacroix, Balzac, Dupre, Herold, Ingres and Caspar Friedrich. “I pursue always my gallery of great men,” wrote d’Angers in 1830–31. “One sees me, running with my little slate, as if I were going to meet immortality.”

Except in rare cases, his medallions show the figure in profile, a standard composition that dates back to ancient coins. While profile views carry a sense of stillness and linearity, the high relief and expressive surfaces of d’Angers’s medallions produce complex and shifting light effects. These effects are heightened in examples such as “Alfred de Musset,” where the figure is caught in a three-quarter view. Often exaggerated facial features convey something about the sitter, such as de Musset’s bulging forehead in the medallion to illustrate his great intellect. His wavy hair also seems to take on a life of its own in this view, surging forward as the tides do.

In his 1845, double-sided medal “Four Sergeants,” d’Angers commemorated Republican martyrs known as the Four Sergeants of La Rochelle. Some 20 years earlier, he had sketched their images while the men were in prison before they were executed in 1822. The Frick shows together separate bronze casts of both sides of the model, along with a drawing after the former.

A departure from the artist’s lofty images of “great men,” two charming medallions depict d’Angers’s children, Robert and Hélène. The portraits record the babies’ chubby and dimpled flesh. Each child wears a coral necklace, an item considered since antiquity to protect against evil. In the Nineteenth Century, such necklaces were often given as christening gifts. Symbolic as well as allegorical in nature, the portraits show Hélène sniffing a narcissus flower and Robert sucking his thumb, both speaking to the senses of taste and smell and a child’s first uncensored interaction with the world,

D’Angers usually used wax to produce the models for his bronze portrait medallions and the exhibition has several fine examples, which are noteworthy as few survive today. The vivid and richly hued red wax he used contrasted wonderfully with the green-bluish slate he obtained from Angers’ quarries on which he created the wax models for his medallions. The surviving examples seen here look as fresh as the day they were made, still retaining the impressions of the artist’s fingertips, with both subtle modeling and bold carving.

His interest in portraiture was in keeping with the sudden interest in that genre in the early Nineteenth Century, and d’Angers was indeed a prolific portraitist.

Among his finest bronzes is a small bronze reduction of his larger marble statue, “Philopoemen” (Musée du Louvre, Paris), depicting the ancient Greek warrior Philopoemen returning to battle despite immense physical pain. He captures the warrior pulling a javelin from his thigh and returning to battle. In both the preliminary terracotta model (also on view), with its dramatic upward sweep, and the finished composition, d’Angers has chosen to give prominence to Philopoemen’s pain over his bravery, which made this an unusual sculpture for Nineteenth Century audiences.

A similar subject matter is explored in the 1817 bronze statuette for “The Grand Condé,” which shows the Seventeenth Century French general (1621–1683) in ornate period garb, dramatically depicted in battle. In his first major state commission for a massive marble of “The Grand Condé” (destroyed in World War II), d’Angers defied the typical neoclassical statues that most often portray a subject at rest and nude. Instead, the figure here is coiled as if about to hurl his commander’s baton at the enemy, a signal to his troops to surge forward. The statuette is one of two known bronze statuettes of the Condé.

Nineteenth Century art students often copied a full-length ancient marble statue, “Apollo Belvedere,” (Vatican Museums, Rome), which symbolized ideal beauty. Among the works that best show d’Angers’s breaking away from tradition is his 1834 drawing of this work, where he only sketches a female rendition, her head, laying on its side, as if a broken, discarded artifact or a death mask. Much like how d’Angers eschewed ancient beauty in favor of modern monuments, his “Apollo” was fittingly dedicated to French zoologist Georges Cuvier, who used fossils to develop his theories of animal life.

The Frick Collection is at 1 East 70th Street. For further information, www.frick.org or 212-288-0700.

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