David d'Angers and the Making of the Modern Monument

by Meredith Bergmann

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed…”

Shelley wrote “Ozymandias” in 1817, after an evening’s discussion of Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt and the subsequent archaeological finds, which were vast in scale, but eroded, shattered or buried. In the sonnet, the sculptor of the ruined statue survives within the poem by having so skillfully “read” and “mocked” the ruler’s passions. Indeed, the sculptor’s work, the colossal statue, can still be “looked on,” even though it is in fragments, whereas the “works” of the great Ozymandias have vanished.

Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856) was one of the greatest French sculptors of the nineteenth century and a prolific maker of monuments and memorials. He had a heart that fed his portrayals of great individuals and made them vividly alive, impassioned and politically persuasive. He was born in Angers, two hundred miles from Paris. His father was an ornamental wood-carver who had fought in the volunteer Republican army and was, in 1793, one of the prisoners spared by the dying wish of the Royalist general Charles de Bonchamps, to whom David would later sculpt a monument depicting that moment of clemency. At 20, David made his way to Paris and enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he advanced rapidly and won prizes, including a fellowship from his native city, for which he would show much gratitude.

La Douleur, 1811 (Plaster), Collection Roberta J.M. Olson and Alexander B.V. Johnson

He lived through complex, idealistic and fervent times and was himself politically active and deeply idealistic. David d’Angers made portraits of men, and some women, that he admired, refusing commissions for portraits of those whom he felt were not worthy of a monument. His most important commission, in 1830, was for the pediment sculptures for Paris’s Pantheon. His sculpted figures gather above the inscription “Aux Grands hommes, la Patrie reconnaissante,” and his choice of which great men to immortalize was the subject of debate and censure. David believed that art could change the way people thought and therefore behaved, and that it was essential to make public art that bridged the past and future. This sculptor, whom Victor Hugo called “the Michelangelo of Paris,” wrote that he wanted to make the features of a man of genius live for 4,000 years after his death.

At the Frick Collection this fall, “David d’Angers: Making the Modern Monuement” (September 17–December 8, 2013), the first major exhibition of his work outside France, made the case for the revival of his own fame. The exhibition, guest-curated by Emerson Boyer, included forty-eight works by this artist, a small sampling of the work of a man who sculpted dozens of monumental statues, 150 busts and over 500 portrait medallions. The Frick displayed small bronzes, plaster and marble busts, terracotta figurines, wax relief portraits, drawings and rare nineteenth-century books reproducing David’s portrait medallions by engravings or photography—the widest variety of media ever shown together at the Frick. In addition, the Frick has made its excellent lecture series available for online viewing at http://www.frick.org/interact/video, expanding this wonderful array of media into the twenty-first century.

The Grand Condé, 1817 (Bronze), Private Collection

The beautifully illustrated catalogue includes a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay by Boyer covering many aspects of David’s work that could not be shown at the Frick, and a fascinating introduction, by the David scholar Jacques de Caso, to David as a writer. From David’s copious writings de Caso selected an 1849 piece in which he describes a mother with children, victims of the repression of the June uprisings of that year, singing for their supper as

they descend into more abject poverty. Writing with strong feeling and considerable beauty, David contrasts the family group with the statues of protective deities that used to adorn the streets in classical times. David, according to de Caso, “records the human tragedy by means of a literary process that apprehends its reality and simultaneously its symbolism.” David certainly did this in his sculptural process.

To what extent did the Frick exhibition fulfill the mandate of its title by making the case for David’s invention of the modern monument? For Boyer, David’s “theoretical and aesthetic innovations greatly contributed to our modern obsessions with memory and celebrity, and provide a timely reminder of the possibilities for politically engaged artistic practice in the twenty-first century.”

Boyer raised the standard questions which bedevil monumental practice today in his own evening lecture (available on the Frick’s website) “What is a monument, and what is its relevance today? How does it engage with problems of duration, materiality, community and both political and social practice? What information does a monument convey, and by what means? Who is addressed by a monument?” These are important questions for a public artist working today, but the exhibit did not really deal with them, perhaps because they were not questions for which David d’Angers, or any artist of his era, lacked answers. Their struggle was to bend a functioning set of symbols to revolutionary and republican ends, for a public that could still decipher them.

The modernity of David’s oeuvre is two-fold: first, as an exemplar of the rise of private citizens: the nation’s grands hommes of battle, politics, science, and the arts and letters, whose monuments replaced the statues of monarchs; and second, in his obsession with his own fame and its longevity. In his age of revolutions and restorations, reputations were transient, and loyalty to the past could be lethal. Yet David might have been surprised to see how ignorant or dismissive of his work we have become.

When David won the Prix de Rome in 1811, he spent the next four years studying in Italy. He worked with the famous neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, whose studio was crammed with plaster versions of his sculptures. There, David (then 23 years old) may have begun to hanker for a museum of his own. He would eventually send plaster or bronze copies of all his sculptures back home to Angers, and would change his name to honor that city—and to distinguish himself from the famous painter David. A gallery full of David d’Angers’s work opened in 1839 within the museum of fine arts in Angers, the first permanent institutional gallery devoted to the work of a living artist.

The Frick’s exhibition, though necessarily incomplete, was remarkably successful as a twenty-first-century memorial to David. The physical exhibit itself sat at the center of an expandable web from which one could choose and follow one’s thread through the huge galleries of history and imagery available now via the Internet. The exhibition, catalogue and lectures were a departure point. Many more people may now choose to make a trip to Angers to see David’s full-scale plasters.

The Frick exhibition, in the subterranean gallery, was small relative to David’s colossal body of work. A highlight of the exhibit was one small bronze which David designed specifically for statuette scale: a foot-high seated portrait figure, done from life, of the German Romantic poet and translator Ludwig Tieck. In this lively piece, all the volumes are satisfying. Tieck fills his chair but hardly rests in it, posed in a kind of sedentary serpentina. He leans on one active arm, its hand raised to literally make a point. In this piece, the limbs are all proportionate to each other at this scale, and the clothing is not overly, painstakingly detailed. Not only Tieck’s hair but his lapels, sinuous neckcloth and the folds of his coat, sleeves and pants are rhythmic and expressive of his energy, without overwhelming his form.

The statuette of Tieck is a contrast to the small-scale bronze reductions of David’s actual monuments, which could be represented at the Frick only by these small bronzes. Some of these statuettes were disappointing as sculptures in their own right. Boyer insists that “…at the Frick, this intimacy draws us into David’s definition of a monument. To David, a monument was large not by virtue of its physical size, but because its relation to history and its contribution to posterity were profound and encompassing.” But brave though this rationalization is, there were issues of scale that the exhibit could not resolve.

One of the few full-scale full-round pieces in the exhibition is David’s early bust La Douleur from 1811, made for the École des Beaux-Arts competition in the category of tête d’expression. Its beauty and power derive from David’s stud-ies of both classical precedents like the Laocoön and dissected cadavers. The whole bust, not just its face, is expressive to an extent that it suggests an entire struggling figure extending invisibly beyond the arbitrary rectangular cropping of the chest. It was displayed above eye level, so one could see the underside of the jaw and the active muscles and tendons of the neck and shoulders, which vividly convey a sense of physical and symbolic pain, of psychological, even political urgency. The fillet around the young man’s head and his long, antique locks in back seem in contrast with his fashionable side whiskers, but these latter accentuate the hollows of the cheeks and the compressive force of the head’s turning. Hair, so treasured as a memento in the nineteenth century and always so indicative of fashion, was also, for this era, an important symbol of thought and passions.

According to scholar Dorothy Johnson, David believed in a universal visual language of signs and symbols. He made expressive use of physique, pose, scale, distortion, costume and particularly gesture. Thus, not only the hair, but the shape of the skull, particularly the forehead, conveyed a sitter’s character and mentality. David studied the faux-science of phrenology and exaggerated the size of some of his sitters’ foreheads, to an almost grotesque extent, to suggest the vastness of their thoughts. (He himself, as shown in a late photograph, had a large head with a broad, high forehead.) In his relief portraits, there is less distortion—they are in a different register from his busts. Portraying his subjects in profile meant showing them not as passively sitting for their portraits but as they appeared engaged in life, relating to others. He wrote: “The profile is in relation to other beings; it will shun you, it doesn’t see you. The full face shows you many traits and is more difficult to analyze. The profile is unity.”

David’s medallions functioned as a kind of private Pantheon; mobile monuments based on but, at about six inches, larger than Renaissance portrait medallions. Renaissance medallions, inspired by ancient coins, usually had allegorical scenes on their backs. David’s were single-sided, designed for dis-play rather than handling, but they must have been wonderful to handle. That they are described by Boyer as having been ”coveted,” “hoarded” and “pirated” emphasizes their resemblance to coins. They were wildly popular, and David did not control their production but let his foundries profit from their distribution. None were commissioned. David’s name, however, was inscribed on each in letters as large as the name of the sitter. David, whose ambition seems to have coexisted with a sense of the absurd, told of visiting a friend and feeling “a violent blow to the ankle… It was, would you believe, my great men in bronze, rolling through the corridors like shuffleboard pucks, down the stairs four at a time, to the delight of the little children. I have also seen a model housewife grate sugar with these unfortunate profiles, choosing for this purpose those with the most hooked noses….”

Of the over twenty beautifully sculpted portrait medallions at the Frick, few were of women. David’s allegiance to an idealized prettiness in women seemed at first glance to have drained his medallion of Rosa Bonheur of energy.

Pierre-René Choudieu, 1832 (Wax on slate), Collection Dr. Stephen K. and Kanie Woo Scher

But he sculpted brilliantly in relief, and if a viewer moved even slightly, the shift of light caught the subtle planes of Bonheur’s forehead and the raising of her brow, revealing the cool, intelligent scrutiny of her gaze.

David understood our need to hold and keep tokens of our ideals like miniature memorials. His 1840 figure of Liberty is no colossus, like the one by Bartholdi that the French gave to America, but a small bronze, which he hoped would be reproduced cheaply in plaster, so every household might display one. Liberty, he wrote, “is a saint who well deserves the most fervent cult.”

One remarkably personal object, unique in David’s oeuvre, was a christening cup for his son’s baptism. Shown at the Frick in three states, from an 1835 wax sketch to an 1854 bronze (making this one of his last works), it is encrusted with allegorical bas-reliefs depicting Four Ages of Childhood, with winged putti dancing around the goblet’s stem. Beginning and ending the cycle with an infant suckling, the scenes depict a process of growth from the natural family to the national one. An eager toddler learns to feed itself from a bunch of grapes held up by Mother Nature, a child seeks intellectual nourishment by learning, with maternal help, to read, and then the child stands accepting a sword and book from Patria, his civic mother, while another figure nestles at her feet, writing on a tablet. For David, the personal and the political were to be fused from birth.

In an 1835 pencil sketch for the christening cup, David drew, on one side, the figure of Patria on a pedestal turned facing us, welcoming children with open arms. This is the same figure he had sculpted for his great 1830 com-mission for the pediment of the Pantheon. There, Patria stands at the center with Liberty seated to her right handing her wreaths to be awarded to great men, while History, seated to her left, records their names in her book. Around them cluster the grands hommes, and in the pediment’s corners, students work diligently at their writing and drawing.

The Frick exhibit set the Pantheon pediment in context in a brilliant lecture by the architectural historian Barry Bergdoll. The lecture on David’s monumental commissions of the 1820s and 1830s, entitled “d’Angers and the Architectural Stakes of Romantic History” is available on the Frick’s web-site. The Parisian Pantheon was so potent a site for political symbolism that David’s was the fourth pediment to be sculpted in less than fifty years. David discussed its iconography with the writer and politician Hippolyte Fourtoul, who described the site in terms of portraiture and phrenology: “The pediment was the veritable forehead of the building, just as the forehead is, on the face of a man, where one reads his thoughts. The thought that directs him, the sentiment which animates his being, so on the front of a temple one should be able to read the soul that animates its life.” So David, having Patria and her children prominently on his mind, imagined placing her, with his christening cup, tenderly into his son’s hands; into his infant, and future, mind.

In 1849, the tumultuous year of the June uprising and its suppression, when David stepped down as mayor of a district of Paris but remained so vocal a republican that he would be arrested and temporarily exiled from France two years later, he wrote: “When time’s destructive breath has wrapped this celebrated Europe in the heavy shroud of ages, a traveler from another hemisphere will come and sit on the ruins of our Nineveh. Stirring up the earth with his walking stick, he will uncover stones bearing the imprint of our magical his-tory. He will see all those virile faces that are so famous from their victories… Wandering away, he will say: Here lies a great nation!” One might look on the works of David d’Angers and say: here lies a great heart. The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021. Telephone (212) 288-0700. frick.org.

American Arts Qurterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1