David D’Angers: Making the Modern Monument at The Frick Collection

La Douleur (1811), Plâtre de David d'Angers

How many people know that Pierre-Jean David D’Angers, a French romantic sculptor of the 19th century, created the magnificent bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C.?

For that matter, how many people know any of his glorious work, which includes 50 full-size statues, 150 busts and over 500 portrait medallions of his period’s major European literary, political and artistic figures as well as those of his children? No doubt very few.  That should change with the Frick Collection’s illuminating exhibition, “David D’Angers: Making the Modern Monument,” which runs from September 17- December 8.

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Organized by guest curator Emerson Bowyer, the show includes 48 works in plaster, terracotta, wax, marble and bronze and features bronze portrait medallions of writers Alexandre Dumas and Alfred de Musset, painters Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Antoine-Dominique Ingres and Francois-Marius Granet, and rare 19th century reproductions of his work in photographs and engravings – certainly more than enough examples of his artistry to lift him from obscurity to his proper place as one the most important sculptors of the early 19th century, a man Victor Hugo hailed as the Michelangelo of Paris. Most of his works have been collected by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Angers or are on public view in France, such as his marble “Wounded Philopoemen” in the Louvre and sculptures for seven tombs at Père Lachaise cemetery, including a bronze bust of the writer, Honoré de Balzac.

“David has never been properly celebrated for his powerful and inventive works,” says Bowyer. “I discovered him through his medallions, many of them collected by American collectors in New York and Atlanta. They have believed in his work for many years, never knowing whether or not his true stature would be recognized.” When Bowyer talks of David, he speaks of him affectionately. “He was a character, a really good guy,” he says. “He helped his friends and wanted his work to make a difference outside of the art world.”

Born in 1788 and the son of a wood carver and ornamental sculptor, David left his hometown of Angers in his teens to study in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. He changed his name to David d’Angers after working in the studio of the painter, Jacques-Louis David, to set himself a part and to honor his birthplace.  In 1811, at only 23, he won the Prix de Rome, for his bust “La Douleur,” Breaking from tradition, he carved a figure that combined elements of ideal classical beauty with the reality of the human body, a style that he pursued his entire career and a break from the popular idealization that characterized portrait sculptures. After five years in Rome, where he studied with the sculptor Antonio Canova, he returned to Paris, committed to glorifying human grandeur to inspire the public.

In part, he was driven by his political beliefs. At only five, his father took him to war where he saw the horrors human beings inflicted on another. This may have stirred his strong left leaning, anti-monarchy views, and moved him to seek political office as mayor of his Parisian arrondissement.  He expressed his political views through his art as well. On his pediment for the Pantheon, the allegorical figure of Patria sits at the center, handing to Liberté the crowns to be awarded to the great men. Opposite her, Histoire notes in the book of history the names of those that are distinguished. Whereas David gives individual features to numerous key liberals, representing French culture and intellectual history, such as philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he provides none for French military figures, except for Napoleon Bonaparte.  The pediment so infuriated the government that a tarpaulin was placed over it for the first six months that it was in place. Unfortunately, the criticism of his politics eclipsed the attention paid to his strikingly innovative figures.

Now, David can be appreciated simply for his art. “My hope,” says Bowyer, “ is that this exhibition serves as a good introduction to the American people of this great artist and inspires them to seek out his work.”