National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 24, 1974

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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A Clodian statuette in The National Gallery of Canada

by Terence Hodgkinson

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2    

The nostalgia of the Clodion world - "an enchanted eternally youthful family moving among the scattered grapes, coming as if from some vendange, sated with autumnal fullness" - has been well described by Michael Levey; (1) and the mood of all the Clodion terracottas, it must be admitted, is much the same. Perhaps partly for this reason they receive little individual attention from scholars, and no attempt to classify them has ever been published. Yet many are strongly characterised and display formal inventiveness of a very high order. They certainly deserve to be the subject of a catalogue raisonné; and it may then be possible to speak with confidence about Clodion's chronology and development. For the present, very few generalisations can be supported by evidence.

There are formidable difficulties: the terracottas are not specifically recorded in contemporary documents; they are now widely dispersed in public and private collections; as they are usually considered too fragile to travel, confrontations are rare; one must beware of forgeries (for we know some were made as early as the middle of the last century); finally, as is often remarked, the large majority are undated. Yet little note has been taken of the fact that a certain number do bear dates; and it may well be that when a full-scale enquiry into Clodion is eventually put in hand, the intrepid explorer will begin by looking at the dated terracottas. Without going far afield, it is possible to list almost twenty of these, all of superb quality. An informed guess might put the total number of surviving groups and statuettes by Clodion at less than one hundred. Thus the proportion that bear dates may prove to be far from negligible. Reliefs are omitted from these tentative totals as, being easy to cast, they can exist in several identical versions; and this confuses the issue.

The dated terracotta groups and statuettes appear to divide themselves, for the most part, into two series, the first including only early works (1766-1770) and the second only late ones (1795-1805). There is a gap of about twenty-five years, probably the most prolific part of the sculptors life, in which he seems very seldom to have added a date to his signature. This long middle period includes the years (c. 1775-1785) in which he was assisted in his Paris workshop by three sculptor brothers. It should be added that the early inscriptions indicate that the terracottas were made when Clodion was in Rome (for instance, Clodion in Roma 1768), whereas the late ones consist only of CLODION in capital letters followed by the year. Occasionally, in both dated and undated examples, the N in CLODION is reversed.

Within the compass of this article, it is only possible to touch on the terracottas dated in the 1790's which are relevant to the example (inscribed CLODION 1799) recently purchased by the National Gallery of Canada (figs I and 2), (2) but first, the biographical facts of these years are worth recalling. In about 1792, Claude Michel, called Clodion (1738-1814), then 54 years old, moved from Paris to Nancy, his birthplace, in order to escape the rigours of the Revolution. His father-in-law, the eminent sculptor Augustin Pajou, moved to Montpellier for the same reason. Very little is established about Clodion's activities at Nancy; but it is certain that in 1794 he was divorced in Paris from Flore Pajou and that he was absent from the hearing. Although the date of his return to Paris is unknown, it must have been substantially before 1801, for in that year he made a spectacular re-appearance in the world of public (as opposed to private) sculpture by exhibiting at the Salon his Scène du Déluge (fig. 3). It should be explained that he had last exhibited at the Salon in 1783, when he showed the second model for his marble statue of Montesquieu. The Scène du Déluge was a life-size neo-classical group of three figures, the principal one recalling (in reverse) the pose of Flaxman's Athamas (1791). (3) The material was plaster and Clodion must have hoped for a commission to execute a marble version. Evidently this failed to materialise and the plaster version has disappeared. The Déluge attracted a good deal of attention and a writer in the Annales du Musée et de l'école moderne des Beaux-Arts, from which our illustration is taken, commented, "Ce groupe où l'on a remarqué des parties bien dessinées et d'une belle exécution, fait d'autant plus d'honneur au C. Clodion, que cet estimable artiste, âgé de 66 ans, n'avait,jusqu'à ce jour, fondé sa réputation que sur de très petits ouvrages." (4) Although it is true that Clodion's output chiefly consisted of small terracottas, he had in fact received a few commissions for life-size marble sculptures in the 1770s and 1780s.

Turning now to the terracottas which we know to bear dates in the 1790s, the earliest is the elaborate group in the Norton Simon Collection (fig. 4), inscribed CLODION 1795. It is tempting to imagine that Clodion returned from Nancy to Paris before this date and that the Norton Simon terracotta was executed in the capital; but at present there is no evidence on this point. No other terracotta dated 1795 is known to the writer, nor any at all dated 1796 or 1797.

In 1798, however, Clodion dates another elaborate group, one of two that are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (5) the companion group being undated. They are similar in character to the Norton Simon example. Also to 1798 belong a running Bacchante swathed in drapery, formerly in the Blumenthal collection, (6) and finally the noble nude in the Cailleux collection, called Le Retour du Chasseur (figs 5 and 6). (7) The three dated terracottas are inscribed CLODION 1798.

In the following year come the intricate statuette of a girl scared by a snake, known as La Surprise, in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (figs 7 and 8), (8) the Zephyrus and Flora in the Frick Collection, New York (fig.9), (9) the Bacchic Embrace with Wildenstein & Co. (fig. 10), (10) another Chasseur (differently posed from the Cailleux statuette), (11) and the Nymph  Carrying the Infant Bacchus in Ottawa (figs I and 2). All  these are inscribed CLODION 1799.

Knowing about the Scène du Déluge and its outspoken  neo-classicism, it is natural to search in the works of  1798 and 1799 for indications of what was to come. One certainly finds there a greater simplicity of contour than is usually seen ill Clodion terracottas. For  example, the Ottawa Nymph can be contrasted with a  Nymph in a similar pose in the Victoria and Albert  Museum (fig. II), (12) who is enveloped in an agitated  gown and tunic and accompanied by a number of importunate putti. Indeed, the relatively austere striated drapery of the Ottawa statuette contains more than a hint of the drapery style of the Scene du Deluge. Nevertheless, it can hardly be said that the terracottas dated in the late 1790's show any emphatic advance towards a strict neo-classicism; and the naturalistic treatment of the nude in the Ottawa Nymph and the Cailleux collection's Chasseur has little in common with the works of Flaxman and (behind him) Canova, which seem to have influenced the Scene du Deluge.

The subject of the Ottawa statuette is an incident in a bacchic revel. The Nymph raises the infant Bacchus to her right shoulder. He holds a wine cup in his right hand and places his left on her head to steady himself. She gazes at hill with approbation and he looks out on the world with apparent unconcern. Support is provided by a tripod incense-burner, in which has been placed flowers, a wreath, and two wine-jugs. On the ground is a tambourine filled with fruit. The attitude of the Nymph recalls that of the Hellenistic Satyr Carrying the Infant Bacchus in the Villa Albani, Rome. (13) The incense-burner closely resembles one that appears in La vertueuse Athénienne, the picture by Joseph-Marie Vien, which probably inspired the creation of the multipurpose pieces of French furniture known as "Athéniennes." (14) As if to warn us against facile deductions, the same incense-burner appears in one of Clodion's earliest dated terracottas, the Priestess of 1768, now in the Carnegie Institute of Art, Pittsburgh (fig.12). (15)

Although the subject matter of the Clodion terracottas and the taste they reflect may have remained more or less constant throughout the last three decades of the eighteenth century, there seems to be a shift of style in the late 1790s; and the drapery pattern of the Ottawa statuette does faintly foreshadow the neo-classical language of the Scène du Déluge. Judging from the number which have survived with dates in the 1790s, the demand for the terracottas must have remained remarkably buoyant, in spite of the Revolution. A glance at the terracottas dated 1798 and 1799 leaves no doubt that these were years of matchless achievement.

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