National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Marble Sculpture from France
Overview

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The works in the East Sculpture Hall span some 250 years of French history, from before the birth of Louis XIV to the Second Empire. During those years, both artistic styles and the sources of patronage changed dramatically. Voltaire maintained that "sculpture reached perfection under Louis XIV." At Versailles alone, more than 36,000 laborers and 6,000 horses worked for almost fifteen years to transform the king's small hunting chateau into Europe's most magnificent and influential palace. Their efforts were unified by the artistic supervision of Charles Le Brun, whose grandiose classicism stamped the entire output of French art in the late 1600s.

In the next century, new patrons and a more relaxed atmosphere ushered in the lighter rococo style. Louis XV shunned the formality of his great-grandfather's court, and sculptors, like other artists, turned to more intimate subjects portrayed with a delicate touch. Royal and public commissions gave way to smaller-scale works made for private patrons. After the mid-1700s, however, the restraint and discipline of neoclassicism began to replace the frivolity of rococo. All the arts were strongly influenced by the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome, enhancing the status of sculptors and their craft. Napoleon himself was said to have remarked, "If I weren't a conqueror, I would wish to be a sculptor."

By 1867, when the latest of the statues here was completed, sculptors no longer relied solely on commissions. Increasingly they made works to show at the official Salon exhibitions, where they could be admired by the public and ultimately purchased by collectors. It also became more common for sculptors to make multiple copies of their most successful works, often in a variety of media, and to create variants of them.

Garden Sculpture from Versailles

The two sculptures decorating the East and West Garden Courts at the National Gallery of Art were originally created as garden fountains for Versailles. Pierre Legros' Cherubs Playing with a Lyre (in the east court) and Jean-Baptiste Tuby's Cherubs Playing with a Swan (in the west court) were executed in lead and completely gilded (traces of the gold are still visible), following designs sketched by Le Brun. They were installed in Louis XIV's théâtre d'eau ("water theater"), a spectacle of fountains and cascades laid out to suggest an aquatic amphitheater. The project was so costly to maintain, diverting nearly all the water from nearby villages, that it was disassembled by Louis XV. In the National Gallery's installation, the flow of the water, which originally shot up many feet, has been redirected and reduced.

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