Pierre-Jean David d’Angers was one of the most renowned sculptors of the romantic era. His public monuments and portraits of intellectuals and political figures capture the charged spirit of the epoch like no others. His larger-than-life Comte Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe, carved in 1832, stands at the summit of his production. The bust was exhibited at the Salon of 1833, after which it passed to the sitter, in whose family it has remained until recently. Carved from crystalline marble mined in the Pyrenees, the bust exhibits an extraordinary sensitivity to the material. The asymmetrical features—slanting creases in the furrowed brow, cocked right eyebrow, and pull of skin to the right under the chin—are characteristics David d’Angers emphasized to capture the subject’s variable temperament. Although David d’Angers typically entrusted his carving to specialists, or practiciens, the many subtleties in the execution testify to his direct work at least on the defining touches.
Born to working-class parents in Angers, the artist moved to Paris in 1808 to study sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1810, he won second prize in the Prix de Rome competition with an entry that caught the attention of Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s principal painter. David invited the young sculptor to train in his studio, where David d’Angers learned to practice the unique blend of classicism and sharp naturalism that became a hallmark of his style. He called himself David d’Angers to prevent confusion with his celebrated mentor and to give thanks to his hometown, which helped fund his education. After four years in Rome, David d’Angers returned to Paris in 1816 and won several prestigious commissions for public monuments, including the bas-reliefs for the pediment of the Panthéon (1830–1837), which solidified his position as the leading sculptor in Paris.
David d’Angers excelled at portraits. He depicted many of the most important figures in contemporary art and politics, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Victor Hugo, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Influenced by the theory of phrenology, which held that a person’s appearance reflected emotional and intellectual characteristics, he frequently adjusted his likenesses in order to emphasize those expressive characteristics he associated with his sitters.
The comte Boulay de la Meurthe is the type of charismatic individual to whom David d’Angers was especially drawn to depict. Born in the region of Les Vosges in 1761, the comte Boulay de la Meurthe practiced law in Paris. His stance against the Directory (the French Revolutionary government that held power between November 1795 and November 1799) won him the admiration of Napoleon, who awarded him the Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur and invited him to serve on his privy council. He was later appointed president of the commission responsible for drafting France’s new constitution and the body of laws otherwise known as the Napoleonic Code. In retirement, he wrote his memoirs as well as two books on English history.
Comte Antoine Boulay de la Meurthe has found a natural home on the main floor of the West Building opposite Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon. The Gallery is deeply indebted to Buffy Cafritz; her son and daughter-in-law, Sandy and Helen Wilkes; and the Buffy and William Cafritz Family Sculpture Fund for supporting the acquisition. Many others helped bring the marvelous bust to Washington through their contributions to the Patrons’ Permanent Fund.