- The Matter of Sculpture
The three books under review, two monographs and an exhibition catalogue with essays, engage a wide variety of issues and ideas in the art of French sculpture in the eighteenth century. Each study makes welcome contributions and brings forth a wealth of knowledge about the making, reception, history, and criticism of sculpture during the Rococo and Enlightenment periods. They belong to a revival of interest in eighteenth-century sculpture, which until relatively recently tended to be neglected, overshadowed by the interest in the dazzling developments in painting during the course of the century from Rococo to Revolution.
When looking for studies on eighteenth-century French sculpture we encounter excellent catalogues raisonnés and exhibition catalogues on luminaries including Houdon, Pajou, and Chaudet, and, for example, investigations of Falconet’s critical exchanges with Diderot on the art of sculpture and surveys such as Alison West’s From Pigalle to Préault (1998). Compared to the vast historiography on eighteenth-century French painting, however, there are relatively few studies that engage the art of sculpture of the same period in its multiple, cultural, political, aesthetic, and intellectual dimensions and complexities. Jacques de Caso’s seminal essays on the subject provided an exception to the rule. Aline Magnien’s 2004 La [End Page 505] nature et l’antique, la chair et le contour: Essai sur la sculpture française du XVIIIe siècle took sculpture of the period seriously by examining sculptural theory, aesthetics, objectives, and practice and by proffering much neglected or hitherto unknown archival material. In many ways her book, which treats sculpture as central to the history of eighteenth-century French art, led the way for the three recent books under review, each of which helps to fill lacunae in the history of sculpture made in France in the eighteenth century.
Weinshenker, in A God or a Bench: Sculpture as a Problematic Art during the Ancien Régime, examines the status of sculpture and its reception in eighteenthcentury France. A common, recurring theme in the series of six chapters is the ongoing debate from the Renaissance through the Baroque, Rococo, and neoclassical periods concerning the paragone in the arts: which of the sister arts of painting and sculpture should be held in higher esteem? Weinshenker’s book emphasizes that sculpture was an integral part of eighteenth-century French culture and the visual arts and that sculpture could be found everywhere, from royal and aristocratic residences and gardens, to public squares, churches, and civic buildings. At the Salon exhibitions, works of sculpture were enthusiastically received and written about in salon criticism. Sculpture also played metaphorical and symbolic roles when represented in painting and prints. The author signals the importance of sculpture as a primary visual language of the period and a form of mass communication that existed not only in large-scale monuments but also in reductions and copies. Thus, sculpted figures were widely disseminated. The book gives insight into sculpture as a public art, funerary imagery, and tomb sculpture, the relationship between sculpture and idolatry as it was understood in the eighteenth century, the continuing paragone debates, the sculptor’s role and status in French society and culture, and the depictions of sculpture in other visual media.
Throughout her study Weinshenker calls attention to the breadth and variety of eighteenth-century writings on sculpture that engage specific artists, the role and functions of sculpture, the merits of antique versus modern sculpture, etc. Her book serves to demonstrate that sculpture was exalted in eighteenth-century France during the ancien régime and as such merits much more art historical attention and investigation. Her end point is the Revolution, and therefore she does not engage late-eighteenth-century developments in neoclassical sculptural...