Théophile Gautier’s Salon Review of Clesinger’s Cléopâtre in 1861
Auguste Clésinger carved his extraordinary marble Cléopâtre in his Roman atelier and sent it to the Paris Salon of 1861 (no. 3243.) Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Clésinger took pride in carving his marble sculptures himself, rather than leaving the transposition of the model to studio assistants. His marvellous dexterity with a chisel is exemplified here in the delicate description of the form under the diaphanous drapery. The sculptor revels in the details of jewellery and pattern to create a vivid impression of sumptuous luxury. His Cléopâtre belongs to a series of reclining female figures which includes groups of the dying Madeleine and Lucretia as well as bacchantes and goddesses. The series began with the sensational exhibition of his most famous work, Woman bitten by a Snake, at the Paris Salon of 1847.
In order to give this unambiguous nude enough of a veneer of respectability for it to be passed by the Salon jury, the sculptor’s friends urged him to include a snake, twisted around the ankle, in a possible reference to a classical subject, such as Cleopatra. The sculpture was so life-like that the sculptor was accused, with some justification, of using plaster casts of the live model in its creation. With this work Clésinger became famous as a sculptor of the female form.
Clésinger’s career was characterised by a remarkable self-belief and ambition. The son of a moderately successful sculptor, Clésinger studied briefly and impatiently under Thorvaldsen and David d’Angers. He wrote to his sister from Rome: ‘I have seen all the sculptors' ateliers…; none of them have half my talent.’ Returning to Paris, Clésinger cultivated friendships with art critics in order to ensure favourable reception for his works. He even went so far as to marry the daughter of the writer and critic George Sand, though the marriage was unsuccessful and short-lived. Following negative criticism of his monument to Francis I in Paris in the mid-1850s, Clésinger felt personally aggrieved and removed to Rome, where he set up an atelier and lived in splendour. After a number of years of absence from the Paris Salon, Clésinger re-entered it in prodigious style, sending eight sculptures in 1859 and six, including his Cléopâtre, in 1861. These works, asserted the critic Gautier, attested ‘no less to his talent as to his abundance.’
The Cléopâtre was exhibited alongside a work entitled Les Parques, which was an imaginative restoration of the fragmentary Dione and Aphrodite from the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum. The torso and drapery across the chest and shoulders of the Cléopâtre take direct inspiration from the figure of Aphrodite and show Clésinger’s fascination with antique models. The artistic power of the Cléopâtre lies in the marriage of the antique inspiration and the intensely life-like modelling for which the sculptor was famous.
Clésinger follows Plutarch’s telling of the story with the inclusion of a naturalistically observed basket of figs. According to Plutarch, Cleopatra was captured by Octavian following his defeat over her lover Mark Antony. Searching for a way to end her life, the queen discovered an asp in a basket of figs. She held out her arm for the snake to bite. Here Clésinger departs from Plutarch, choosing to depict the asp at her breast, an alternative ending made popular by Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra.
The subject of Cleopatra was frequently depicted in nineteenth century sculpture and Clésinger himself returned to it twice with his standing Cléopâtre offrant la fleur de lotus à Antoine in 1868 and his recumbant Cléopâtre devant César in 1869. The latter was a marble adorned with precious stones designed by the goldsmith François-Désiré Froment Meurice. Egyptomania had gripped Europe, and particularly France, since Napoléon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798 – 1801). The Rosetta stone had been discovered during this campaign and its hieroglyphs were deciphered by the French philologist Jean-François Champillion in 1822. Major Egyptian archaeological finds were discovered by amateurs and professional Egyptologists alike throughout the century and all things Egyptian became a source of fascination for the public. This was reflected particularly in the visual arts. Cleopatra, last of the Ptolemaic rulers and lover first to Julius Caesar and then to Mark Antony, was the most obvious Egyptian heroine. Her dramatic story offered numerous opportunities to artists and Clésinger captured its most theatrical moments in his three iterations of the subject.
In his monograph on Clésinger, Estignard records that the Salon marble was purchased by the founder and editor Barbedienne. Barbedienne popularised the model through an edition of bronzes available in various reductions. As the only known large-scale marble of the model and in view of its extraordinary quality it is highly possible that the present marble is the version presented at the Salon of 1861.
Auvray, Exposition des Beaux-Arts: Salon de 1861: Statuaire, Paris, 1861, pp. 67-8; T. Gautier, Abécédaire du Salon de 1861, Paris, 1861, p. 392-6; Catalogue des marbres, bronzes et terre cuites de Clésinger, Sale at Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 6th April 1870, p. 19, lot, 16; Catalogues des objets d’Art, 7th-11th June 1892, Barbedienne auction sale catalogue, Paris, p. 70, lot 500; A. Estignard, Clésinger: sa vie et ses oeuvres, Paris, 1900, p. 81-2 & 165; S. Lami, Dictionnaire des Sculpteurs de l’École Francaise, Paris, 1914, vol. 1, pp. 393-404; P. Fusco and H. W. Janson ed., The Romantics to Rodin: French Nineteenth-Century Sculpture from North American Collections, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1980, pp. 174-180; F. Rionnet, Les Bronzes Barbedienne, L’Oeuvre d’une dynastie de fondeurs (1834-1954), Paris, 2016, p. 290
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