Jean Lorrain description of La Grande Névrose in his visit to the Paris Salon of 1896 successfully sums up the fascinating ambiguity of Jacques Loysel’s masterpiece, oscillating between carnal ecstasy and painful exaltation.
In 1900, Loysel's reputation preceded him, the 23-year-old sculptor having presented two works at the Exposition Internationale Universelle: the plaster of L'Ecueil et la Vague, and the marble version of La Grande Névrose. At the time, Paris was the epicentre of the art world, and this event of unparalleled magnitude attracted nearly 51 million visitors from mid-April to mid-November of that year. Loysel won the bronze medal, and during the first five-year exhibition of the Prix du Salon in 1902, the recognition enjoyed by the sculptor reached its peak. No less than twenty of his sculptures, drawings and photographs were exhibited, including – once more - La Grande Névrose, considered until the end of his career his definitive masterpiece.
Jacques Loysel studied at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he was taught by Henri Chapu (1833-1891) and Antoine Mercié (1845-1916). He participated in various French Artist's salons from 1892 to 1920, won a medal at the Salon of 1894 and was awarded a travelling scholarship in 1897, as well as another medal at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Little has been written about Loysel’s travels. Balagny, however, mentions long voyages to Egypt, Naples and Germany.
Loysel set up his first studio at 299 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and a second one at 25 rue de Prony, in the coveted Place Monceau, where La Grande Névrose remained until his death. A photograph of the sculptor's studio represents the latter in the foreground, surrounded by his works, with his right elbow resting on a base and his head resting on his hand. In the background is the elegant silhouette of La Grande Névrose, whose curves emulate animal sensuality, whilst powerfully conveying a sense of inner struggle. For this is indeed the theme chosen by Jacques Loysel: a paroxysmal state of mental turmoil - with emotional excesses and uncontrollable symptoms – that offers the sculptor an unparalleled opportunity to represent a human body in tension, whose musculature is bandaged in exacerbated twists.
La Grande Névrose: an artwork of its time
In Second Empire France, neurosis - a multifaceted affection of the nerves - was a widely spread pathology. Its clinical manifestations, of which hysteria is the ultimate expression, were fascinating, frightening and obsessive. They were considered the formidable consequence of the excesses of the period; a punishment falling on a decadent society that is incapable of repressing its desires and measuring its excesses.
Throughout his critical analysis of contemporary society, the influential writer Émile Zola (1840-1902) deals with the clinical symptoms of neurosis, above all in the twenty novels that form the magisterial saga of Les Rougon-Macquart. The cruel realism of their descriptions are the result of an in-depth study of passion and desire by the author, who frequently cites the anthropologist Charles Letourneau and the work on temperament by the historian and academician Hippolyte Taine.
Jacques Loysel’s masterpiece was clearly not indifferent to the literary manifestations of this fin-de-siècle pathology. At the 1896 Salon des Artistes Français, when he exhibited La Grande Névrose for the first time, he openly claimed the Zolian influence on his work by titling a stone head Albine morte dans les fleurs (no. 3636). Inspired by the novel La Faute de l'Abbe Mouret, Loysel represented the fatal and sublime outcome of hysteria in the heroine, who is carried away by the fragrances distilled - like poison - by the flowers that surround her.
For the scientific avant-garde, hysteria and its corollary of behavioural disorders were of the utmost interest. The work carried out on hysteria and hypnosis by popular scientists such as Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) fascinated the contemporary art scene.
La Grande Névrose or the sculpted representation of feminine exaltation
Distancing himself from the purely clinical representation of neurosis, Loysel studied the eminently sensual character of its condition. The languid expression of the young woman's face - her head thrown back, her eyes half-closed and her lips parted – combined with the powerful tension that paralyses her body, evokes a sense of trance and ecstasy. Dominated by an uncontrollable force, freed from any will of resistance, the beautiful captive abandons herself entirely to her torpor.
The expression of painful pleasure imprinted on the woman’s face echoes Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, the sublime Baroque interpretation of ecstasy (circa 1674, church of San Francesco a Ripa, Rome). The same theme had already been epitomised by Bernini in his Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (circa 1647-1652, Church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria, Rome) – a saint who expressed physical pleasure combined with the suffering she felt during her mystical visions.
At the Salon of 1847, Auguste Clésinger’s (1814-1883) marble Femme piquée par un Serpent embodied the Parisian Romantic scene, as the model combined the uncompromising realism of Apollonia Sabatier’s likeness – Baudelaire’s muse – and a subject that oscillated between danger and seduction in the form of a feminine body with poisonous beauty (Musée d'Orsay, inv. no. 2053). A review of this intoxicating marble in La Revue des Deux Mondes stated: "[...] the title and the serpent are concessions made to the jury! Who do they laugh at? This woman does not suffer, she enjoys!". This last word clearly addressed the overtly sexual character of the young woman's body - allegedly convulsed under the effect of venom - which echoes La Grande Névrose’s cambered torso, also consumed by the poison of her passions.
La Grande Névrose’s long hair flowing along the ground like a stream of water appears to be a direct evocation of Auguste Rodin's La Danaïde, sculpted around 1889-1890 and also known as La Source (Paris, Musée Rodin , inv. no. 1155 / Lux. 90). Both superbly carved 'en taille directe' (by the hand of the Rodin and Loysel respectively), the two marbles embody a common concern for realism in the depiction of the female body with powerful shapes flourishing under languishing curves. The pronounced arching of La Grande Névrose’s lower back is also mirrored by Le Torse d’Adèle, a terracotta model sculpted by Rodin directly in front of one of his favourite models, Adèle Arbruzzi, which he would repeat in La Porte de l’Enfer and L'Eternel Printemps (Paris, Musée Rodin, inv. no. S.1177).
The sublime representation of feminine grace and canons of classical beauty inherent in Loysel's work won the admiration of his contemporaries. In his article dedicated to the sculptor’s oeuvre, Balagny declared: "We already had in Isadora Duncan a protagonist of Hellenic choreographic art; it is now up to M. Jacques Loysel to be the new Lysippus." (Balagny, op. cit., p.14).
H. Balagny, 'Le Sculpteur des Danseuses', in La Revue Moderne, no. 11, 1912, pp. 13-14; P. Kjellberg, Les Bronzes du XIXe siècle: Dictionnaire des sculpteurs, Paris, 1987, p. 444
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