This superb, and exceedingly rare, life-size terracotta by Jules Dalou was first exhibited publically in 1877 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where it was displayed alongside Frederick Leighton’s Athlete wrestling a Python
. During his entire career, Dalou composed only four such groups of a mother and her child in life-size dimensions. All were exhibited at the Royal Academy and greeted with great enthusiasm by the contemporary public and critics. The qualitative excellence of these works is dazzling in the humanity of their conception and virtuosity of execution.
Dalou was one of the greatest French sculptors of the 19th century, but he first established himself as a major artist in London between 1871 and 1879. At the Parisian Salon of 1870 he had attracted widespread admiration with a life-size genre subject, La Brodeuse
, but the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune intervened.
As one of the founding members of the Fédération des Artistes
, led by Gustave Courbet, he allied himself with the Commune. With its collapse in May 1871, Dalou was forced to flee to England, where he was received by his friend, the painter Alphonse Legros. By the time of the 1872 Royal Academy exhibition, Dalou had come to understand the taste of British collectors. He scored a major success with two of his entries that season, a young woman in the exotic costume of a Boulonnaise, Jour des Rameaux à Boulogne
(a terracotta statuette), and a contemporary Parisian mother, nursing her child, with an English title, Maternal Joy
(a life-size statue in patinated plaster). Legros had already popularized women from Boulogne in his paintings, and Dalou made several more compositions featuring this same motif, as well as creating a small edition of the popular Jour des Rameaux
for the market.
Maternal themes were a mainstay of Dalou’s production in England. His Paysanne française
(life-size terracotta statue, Royal Academy, 1873), and Hush-a-bye
(life-size terracotta statue with an English title, Royal Academy, 1874) ingratiated him further with British collectors and the public. He also created, but did not exhibit at the Royal Academy, a statuette, Une Parisienne allaitant
, which was a variant on Maternal Joy.
The Boulonnaise motif reappeared, with the same beautiful protagonist in the same costume, as a single figure seen kneeling or seated in prayer (Boulonnaise au chapelet
), and paired with an older woman (Boulonnaises à l’Eglise
, terracotta, Royal Academy 1876). All of these were statuettes, never enlarged to life-size dimensions.
In 1876 Dalou synthesized the maternal and Boulonnaise themes with the present Boulonnaise allaitant
. The young woman, recognizably the same character, has left behind her virginal devotions and become a mother. The unvarying cycle of provincial life has naturally replicated itself. This composite figure marked the end of Dalou’s treatment of both themes that had served his career so well. Thereafter, he concentrated on public monuments, which he had come to regard as the highest calling of a 19th-century sculptor. Echoes of the maternal theme might appear in the context of a public work, such as in the Charity
surmounting a drinking fountain for the Royal Exchange in London , and the monument to Queen Victoria’s dead grandchildren for the royal chapel at Windsor [1877-79], but genre, intimate themes, and mothers with their children, virtually disappeared from his repertoire.
The nursing Boulonnaise has been known to us until now only as a statuette in plaster, with editions in porcelain (Sèvres) and bronze (Susse Frères). The pose of the present life-size terracotta reverses that of the smaller versions, but is identical to a drawing by Dalou and an anonymous engraving, both made after the work, that appeared in the art press at the time of the Royal Academy exhibition. As is consistent with Dalou’s working procedure, with each stage of the enlargement from sketch to final statue, he refined the work and added greater detail. Reversals of pose occurred frequently during this process, so the smaller versions in reverse with fewer refinements and details must precede the life-size version, rather than be reductions made for purposes of an edition afterward.
Arguably, no other sculptor since Gianlorenzo Bernini dazzled his audience with the virtuosity of his drapery folds and spectacular details integrated into the whole fabric of a sculpture, the way Dalou could. The smaller pleats at the top of the mother’s heavy cloak, the more monumental and sweeping folds below them, the contrasting textures of her tight-fitting bonnet and its quilted extension, and the lovingly-rendered clasp with chain that secures her cloak, as well as the wisp of a cord that secures the bonnet at the base of her neck, all suggest that a master is in charge. Dalou fully embraced realism, but never at the expense of his intense artistry. He could unify form and content so totally that they seem to dissolve into each other. The loving interaction between mother and child is enhanced by an artistic focus so intense that it seems as if we are witnessing life itself, rather than a fabrication by an artist.
Dalou understood that degrees of focus, from intensely realized to peripherally blurred, are essential to mimic the way we experience the world and thereby enhance the interactive force of a work of sculpture. Terracotta is especially amenable to such treatment. No other artist working in three dimensions understood this perceptual fact, which Édouard Manet and his Impressionist descendants had already articulated in paint, as well as Dalou. Une Boulonnaise allaitant forcefully demonstrates selective degrees of treating surfaces and details throughout a whole work of sculptural art.
Dalou’s success and recognition in London had grown with each passing year, but the Royal Academy exhibition of 1877 marked an apogee. That year his submission had been granted the honour of the most prestigious location, the rotunda, alongside the bronze version of Frederick Leighton’s Athlete wrestling a Python. The two men were good friends, and it was through Dalou’s encouragement that the bronze Athlete came into existence. Dalou was extremely grateful for the honour bestowed upon him and his Boulonnaise allaitant. On May 2, 1877, he modestly wrote to Leighton: “I was very flattered by the honor that they have paid my humble terracotta, placing it next to your bronze; this is one more happy memory that I have of the academy and of you, my dear Leighton, because I know how great a role you have played to have my statue so well placed.”
Dalou’s statue was acquired by George Browne, 3rd Marquess of Sligo. By family tradition, it was purchased directly from the artist’s London studio in 1876. As was often his practice, Dalou would have sold the work with the proviso that he be allowed to exhibit it publicly before delivery, hence its appearance in the 1877 Royal Academy exhibition. George Browne was the eldest son of Howe Peter, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, famous ‘regency buck’ and friend of Lord Byron, Thomas de Quincy and the Prince Regent. After his father’s death in 1845 he faced the appalling realities of the Irish Famine. Disillusioned with Britain’s feeble humanitarian response to the crisis, he personally shipped in food for his tenants and campaigned for pioneering economic and social reforms. It is rather apt that this most enlightened of Dalou’s patrons married a Frenchwoman named Isobel Perronet in 1878, a year after the Boulonnaise allaitant had been installed at Westport House.