Pierre-Jean David (March 12, 1788 – January 4, 1856) adopted the name of his home town to become known as David d’Angers. He did this not only to honor the town that financed his studies but also in order to distinguish himself from the master Jacques-Louis David when he was invited to attend his classes.
I had always thought of David d’Angers as a specialist in small sculptures and medallions and with good reason. He made about 500 medallions, some relatively large, in his lifetime and 100 busts, but he also created some 30 monumental sculptures in marble. Obviously, I missed out. My wife said that she was blown away when she went to the town of Angers as a student. The museum there has the greatest collection of the sculptor’s work anywhere including thousands of his drawings.
In spite of having made so many portrait medals he was not a portraitist in the usual sense. Just like the contemporary artist, Chuck Close, it was not his habit to take commissions from individuals but rather he made portraits of the people that he thought were important in history and also portraits of many artists. You will find lots of these at the Frick.
I had the rare privilege of having the Australian curator of the show presently at the Frick Collection in New York, Emerson Bowyer, give me a tour of the exhibition during which I gained some insights that I might not otherwise have had. This exhibition has more diverse media than has ever been shown together at the Frick, consisting of plasters, bronzes, waxes, prints and drawings. The latter were an unexpected surprise. David d’Angers was an incredible draughtsman. His perception was not a classic one but rather, as Emerson Boyer repeatedly pointed out, a Romantic one. His view of the Apollo Belvedere was most unusual indeed with Apollo’s head prone but so so beautifully drawn.
The first stop on his road to fame was a bust representing “La Douleur” (sadness). With this soulful sculpture he won École de Beaux Arts annual tête d’expression prize. There are two surviving plasters, made from the pieced mold: one is in the Musée d’Angers; and the other is right here in New York in the collection of Roberta J.M. Olsen and Alexander B.V. Johnson and has been lent to the show.
When David was just 28 years old he was asked to carry out the commission that his teacher Philippe-Laurent Roland (1746-1816) had been given. The latter had died unexpectedly after only designing his concept of the marble statue for “Le Grand Condé” which was to go with the other Grands Hommes on the bridge in Paris known today as Le Pont de la Concorde. It was under Louis XVI that the idea to pay homage to the great men of France was conceived and it was revived after the fall of Napoleon. Although the monumental marble of “Le Grand Condé” was destroyed, one of David’s bronzes of the model can be found in this exhibition lent from a private collection.
David d’Anger’s work was not always prized and the sculptor himself told the story about walking into a friends apartment “and he felt a violent blow to the ankle… It was, would you believe, my great men in bronze, rolling through the corridors like shuffleboard pucks, down the stairs four at a time, to the delight of the little children. I have also seen a model housewife grate sugar with these unfortunate profiles, choosing for this purpose those with the most hooked noses…”
One of the pieces that I would like to have taken home is neither plaster nor bronze but rather a wax medallion of The Abbé de Lamennais also from a private collection. The detail is phenomenal and it seems to live. You feel you can look into the sitter’s thoughts.
As mentioned last week, we are showing in our gallery for just another 2 weeks a large plaster by David d’Angers of François-René de Chateaubriand as part of the PADA exhibition “Private Goes Public”. It was his working model for the large portrait bust in marble still in the collection of the sitter’s family and never seen in public. On it you can see the supports and points that were used to transfer the sculpture from the plaster to the finished marble.