Now the style Louis Seize, which had begun almost with the birth of Louis XVI (1754), continued its reaction against the sinuous irregularities of baroque and the feminine delicacies of rococo, and moved toward the masculine lines and symmetrical proportions of a neoclassical art inspired by the excavations at Herculaneum and the Greco-Roman fervor of Winckelmann. The most famous example of the new style in architecture is the Petit Trianon; it is amusing that Mme. du Barry and Marie Antoinette, who were not on speaking ternr, agreed in enjoying this modest tribute to classical order and simplicity. Another pretty example is the present Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, built as the Hôtel Salm (1782) by Pierre Rousseau on the left bank of the Seine. A more massive product of the style is the Palais de Justice as rebuilt in 1776, with its magnificent wrought-iron grille fronting the Cour de Mai. The Théâtre National de l’Odéon (1779) took a somber Doric form; more amiable is the theater raised at Amiens (1778) by Jacques Rousseau in a union of classical and Renaissance. At Bordeaux Victor Louis built (1775) on classical lines an immense theater which Arthur Young described as “by far the most magnificent in France; I have seen nothing that approaches it.”61
Interior decoration retained French elegance. Tapestry was going out of fashion except as covering for armchairs and sofas; painted wallpaper was coming in from China, but was used chiefly in bedrooms; the walls of salons were generally divided into panels of treated wood, carved or painted with figures or floral arabesques rivaling the best in Italy. The finest furniture in the France of Louis XVI was designed and made by two Germans, JeanHenri Riesener and David Roentgen; the Wallace Collection has some enviable examples made for Marie Antoinette and the Petit Trianon.
Sculpture flourished. Pigalle, Falconet, and Jean-Jacques Caffieri lived on from the days of Louis XV. Augustin Pajou, who had begun work in that reign, now came into his own. Under commissions from Louis XVI he carved decorations for the Palais-Royal and the Palais-Bourbon. In his Psyche Abandoned,62 he tried to reconcile two elements in the new age-tender sentiment and classic form. He transmitted his art—and gave his daughter in marriage—to Clodion, whose real name was Claude Michel. Clodion carved a way to prosperity with terra-cotta groups slightly erotic, and reached his zenith with a statue of Montesquieu.63 All the ecstasy of the flesh sings in the Nymph and Satyr now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The supreme sculptor of the age was Jean-Antoine Houdon. His father was a porter, but in an art school. Born in Versailles, Jean breathed sculpture from the statues with which Louis XIV had peopled the gardens of Le Nôtre. After studying with Pigalle he won the Prix de Rome at twenty, and sallied off to Italy (1760). The St. Bruno that he carved in Rome so pleased Clement XIV that he commented, “The Saint would speak, were it not that the rules of his order impose silence.”64 In Paris he carved or cast a succession of Dianas; one in bronze, in the Huntington Collection, is a marvel of classic features and French grace. More famous is the bronze Diane Nue now in the Louvre; it was refused a place in the Salon of 1785, perhaps because (said a critic) “she was too beautiful and too nude to be exposed to the public,”65 more probably because the statue violated the traditional conception of Diana as chaste.
Houdon, like so many artists of the eighteenth century, found more profit in contemporary portraits than in inviolable goddesses. Nevertheless he resolved to be fair with the facts, and to show a character rather than a face. He spent many hours in the dissecting rooms of medical schools, studying anatomy. When possible he made careful measurements of the sitter’s head, and carved or cast the statue to correspond. When question arose as to whether a corpse that had been exhumed in Paris was really, as claimed, that of John Paul Jones, the shape and measurements of the skull were compared with those of the portrait that Houdon had cast in 1781, and the agreement was so close that the identity was accepted as confirmed.66 He cut into the marble of his Mirabeau all the ravages of smallpox, and showed every shadow and wrinkle, even the fire and depth of the eyes, and the lips parted in readiness to speak.
Soon all the Titans of the upheaval were glad to sit for him, and he transmitted them to us with a fidelity that turned marble and bronze into the flesh and soul of history. So we now can see Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert, Buffon, Turgot, Louis XVI, Catherine II, Cagliostro, Lafayette, Napoleon, Ney. When Voltaire came to Paris in 1778 Houdon made several statues of him: a bronze bust now in the Louvre, showing exhaustion and weariness; a similar marble bust now in the Victoria and Albert Museum;another in the Wallace Collection; an idealized smiling head ordered by Frederick the Great; and, most famous of all, the statue presented by Mme. Denis to the Comédie-Française: Voltaire seated in a flowing robe, bony fingers grasping the arms of the chair, thin lips, toothless mouth, some gaiety still in the wistful eyes—this is one of the great statues in the history of art. In that same year, hearing of Rousseau’s death, Houdon hurried to Ermenonville and took a death mask of Voltaire’s rival; from this he made the bust now in the Louvre; this too is a masterpiece.
There were American heroes also, and Houdon made such lifelike heads of them that coins of the United States still bear his likenesses of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. When Franklin returned to America in 1785 Houdon went with him; he hastened to Mt. Vernon and persuaded the busy and impatient Washington to sit for him, on and off, for a fortnight; so he made the statue that adorns the state capitol at Richmond, Virginia—a man of granite, sombered with costly victories and remaining tasks. Here again is that union of body and soul which is the sign and seal of Houdon’s art.
Such sculpture would have made painting a minor delicacy had it not been that Greuze and Fragonard continued to work throughout the reign and the Revolution, and that Jacques-Louis David, a painter, in a career as meteoric as Napoleon’s, rose to a dictatorship over all the arts in France. He learned his technique from his great-uncle François Boucher, and became a first-rate draftsman, a master of line and composition rather than of color. Boucher perceived that the change of morals since Pompadour and Du Barry to Marie Antoinette was reducing the market for bosoms and buttocks; he advised David to go and pick up the chaste neoclassical style in the studio of Joseph Vien, who was painting Roman soldiers and heroic women. In 1775 David accompanied Vien to Rome. There he felt the influence of Winckelmann and Mengs, of the antique sculptures in the Vatican Gallery, of the ruins exhumed at Herculaneum and Pompeii. He accepted the neoclassical principles, and took Greek statuary as a model for his painting.
Back in Paris, he exhibited a succession of classical subjects severely drawn: Andromache Weeping over the Dead Body of Hector (1783), The Oath of the Horatii (1785), The Death of Socrates (1787), Brutus Returning from Condemning His Sons to Death(1789). 67 (In the legend as told by Livy, Lucius Junius Brutus, as praetor of the young Roman Republic (509 B.C.), sentenced his own sons to death for conspiring to restore the kings.) David had painted this last picture in Rome; when he offered it to the Academy in Paris its exhibition was forbidden; the art public protested; finally the canvas was shown, and added to the revolutionary fever of the time. Paris saw in these paintings, and in the stern ethic they conveyed, a double revolt—against aristocratic rococo and royal tyranny. David became the radical hero of the Paris studios.
During the Revolution he was elected to the Convention, and in January, 1793, he voted for the execution of the King. Another deputy who had so voted was slain by a royalist (January 20, 1793); the body was exhibited to the public as that of a republican martyr; David painted The Last Moments of Lepeletier; the Convention hung it in its chamber. When Marat was slain by Charlotte Corday (July 13, 1793), David pictured the dead man lying half immersed in his bath; seldom had art been so realistic, or so calculated to arouse feeling. These two paintings established the martyrology of the Revolution. David worked enthusiastically for Danton and Robespierre; in return he was made director of all art in Paris.
When Napoleon took power with the Roman title of consul, David painted for him as zealously as he had done for the leaders of the Terror. He saw Bonaparte as the Son of the Revolution, fighting to keep the kings of Europe from restoring their like to France. When Napoleon made himself emperor (1804) David’s adoration was not subdued; and Napoleon made him painter to the imperial court. The artist produced for him several famous pictures: Napoleon Crossing the Alps, The Coronation of Josephine by Napoleon,and The Distribution of the Eagles; these immense paintings were later placed on the walls of rooms in the palace at Versailles. Meanwhile David displayed his versatility with excellent portraits of Mme. Récamier and Pope Pius VI.68 When the Bourbons were restored David was banished as a regicide; he retired to Brussels, where his wife (who had left him in 1791 because of his revolutionary ardor) came to share his exile. Now he returned to classical subjects, and to the sculptural style of painting favored by Mengs. In 1825, aged seventy-seven, he ended one of the most spectacular careers in the history of art.
Among his portraits is one of Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, who rejected revolution and preferred kings and queens. Toward the end of her eighty-seven years (1755-1842) she published memoirs giving a pleasant account of her youth, a sad story of her marriage, an itinerary of her artistic odyssey, and a picture of a good woman shocked by the violence of history. Her father, a portrait painter, died when she was thirteen, leaving no fortune, but Elisabeth had been so apt a pupil that by the age of sixteen she was earning a good income from her portraits. In 1776 she married another painter, Pierre Lebrun, grandnephew of the Charles Le Brun who had been master of arts for Louis XIV. Her husband (she tells us) squandered her fortune and his through “his unbridled passion for women of bad morals, joined to his fondness for gambling.”69 She bore him a daughter (1778), and soon thereafter left him.
In 1779 she painted Marie Antoinette, who so fancied her as to sit for twenty portraits. The two women became such friends that they sang together the tender airs with which Grétry was drawing tears from Paris eyes. This royal favor, and the genteel elegance of her work, opened all doors to the attractive painter. She made every woman beautiful, putting roses into faded cheeks; soon every moneyed lady itched to sit. She received such high fees that she was able to maintain an expensive apartment and a salon frequented by the best musicians of Paris.
Despite her friendship with the Queen, she went out three times to portray Mme. du Barry at Louveciennes. On the third occasion (July 14, 1789) she heard the sound of cannon firing in Paris. She returned to the city to find that the Bastille had been taken, and that the victorious populace was carrying noble heads on bloody pikes. On October 5, while another mob was tramping to Versailles to make the King and Queen their captives, she gathered what she could of her belongings and began thirteen years of voluntary exile. In Rome she made the familiar portrait of herself and her daughter.70 At Naples she pictured Lady Hamilton as a bacchante.71 She painted in Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg; and when the Revolution had run its course she returned to France (1802). There, triumphant over all vicissitudes, she lived another forty years, wisely dying before revolution was renewed.