The sculptors were less favored and rewarded in this age than the painters. Yet it was the antique marbles on whose lines Le Brun wished all arts to be formed, and great sums and talents were spent in buying or copying such statuary as had survived the collapse of the classic world. Louis, of course, was not content with copies. Mindful of the Roman gardens of Sallust and Hadrian, he engaged a band of able sculptors to set the park at Versailles alive with statuary. Massive vases, like Coysevox’ Vase de la Guerre, were raised in the basin of Neptune, and on the terrace; the brothers Gaspard and Balthasar de Marsy carved the great Basin of Bacchus; Jean Baptiste Tuby projected from the lake the magnificent Chariot of Apollo, with the Sun God symbolizing the King; and Francois Girardon cut in stone such Bathing Nymphs as Praxiteles himself might not have scorned to sign.
Girardon looked back across a century to see how Primaticcio and Goujon had idealized the female form. The fluid grace of Hellenic art returned to him, perhaps in excess; not all our searching has yet found such perfect females as in his Rape of Proserpine.17But he was capable of stronger moods. For the Place Vendôme he executed the figure of Louis XIV, now in the Louvre; and for the church of the Sorbonne he carved a stately tomb of Richelieu. Le Brun warmed to him for falling in so amiably with the taste and purposes of the Academy. He succeeded Le Brun as chief sculptor to the King, and presided over the Academy after the passing of Mignard. Born ten years before Louis, he outlived him by some months, dying in 1715 at the age of eighty-seven.
Antoine Coysevox was smoother than his name, and as lovable as his Duchesse de Bourgogne. Born in Lyons, he was carving a place for himself there as a sculptor when Le Brun called him to help decorate Versailles. He began by making excellent copies or adaptations of classical statuary. From an antique marble in the Villa Borghese he cut the Nymph of the Shell; from a statue in the Medici Palace at Florence he made a Crouching Venus—both now in that Fortunatus’ purse of art called the Louvre. Still in place at Versailles is his Castor and Pollux, from a group in the Ludovisi Gardens at Rome. Soon he was producing original works of considerable power. For the park at Versailles he carved large figures representing the rivers Garonne and Dordogne, and for the grounds at Marly two similar symbols of the Seine and the Marne. Four marbles that he made for Marly—Flora, Fame, Hamadryad, and Mercury Mounted on Pegasus—are now in the Jardins des Tuileries. From his chisel came much of the sculptural decoration in the major rooms at Versailles.
He labored eight years there, and fifty-five in the service of the King. He made twelve statues of him; the best known is the bust in Versailles. He became in sculpture what Mignard was in painting—the most popular portraitist in France. Instead of quarreling with his rivals he carved them in marble or cast them in bronze, usually sparing both their vanity and their purse. When he was sent fifteen hundred livres for his bust of Colbert he judged himself overpaid, and returned seven hundred. 18 He left firm likenesses of Le Brun, Le Nôtre, Arnauld, Vauban, Mazarin, and Bossuet; of himself a simple rendering of an honest, rugged, troubled face; 19 of the Great Condé two busts, one in the Louvre, the other at Chantilly, of uncompromising veracity and masculine force. In quite another style is the graceful Duchess of Burgundy as Diana, 20 and the lovely bust of the same princess in Versailles. He designed imposing tombs for Mazarin, 21 Colbert, Vauban, and Le Brun. His works feel the baroque spirit in their dramatic emotionalism and occasional exaggeration; but at their best they well express the classical ideal of the King and the court. They are Racine in marble and bronze.
Around him and Girardon were gathered a sculptural Pléiade: François Anguier and his brother Michel, Philippe Coffier and his son Francois, Martin Desjardins, Pierre Legros, and Guillaume Coustou, whose Horses of Marly still leap into the air at the Place de la Concorde.
Aside and afar from all these, and defying the soft idealism of the official sculpture, Pierre Puget made his chisel voice the anger and misery of France. Born at Marseilles (1622), he began his art career as a wood carver; but he longed to be, like his idol Michelangelo, at once painter, sculptor, and architect; the supreme artist, he felt, should have all these arts at his command. Dreaming of the Italian masters, he walked from Marseilles to Genoa to Florence to Rome. He worked eagerly under Pietro da Cortona in decorating the Palazzo Barberini; he absorbed every echo and vestige of Buonarroti, and envied Bernini’s varied fame. Returning to Genoa, he executed a St. Sebastian that brought him his first renown. Fouquet, again the forerunner of Louis XIV in art, commissioned Puget to carve a Hercules22 for the Château of Vaux. But Fouquet fell, and Pierre hurried south to brood in poverty at Toulon. Engaged to cut Atlantes (each a marble Atlas) to support the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville, he modeled the figures on the toiling porters of the docks, and gave almost a revolutionary cry to their straining muscles and pain-distorted faces—the oppressed proletariat upholding the world. This would hardly do at Versailles.
Nevertheless Colbert, his arms open to every talent, asked him for statuary, preferably in a harmless mythological vein. Puget sent him three pieces now in the Louvre: a pleasant bas-relief of Alexander and Diogenes, a laborious overdone Perseus and Andromeda, and a violent Milo of Crotona—the mighty vegetarian struggling to free himself from the jaws and claws of an unconverted lion. In 1688 Puget visited Paris, but, finding his proud temper and angry chisel out of tune with the wit and art of the court, he moved back to Marseilles. There he designed the Hospice de la Charité and the Halle au Poisson—in France even a fish market can be a work of art. His greatest sculpture was probably intended as a commentary on the martial exploits of the King: an equestrian statue of Alexander, handsome and debonair, dagger in hand, carelessly trampling under his horse’s feet the victims of war. 23 Puget escaped the formalism, but also the discipline, of Le Brun and Versailles; his ambition to rival Bernini, even Michelangelo, led him to exaggerations of musculature and expression; see the horrible Head of Medusa in the Louvre. But all in all he was the most powerful sculptor of his land and time.
As the great reign neared its end, and defeats brought France to desperation, the royal pride turned toward piety, and art passed from the lordliness of Versailles to the humility of Coysevox’ Louis XIV Kneeling in Notre Dame—the King, now seventy-seven, still flaunting regal robes, yet laying his crown humbly at the Virgin’s feet. In those final years the outlay for Versailles and Marly was restrained, but the choir of Notre Dame was restored and beautified. The idolatry of ancient art was cooled by its own excess; the natural began to encroach upon the classical; the pagan élan of art was finished by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ascendancy of Mme. de Maintenon and Le Tellier over the King. The new decorative themes stressed religion, not glory; Louis recognized God.
The history of art under Le Grand Monarque teases us with difficult questions. Was the nationalization of the arts an injury or a boon? Did the influence of Colbert, Le Brun, and the King divert the development of France from its native and natural bent into an enfeebling imitation of an enfeebled Hellenistic “antiquity,” confused by a baroque elaboration of ornament? Did these forty years of le style Louis Quatorze prove that art flourishes better under a monarchy patronizing it with concentrated wealth, and directing talents into a harmonious unity?—or under an aristocracy preserving, transmitting, and cautiously modifying standards of excellence and taste, and precepts of order and discipline?—or under a democracy opening a career to every talent, freeing ability from the bondage of tradition, and compelling it to submit and adjust its products to the judgment of the people? Would Italy and France be the favored homes of art and beauty today if they had not been embellished by the means and tastes of the Church, the nobles, and the kings? Would great art have been possible without the concentration of wealth?
An ecumenical wisdom would be needed to answer these queries modestly and fruitfully, and every such answer would have to be hedged and obscured with distinctions and doubts. Presumably art lost something in naturalness, initiative, and energy through being protected, directed, and controlled by a central power. The art of Louis XIV was a disciplined and academic art, majestic in its orderly splendor and unsurpassed in its artistic finish; but it was crippled in inventiveness by authority, and fell short of that alliance with the people which gave warmth and depth to Gothic art. The harmony of the arts under Louis was impressive, but it sounded too often the same chord, so that at last it became the expression not of an age and a nation, but only of an ego and a court. Wealth is necessary to great art, but wealth is disgraceful and art is unpleasant when they flourish at the expense of widespread poverty and debasing superstition; for the beautiful cannot long be divorced from the good. An aristocracy could be a beneficent repository and vehicle of manners, standards, and tastes if means could be found to keep it open to fresh talent, and to prevent it from being an agent of class privilege and vain luxury. Democracies too can accumulate wealth and dignify it with the nourishment of knowledge, letters, charity, and art; their problems lie in the hostility of immature freedom to order and discipline, the tardy development of taste in young societies, and the tendency of unmoored ability to waste itself in bizarre experiments that mistake originality for genius and novelty for beauty.
In any case the judgment of Europe’s aristocracies was decidedly in favor of French art. The palace architecture, the classic sculpture and literary style, the baroque decoration of furniture and dress, spread from France to almost every ruling class in Western Europe, even into Italy and Spain. The courts of London, Brussels, Cologne, Mainz, Dresden, Berlin, Cassel, Heidelberg, Turin, and Madrid looked to Versailles as theii model of manners and art. French architects were engaged to design palaces as far east as Moravia; Le Nôtre laid out gardens at Windsor and Cassel; Wren and other foreign architects came to Paris for ideas. French sculptors spread out over Europe, until nearly every prince had an equestrian statue like the French King’s. The mythological allegories of Le Brun appeared in Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and Hampton Court. Foreign sovereigns begged to sit for Rigaud, or, that failing, for one of his pupils. A Swedish ruler ordered Beauvais tapestries to commemorate his victories. Not since the extension of ancient Latin culture through Western Europe had history seen a cultural conquest so rapid and complete.