Sculpture in this period was fighting an angry struggle for recognition as a major art. Its function had long been mainly decorative; but whereas under Louis XIV it had commissions to adorn great palaces and extensive gardens, it was less favored now that the royal passion for building had exhausted itself and France. The rich were hiding in smaller structures, and heroic statuary found no place in drawing rooms and boudoirs. Sculptors complained that the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture gave most of its prizes to painters; Pigalle proposed that there be a royal sculptor as well as a royal painter, and personally campaigned for the order of St.-Michel to break down the tradition that only painters received this reward. Reluctantly the sculptors turned to decorating homes with small pieces, vases, and reliefs, and sought to rival the portrait painters by giving to decaying, paying flesh the illusion of lasting bronze or stone. Some of them, entering more intimately into the home, adopted the elegance, naturalness, and playfulness of rococo, while still favoring the sobriety of classic lines.
As with painters and artisans, the sculptor’s art tended to run in families. Nicolas Coustou helped his teacher, Antoine Coysevox, to decorate the royal palaces at Marly and Versailles; he designed the great figures, symbolizing French rivers, that are now in the Hôtel de Ville at Lyons; his Descent from the Cross is still in Notre-Dame-de-Paris; and his Berger Chasseur is one of a dozen masterly statues that face time and weather in the Gardens of the Tuileries. Nicolas’ younger brother, Guillaume Coustou I, turned Marie Leszczyńska into marble as Juno,4 and carved the powerful Horses of Marly (1740–45)—originally for that palace, but now rebelling against the bridle at the west and east approaches to the Place de la Concorde. Guillaume’s son, Guillaume Coustou II, made for the Dauphin the tomb in the cathedral of Sens.
Nancy gave birth to another artistic dynasty. Jacob Sigisbert Adam transmitted sculpture and architecture to three sons. Lambert Sigisbert Adam, after ten years of tutelage in Rome, went up to Paris, where he collaborated with his younger brother, Nicolas Sébastien, in designing the Neptune and Amphitrite Fountain in the gardens of Versailles. Then he moved to Potsdam and carved for Frederick the Great, as gifts from Louis XV, two marble groups—Hunting and Fishing— for the grounds of Sanssouci. Nicolas Sébastien returned to Nancy and designed the tomb of Katharin Opalinska in the Church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. A third brother, François Balthasar Gaspard, helped to decorate Stanislas’ capital.
A third family of sculptors began with Filippo Caffieri, who left Italy in 1660 to work with his son François Charles for Louis XIV. Another son, Jacques Caffiéri, brought the genius of the line to its peak, surpassing all his contemporaries as a worker in bronze. Nearly all the royal palaces competed for his time. At Versailles he and his son Philippe adorned the chimneypiece in the apartment of the Dauphin, and made the rococo bronze pedestal for the King’s famous astronomical clock. The bronze mounts that Jacques made for furniture are now treasured beyond the furniture itself.5
Edme Bouchardon, whom Voltaire called “our Pheidias,”6 accepted completely the classical principles proclaimed by his patron the Comte de Caylus. For many years he labored in rivalry with Pigalle, until Pigalle thought himself surpassed; Diderot quoted the younger sculptor as saying that he had “never entered Bouchardon’s studio without coming out with a sense of discouragement that lasted entire weeks.”7 Diderot thought that Bouchardon’s Amour (Cupid)8 was destined to immortality, but it hardly catches the fire of love. Better is the fountain that the sculptor carved for the Rue de Grenelle in Paris—a masterpiece of classic dignity and strength. In 1749 the city commissioned him to execute an equestrian statue of Louis XV. He worked on it nine years, cast it in 1758, but did not live to see it set up. Dying (1762), he asked the municipal authorities to let Pigalle finish the enterprise; so their long rivalry ended in a gesture of admiration and trust. The statue was erected in the Place Louis Quinze, and was demolished as a hated emblem by the Revolution (1792).
Jean Baptiste Lemoyne rejected classical restraints as sentencing sculpture to death. Why should not marble or bronze, as well as pictorial tempera or oil, express movement, feeling, laughter, joy, and grief—as, indeed, Hellenistic statuary had dared to do? In that spirit Lemoyne designed the tombs of Cardinal Fleury and the painter Pierre Mignard for the Church of St.-Roch. So, in the Montesquieu that he carved for Bordeaux, he showed the author of The Spirit of Laws as a quizzical, melancholy skeptic, a cross between a Roman senator and a provincial philosopher smiling at Parisian ways. That fleeting smile became almost the identifying signature of the many portrait busts that Lemoyne made, by order of the King, to commemorate divers worthies of France. This lively expressionistic style triumphed over the classicism of Bouchardon and passed down to Pigalle, Pajou, Houdon, and Falconet in one of the great ages of sculpture in France.