Etienne Maurice Falconet came out of nowhere. We have no record of the years he is reported to have spent as an apprentice in a master’s shop. Although Parisian by birth, he did not belong to any of the established artistic dynasties. At eighteen, he is said to have worked at a chair-maker’s shop, heralding the type of artisanal livelihood that so many now unknown sculptors embraced in the burgeoning luxury trade of early eighteenth-century Paris. But soon enough he managed to ease his way out of chair-making and into the fortunate selection of young sculptors to compete for and achieve membership of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. What happened next, Falconet’s reinvention of himself as a modern philosophe, can be considered a singular achievement by any standards.
Contemporary apocrypha of course reinforce the idea of the hypnotic charm exuded by his works, and leave the man out of the picture. Chance discoveries in the gardens of Versailles and furtive work in the studio of his master Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne are all part of the legend: Lemoyne is reported to have barged in on Falconet during waged hours, catching him red-handed modelling an independent work, his Milo of Croton. Lemoyne then cheered him on. ‘The young Falconet offered himself to Lemoyne as servant, valet, anything he liked’, is how Denis Diderot, one of his closest friends and allies, recalls a decisive encounter between the two. Falconet’s mode of introduction to Lemoyne was a selling point, and it would have involved intricacies of parentage, speech, demeanour and manner.
The remainder of Falconet’s life story, now less apocryphal, shows that the man was unusually adept at winning over the well-connected and powerful. No other artist of his time seemed better able to tap into the wishes and convictions of his beneficiaries or contemporaries: to his Parisian masters, he was a renegade with an admiration for the Provençal sculptor Pierre Puget, while at the Académie royale, he was a social riser, author of a lecture on the art of sculpture written with a clarity and forcefulness worthy of a literate amateur member. He was a sumptuously decorative artist to Madame de Pompadour, who appointed him to the post of modeller for the recently created Sèvres National Porcelain Manufactory. He was the Boucher of sculpture to fashionable Parisian art collectors, and the Jean-Jacques Rousseau of sculpture to Diderot, his friend at the radical Salon d’Holbach. A bibliophile who, by the early 1760s, had accumulated a stunning facility with classical literature, Falconet culled from the stoics a persona of utter restraint, with living and dressing habits to match.
This was all before 1766, when, aged fifty, he emigrated to St Petersburg where he played a French homme d’esprit and confidant to Catherine II of Russia, who commissioned him with what would be his magnum opus as a sculptor: the landmark equestrian statue of Peter I in St Petersburg, known in street parlance as the ‘Bronze horseman’. Was this all really because his sculptures were so well done? As Diderot quipped in his Jacques le fataliste, we may believe it to be true, or decide it is a falsehood, and we would not be wrong in either case.
1 December 2016 marked three centuries since the birth of this remarkable actor of the Enlightenment stage. Art history, the discipline that through the twentieth century rediscovered him as a proto-romantic rebel, seems of late to have ignored his sculpture. He was not one to sympathize with those men of letters who reviewed works at the Salons where he exhibited his marble sculptures, even though these men were inventing modern art criticism. Conversely, their parliamentary reformism did not inform his manicured, seductive sculpture by any perceivable or logical rationale. Perhaps one day more will come of comparing his work to Diderot’s materialism and complex rethinking of the links between artistic activity and moral realities, illusion and artifice in art.
For now, the way one understands the socio-cultural and aesthetic modernity breaking through in eighteenth-century France is more Chardin or David than Falconet. By contrast, Falconet’s writings, which were recuperated from oblivion by Yves Benot and Anne Betty Weinshenker (Falconet: his writings and his friend Diderot, published in 1966), continue to represent a challenge, almost a missing link to fledging Enlightenment cultural battles. But theory too seems to have represented for Falconet a means of bending and refashioning his circumstances for the better. After starting on his Russian mission in 1766, Falconet practically gave up sculpture in order to devote himself to his written polemics. This new obsession led to his falling out with Diderot, who was wary of Falconet’s plans to publish a series of letters they had exchanged since 1765.
After this, Falconet set out to extract from the letters a body of critical commentary that, in 1781, became published simply as a collection of polemical pieces. Only in these pieces does Falconet deploy a more strident persona: an iconoclast that attacks false privilege and the condescension of literary luminaries writing inanely on art. It is left to the discerning connoisseur and the critical art historian to quarrel over how to credit Falconet’s successes. Was it a result of his sheer vocation for modelling and carving marble figures, or should we also see other factors at work? Power-grabbing is one thing to consider, as Jacques-Louis David made clear in his commentary on a heated argument from 1793 on power abuses at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In David’s report, he recalled how a young former student of Falconet committed suicide after a falling-out with the sculptor. Whatever this may say to us, Falconet had a tenacious way of making sure he stayed on the winning side.
For a deeper analysis of the sculptor’s life at the famous Académie, see my book The Profession of sculpture in the Paris Académie.
– Tomas Macsotay