Curators Ian Wardropper and James David Draper describe The French Parnassus, an extraordinary bronze sculpture featured in the special exhibition Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution, on view at the Met from February 24 through May 25, 2009.
Ian Wardropper: Hello. I'm Ian Wardropper from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and I'm with my colleague James David Draper to talk about a masterwork of bronze sculpture that is included in the exhibition Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution. The exhibition includes 125 of the finest statuettes, portrait busts, and monuments, revealing the French genius for bronze from the late Renaissance through the times of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI, and will be on view through May 25, 2009.
We're standing in the Petrie sculpture courtyard of the Metropolitan Museum, a large light-filled hall where we have a permanent collection of our French and Italian sculpture of the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And we're standing in front of one of the bronze works from the exhibition, which we put here because it's so large we really couldn't fit it in the exhibition space, nor could we do it justice. I think it's here, with natural light in the grand space, that the public can appreciate it the best.
And let me begin by trying to describe this extraordinary confection, which stands about five feet high, all of bronze. It's pyramidal in shape. And it represents Mount Parnassus, which is a real mountain in Greece but, by mythic association, was where Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of poetry and music, found inspiration. And above him is the winged horse Pegasus, crowning at the apex of this pyramid, a horse associated with poetry, with poetic inspiration, as well. And down the sides of this craggy mountain, which have rivulets cascading over it and sparse vegetation, are ledges on which stand or sit various figures associated with French literary and creative history, particularly of the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century.
So beneath the god Apollo, who takes the form of the king, Louis XIV, are three scantily clad women who take the form of the Muses—they are, in fact, Graces—and they hold garlands and laurel wreaths and, in fact, represent some women who are literary figures of the seventeenth century. And then, as one descends the mountain, there are various other figures, about a dozen, all of whom represent either poets, writers, or musicians of the French tradition, mostly from the period of Louis XIV but on into the period of Louis XV. There are, sprinkled among all of these figures, winged genii—little children—who hold medallions with further portraits of literary figures, and many of the figures also hold scrolls, which have further inscriptions of names of people who are to be celebrated in this Mount Parnassus.
Finally, the largest figure in terms of scale is closest to the viewer, if you're looking at this mountain, and it is a statue of the man Titon du Tillet, whose genius, whose baby this was, in a sense. It was he who came up with this extraordinary idea of celebrating French creativity. And I want to turn to my colleague Jim Draper to tell us more about the history of this monument.
James David Draper: Titon du Tillet was a very rich man, son of an arms dealer, who wanted to glorify the period of Louis XIV and especially French contribution to genius, to national pride, in French style, among poets and among musicians. He's holding up a scroll, clad in semi-Roman drapery, to dedicate these geniuses to immortality, to confer immortality on them. We've got several of them recognizable. Mind you, there were more than three hundred names on the monument at one point before successive damages happened to it.
We've got the great trio of Corneille, Racine, and Molière, and right behind them La Fontaine, the great writer of fables. And he's identifiable by characters from his fables. There's a cock, there's a fox, and a wolf. A lamb long since got lost. And the only contemporary is on the far left flank—Voltaire, because Titon decided to add that contemporaneous touch. He gave this monument to the king for his library at Versailles, and that's how it's gone from belonging to the Bibliothèque Nationale that keeps it on long-term loan at Versailles.
It hasn't been on view in a long, long time—not really public view. It's been in the smaller of the stables at Versailles for viewing upon request. And so, we're extremely lucky that it hasn't been on primary view so that it could be lent for this extraordinary exhibition.
Ian Wardropper: Titon du Tillet had this notion of creating this bronze monument to the French genius principally of the previous century, of the seventeenth century. And he started with a man named Louis Garnier, who between 1718 and 1721 cast the first of these statuettes as well as the mountain on which they all rest. And if you look at it closely you'll see that it's rather dense with these figures towards the top and as one descends down the mountain there are more gaps. And that was because it was an additive process—that Titon had it in mind that he would add, over time, other figures. So he left room for them.
And then in order to include everyone, he came up with the expedient of these little medallions that would be added, little portrait medallions of some of the figures when it occurred to him and others later to add them. Many of these medallions have disappeared over time or have been replaced by others, but what it represents is a kind of accumulation of thought in the eighteenth century of what the greatness of French civilization was in the previous century, with, as Jim mentioned, a few contemporary add-ons, such as Voltaire.
As an idea, the Parnassus goes back to the Italian Renaissance. There are representations in the Vatican Palace—paintings by Raphael, for instance, of a scene of Parnassus with Apollo that has ancient figures as well as more contemporary ones, like Dante. So here the French have taken over this concept of the Parnassus and made their own monument. But there was very much an ongoing debate at the time that Titon was creating this work of who should be included. Who are the great French—primarily men, but also women—of literature? And this reflects the best thinking, if you will, of the moment, but of course it was very much in contest. Who deserves to be in this list? This goes on today in the French Academy, trying to decide who are the great people of French literature.
When Jim and I first saw this sculpture in the stables at Versailles, it was perched on a painted black wooden base that continued the shape of the bronze mountain. So it was something like twelve feet high and very romantic in the gloom of the stables. We had to perch on ladders in order to examine it. And later it was determined that the wooden base was too fragile to travel for the exhibition so we only took the bronze base, which is enough in itself, as I think the public will agree. It's really quite an amazing object. But it is an object that was conserved for this exhibition—cleaned, especially—and I think because of its role in the exhibition, the French have gained a new appreciation of this object, which has been somewhat off of view in Versailles for a number of years, and it is the hope that when it returns to France that they'll find a more permanent location for it, that it can be seen regularly by the public.
James David Draper: Titon's ambitions for this were absolutely extraordinary. In planning, hoping, for a big monument in stone, he also wanted to raise money, and he did this in the form of causing books of engravings to be published. He had painted copies sent to the King of Denmark and to the King of Prussia, all in an effort—a wholehearted effort, but also one to help him out with the costs of this big project.
I would just add that Garnier is not terribly well known. I believe that he belonged basically among the teams of artists who made sculptures for the gardens at Versailles. The additions by Pajou are by a much better-known figure of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and they include Voltaire in particular, as well as the kneeling figure of Titon. We had an exhibition of him, a monographic exhibition of Pajou, about twelve years ago, I suppose it was.
Ian Wardropper: Though we've extracted this work from the others in the exhibition, it reflects, in many ways, sculptures that you will see throughout the exhibition, particularly towards the end, where we have a section devoted to the Enlightenment, where we have bronze busts of Voltaire and Rousseau and other figures who were so famous in the eighteenth century, and that show bronze's capacity to reveal the character of many of these figures through the precision in which the features of the face can be shown. And this continues here in these small-scale statuettes, this notion of trying to reproduce the character of French literature through the portraits of the men who wrote these works of art.
There are also many other monuments throughout the exhibition, particularly to the king. So if Apollo, at the peak of this mountain here, takes the form of the king, Louis XIV, as we know from the writings of the patron is the case, then if you go through the exhibition you'll see numerous monuments to Louis XIV, particularly equestrian monuments that were erected throughout the realm and which, because of the Revolution, no longer exist or were torn down at some point. So in a sense this is another monument that never quite existed.
While many of the monuments to Louis XIV were erected and are now torn down, this is a projected monument that never happened at the scale to which Titon wished. It was to be a fifty-foot-high stone monument with individual figures that would have been something like nine feet high each. Imagine it in the place where the Arc de Triomphe is now, for example, which was one of the locations projected for it, or in the gardens of Versailles. It would have been a bewildering, probably hideous, sight. But this bronze was Titon's model that he used to try to inspire people to create his monument.
James David Draper: That's right. All of its associations are royal besides literary. It had the names of kings and queens on it also, and we know only cryptically that those "marks of feudalism," as they were called, were removed also during the Revolution.
Ian Wardropper: Titon wanted this to go to the king, and he willed it to his nephew with the stipulation that it be given or offered to the king. And, indeed, the king did accept it, I believe in 1766. And it was put in the Bibliothèque du Roi, the library of the king at that time. And we know that people came to see it, but other than the fact that the king agreed to accept it, we don't know precisely what his reaction to it was.
James David Draper: The guy really was unstoppable. He even wanted a pendant group to illustrate the admirals and generals of the ancient rulers. But that just didn't happen, for reasons that are fairly obvious.
Ian Wardropper: And it is interesting as well, since, as Jim pointed out, Titon was the son of an arms dealer and made his money from procuring and ordering weapons for warfare. So this notion that he would have a monument to military leaders as well as to cultural figures makes a certain amount of sense. But, to his credit, what he thought of first was ennobling the great aspects of French civilization and literature.
I'm Ian Wardropper, the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Chairman of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and I'm with James David Draper, the Henry R. Kravis Curator, also of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. We've been talking to you from the Museum's Milton and Carroll Petrie European Sculpture Court.
Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum through May 25, 2009.
The exhibition is made possible by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation.
The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.