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Jean de La Fontaine (1621 - 1695)

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Sculptures
France, 17th and 18th centuries

Author(s):
Montalbetti Valérie

The statue belongs to a series of great men, commissioned by the royal administration under Louis XVI to commemorate national glories. Julien produced a very natural-looking portrait of the great fable writer of Louis XIV's reign. At the poet's side, one of his characters, the fox, symbolizes his work. The bas-relief around the base illustrates his most famous fables.

The Great Men series

Count d'Angiviller, Director of the King's Buildings, decided in 1776 to commission sculptors at the Académie to produce a series of marble statues perpetuating the memory of French paragons of virtue and talent. The commemoration of great men, a major theme in Roman statuary, sat well with the revived taste for antiquity. But the series' main purpose was to reinforce the idea of the nation as indissociable from the monarchy. From 1776 to 1787, there were seven successive commissions, each for four marbles. The statues were destined for the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, which would house the future Museum. Until it opened they were to be installed in the Antiquities Room (the Caryatids Room). In the early 19th century, the series was divided up between Versailles, the Institut de France, and the Louvre. Although the series consists largely of soldiers, now at Versailles, the Louvre sculptures are above all of artists and writers, such as Poussin, Pascal, and La Fontaine.

A portrait of affability and intelligence

Pierre Julien received the commission in 1781, exhibited the plaster model (Musée du Puy) at the 1783 Salon, and the marble at the 1785 Salon. The critics praised the fable writer's bonhomie, insouciance, and simplicity. Julien did not give him the rather hieratic pose that commemorative monuments often demanded. La Fontaine's pose is relaxed; he is sitting casually with his legs crossed. In his right hand, carelessly resting on a tree trunk, he is holding a quill (partly broken). His carefully and delicately sculpted hair falls in long locks. His head is expressive and modeled with finesse. His gaze, although dreamily distant, conveys his sharp intellect. His brow is furrowed in thought. His faint smile expresses mischievousness tempered with bonhomie. Julien has sought less to express the traits of the writer than his vitality and intelligence.

Timelessness and period costume

It is thought that the sculptor depicted an anecdote told to him by the Duchess of Bouillon: one morning at Versailles, she came across La Fontaine daydreaming under a tree and then again in the evening in the same state at the same spot. Julien is above all depicting the timelessness of the creative reverie. The rough ground and the tree trunk against which the writer is resting do not indicate a precise location but signify nature. On the other hand, in conformity with imposed conventions, the costume is contemporary. Julien is demonstrating his skill at this, seemingly taking pleasure in sculpting the wide, buttoned sleeves, cravat, large buttonholes, and buckled shoes.
The artist includes numerous references to La Fontaine's fables, in which his animal characters criticized the vices of the court. At his side, with its paw on his collected works, is his favorite animal, the fox. On the sheet of paper he is holding, the first verses of the Fox and the Grapes; around the plinth, an infinitely delicate sculpted bas-relief illustrating nine of his famous fables.

Bibliography

Pascal André, "Pierre Julien sculpteur", GBA, avril 1903, pp.336-341.
Bresc-Bautier Geneviève, Sculpture française XVIIIe siècle (École du Louvre, Notices d'histoire de l'art n 3), Paris, 1980, n 43.
Worley Michael Preston, "Catalogue of the Works of Pierre Julien", GBA, novembre 1988, pp.192-193.

Technical description

  • Pierre JULIEN (Saint-Paulien (Haute-Loire), 1731 - Paris, 1804)

    Jean de La Fontaine (1621 - 1695)

  • Marbre. Salon de 1785

    H. : 1,73 m. ; L. : 1,10 m. ; Pr. : 1,29 m.

  • Entré au Louvre en 1960

    R.F. 2983

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Galerie des "Grands Hommes"
    Room 29

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