Work Madame du Barry (née Marie-Jeanne Bécu) (1743-1793)
Department of Sculptures: France, 17th and 18th centuries
Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse Du Barry (1743-1793)
© Musée du Louvre/P. Philibert
France, 17th and 18th centuries
Augustin Pajou, first sculptor to the king, executed this voluptuous portrait of Louis XV's favorite for whom the king built the Château de Louveciennes and who was guillotined during the Revolution. The masterly working of the marble enhances the beauty of the subject, whose features the artist has idealized without seeking to express her psychology. This bust brought Pajou immediate fame.
Madame du Barry, the sculpture and last portrait
Jeanne Bécu, who was of modest origins, met Louis XV in 1768 and became his favorite (acquiring the title of "comtesse" or countess after their hasty marriage). The king built for her the Château de Louveciennes, to which she retired on the sovereign's death in 1774. She was arrested and executed during the Revolution in 1793. The countess had an undeniable taste for sculpture and commissioned a set of works from the best artists of the time. Augustin Pajou became her favorite artist. From 1770 to 1773, he made five busts of her, significantly marked by the changes in her hairstyles. In one of the busts, she asked to be depicted with her hair dressed in the style of Falconet's Bather (a sculpture she owned, Louvre), but she was disappointed with the result and had the work destroyed.
The last of these busts was the life-sized marble portrait now kept in the Louvre, which triumphed at the Salon of 1773. The harmonious proportions, fluid lines and masterly working of the marble give the work great sensuality. The head is turned slightly to the left, drawing attention to the hairstyle. The hair is drawn up on top of the head in tiara style, exposing a smooth, high forehead, and then falls away in curls. These are carefully arranged above the right shoulder and undulate toward the left shoulder, ending at the top of the left breast in a superb spiral ringlet. The sculpture thus invites the spectator to move around the statue to follow the movement of the hair. The flowing fabric of the bodice reveals rather than conceals the handsome curves of the king's favorite, baring the top of her left breast.
Emergence of a new taste
The work was executed at a time when a new taste in sculpture was emerging, which favored a return to naturalism and the values of Antiquity. The young woman is not depicted wearing contemporary clothing, but a "Greek-style" tunic, with light fabric secured by a strap across the shoulder in the ancient Greek fashion, albeit devoid of archaeological accuracy. The style of the drapery is more subdued, although it retains some of the gaiety of rocaille art (the creases in the fabric, the movement of the folds, the play of the material over the strap). The impassive, proud bearing of the king's favorite gives her the serene nobility of an ancient goddess. Unlike his contemporary and rival Houdon, Pajou did not seek to render the psychology of the figure, but idealized it so as to imbue it with immanent beauty.
The fame of the sculptor and the work
This bust established Pajou's renown as a portraitist of women. The allowance he received from the king was raised and he was granted a workshop at the Louvre. The countess ensured his work was shown in public and asked the sculptor to provide a plaster cast for Jean-Baptiste Locré's new German porcelain factory so that biscuit porcelain reproductions could be made. She presented King Gustav III of Sweden with a marble reproduction. The reputation of the bust remains intact to this day. A reproduction of it featured in Ernst Lubitsch's movie Bluebeard's Eighth Wife.
BibliographyStein Henri, Augustin Pajou, Paris, 1912, p. 116-134.
Bresc-Bautier Geneviève, Sculpture française XVIIIe siècle (École du Louvre, Notices d'histoire de l'art, n 3), Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1980, n 46.
Gaborit Jean-René, "Le goût de Madame du Barry pour la sculpture", in Madame du Barry. De Versailles à Louveciennes, Marly-le-Roy, Paris, 1992, p. 121-129.
Draper James D. et Scherf Guilhem, Pajou, sculpteur du roi, 1730-1809, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1997, p. 237-246.
Augustin PAJOU (Paris, 1730 - Paris, 1809)
Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse Du Barry (1743-1793)
H. 0.56 m; W. 0.48 m; D. 0.26 m
Display case 1
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