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Work Woman Frightened by Lightning that Has Struck the Tree beside Her

Department of Sculptures: France, 17th and 18th centuries

Woman Frightened by Lightning that Has Struck the Tree beside Her

© Musée du Louvre/P. Philibert

France, 17th and 18th centuries

Valérie Montalbetti

The confrontation between human frailty and the forces of nature, rare in sculpture, was a popular theme in literature and painting in the second half of the 18th century. Stouf reconciles the classical canon of the figure with a sensibility that is already Romantic by exacerbating the young woman's fright and the violence of the gust of wind.

Delectable terror

The long title under which Jean-Baptiste Stouf exhibited this terracotta statuette at the 1798 Salon emphasizes the work's narrative, almost literary nature. The confrontation between human fraillty and nature's forces unleashed catalyzes that delectable terror which the English philosopher Edmund Burke associated with the sublime in his 1757 treatise, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. This sentimental and dramatic conception, influenced by the novels of the English author Samuel Richardson, pervaded French literature. We find traces of it in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Julie, or the New Eloise, 1761) and Diderot's commentaries (1767 Salon). It is at its apogee in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's novel Paul and Virginia (1789). Although frequent in painting (Vernet, Prud'hon, Girodet), the theme of human helplessness in the face of raging nature is rare in sculpture.

A reference to Niobe

The artist combines the classical figural esthetic and an expressiveness foreshadowing Romanticism. The fluid, high-waisted "Empire line" dress and short hair worn with a head band correspond to the antique-inspired fashion during the Directory period. The superb formal effects of the body bent by the gust of wind and the billowing veil are references to great works from antiquity. Her gestures refer to the Niobe group, an antique figure group found in Rome in 1583 depicting Niobe and her children, who were massacred by Apollo and Artemis because Niobe had mocked their mother Leto's lack of fertility. Often copied and reproduced in engravings, it was exhibited in the gardens of the Villa Medici in Rome until 1769 then moved to the Uffizi in Florence. Its celebrated sculptor succeeded in conveying various expressions of distress without compromising the restraint and beauty of the figures. The billowing veil recalls marine triumphs such as Raphael's The Triumph of Galatea in the Villa Farnesina, Rome.
Yet the sculptor intensifies the effect of the gust: the bending body, exaggerated drapery effects, unruly hair. The splintered tree trunk states the violence of the elements. The distraught face (open mouth, raised eyebrows, and sideways look) are reminiscent of his Afflicted Young Woman, shown at the 1785 Salon (Louvre), but the eyes are left blank, in the antique manner. Stouf was a virtuoso modeler of clay, a material that enabled him to express the innermost quivering of the soul, and his work delighted the refined collectors of his day.

A pre-Romantic sensibility

The work went unnoticed at the Salon, except by a writer for Mercure de France, who judged its extreme expressiveness contrary to good taste. But the painter Féréol de Bonnemaison directly refered to it at the next salon by exhibiting A Young Woman out in the Country Finds Herself Caught in a Storm (Brooklyn Museum, New York). The statuette illustrates the new, pre-Romantic sensibility in French art at the end of the 18th century, in which Stouf played an outstanding role alongside the painters Prud'hon and Girodet. The sculpture was acquired for the Louvre in 2000 by the Friends of the Louvre at the auction of the Karl Lagerfeld collection.


Scherf Guilhem, "Un don de la Société des amis du Louvre au département des Sculptures : Femme effrayée d'un coup de tonnerre qui vient de rompre un arbre à côté d'elle de Jean-Baptiste Stouf", in Revue du Louvre, 2000, n 4, pp.18-21.
Scherf Guilhem, "Femme effrayée d'un coup de tonnerre qui vient
de rompre un arbre à côté d'elle de Jean-Baptiste Stouf", in Nouvelles acquisitions du département des sculptures (1996-2001), Paris, 2002, pp.74-77.

Technical description

  • Jean-Baptiste STOUF (Paris, 1742 - Charenton-le-Pont, 1826)

    Woman Frightened by Lightning that Has Struck the Tree beside Her

    Salon of 1798

  • Terracotta

    H. 0.61 m; W. 0.37 m; D. 0.28 m

  • Gift of the Société des Amis du Louvre, 2000 , 2000

    R.F. 4652

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Room 221

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Additional information about the work

1798 Salon