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by Wendell Garrett
|The Dutch sculptor Adriaen de Vries (1556-1626) did for bronze what Bernini would later do for marble. A recent international loan exhibition that brought together about 40 of his bronzes -- organized by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm -- was held at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and confirmed de Vries' reputation as one of the greatest sculptors of his age. Among the masterpieces of European sculpture in the permanent collection of the Getty Museum are two specimens by de Vries: Rearing Horse (ca. 1610-1615) and Juggling Figure (ca. 1610-15).
Some wag once defined sculpture as something you bump into when you step back to look at a painting. Like most witticisms, this one contains a germ of truth: both the general public and art historians pay more attention to painting than to sculpture. We are a society geared to experiencing things on a flat plane rather than in three dimensions. Not only do we learn from the pages and photographs in books and magazines, but the flat screen of television and now the computer play even greater roles in our lives. Since the Renaissance, in fact, theoretical debates over the relative merits of the two arts have most often come out in favor of painting. For anyone who doubts the relative lack of interest in sculpture, it is only necessary to look at the art market, where sculpture prices fall well below those for painting. This preference for painting is nothing new: in 1846 the young Charles Baudelaire wrote a notorious essay entitled Why Sculpture is Boring.
Born in The Hague, Adriaen de Vries traveled to Florence in the early 1580s and joined the studio of Giambologna, the official sculptor to the Medici dukes. De Vries was Giambologna's most influential and innovative follower and played a key role in disseminating the Florentine Mannerist style of the late 16th century to the courts of Northern Europe.
De Vries was one among a number of Dutch artistic pilgrims who left the Netherlands for Italy to study the art of antiquity and the great Italian masters. Dutch artists also emigrated to foreign countries in search of commissions from patrons, mainly Italian and German princes. Being an artist at court was extremely attractive, bringing with it many financial and social privileges, as well as independence from the guilds. The fact that the Netherlands was a continuous theater of war from 1568, with disastrous consequences for the economy, hastened the emigration of artists to other parts of Europe.
In the spring of 1586, de Vries arrived in Milan, where he accepted a position as chief assistant to Pompeo Leoni, who was working for the Spanish Habsburg court. Two years later de Vries was offered his first independent position, as court sculptor in Turin. There he made a large equestrian statue as an important element in the duke's ambitious program of construction and decoration. After barely 18 months, in June 1589, he left for Prague and the court of Emperor Rudolf II, where he continued to work until his death.
Adriaen de Vries is described in contemporary documents as a bossierer -- a modeler. In the sculptor's complex production process, modeling was the most creative moment in the genesis of a sculpture. A model was the visualization of an artistic idea, and, in a sense, this appreciation of the wax, terracotta or plaster model contains the key to a proper understanding of the style of de Vries' bronzes.
Within the period 1590-1626, which covers his career as an independent master, his style evolved from a precise and sharp line to a loose, vigorous treatment of anatomy. The earliest sculptures are smoothly polished and delicately detailed. The final stylistic phase in de Vries' career, described as the artist's ultima maniera, is marked by a highly individualistic style that is unpolished, unconventional, expressive and frequently coarse.
In this last productive phase of the artist's career, de Vries achieved a meaningful, dramatic interaction of figures through gesture and glance that foreshadowed the Baroque style that was to dominate European art in the 1600s.
The dynamic pose of the Getty Museum's Rearing Horse, with forelegs pawing the air, and the beauty of the golden-red patina of the animal's smooth, muscular body, both testify to de Vries' exceptional skill as a designer and maker of bronzes. The horse was an extremely popular subject in European sculpture from the time of the Renaissance onward, perhaps because of its association with famous ancient monuments, such as the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome.
By the 17th century, technical advances in the art of bronze casting enabled sculptors to balance the weight of the entire composition on two of the horse's legs. Several primary concerns of the early Baroque esthetic -- sudden violent motion and the sense of a fleeting moment frozen in time -- were intrinsic to the image of the rearing horse and made it an appealing subject for sculptors and their patrons.
The muscular nude figure of Juggling Figure was inspired by a Hellenistic marble of a Dancing Faun in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. The ancient, music-making Faun has horns and a small tail, holds cymbals and steps on a foot organ. De Vries eliminated the horns and tail, changed the foot organ to a bellows and got rid of the hand straps of the cymbals, transforming them into plates for juggling.
By consciously recalling an antique precedent, the sculptor displayed his ability to rival the accomplishments of ancient artists. Moreover, his revisions to the composition demonstrated his powers of invention and his keen understanding of the human body in motion. Caught at a crucial moment in an acrobatic trick, with one plate perched precariously on his fingertips and the other seemingly suspended by centripetal force, the figure conveys extraordinary vitality and movement within a perfectly balanced composition. The vigorous treatment of the rippling muscles enhances the rhythm and elasticity of the open pose. Such self-conscious demonstrations of feats of artistic virtuosity and juggling tricks were highly valued in the court of Emperor Rudolf II. The sculpture becomes a vehicle for the exploration of dynamic equilibrium.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.