If you have never heard the name of Augustin Pajou (1730-1809) or seen any of his sculptures, don't feel bad. Pajou was never a household name, not even in 18th-century France, where he was a sculptor much favored by the royal court. As a matter of fact the Metropolitan Museum is currently giving this great sculptor his first "one man show" ever. It is long overdue.
French Neoclassicism is a wonderfully curious amalgam of contemporary Enlightenment ideas expressed in allegorical imagery of Greek and Roman mythology. Postmodernists will appreciate the clash between the idealism and realism that gave us a statue of the Enlightenment encyclopedist Buffon naked from the chest down and a statue of the nymph Psyche whose nudity was shockingly realistic, almost a century before Manet's similarly outrageous Olympia. Finally, visitors to this show can take a first-hand look at a mode that nags at the subconscious from a thousand busts and sculptures at schools, courthouses and capitals -- Neoclassicism, the style that has spread throughout the Western world as the very epitome of civic sculpture -- and has to be seen now as a kind of invisible baseline from which everything modern must spring.
Although the title "Sculptor to the King" had been abolished before Pajou's day, he nevertheless served in this capacity for Louis XV and Louis XVI. His commissions included decorative assignments for the Royal Opera in Versailles, as well as statues of France's leading courtiers, scientists and statesmen, all carved in the Neoclassical style. There is, however, a paucity of royal portraits, and there is only one church related work -- a stucco on stone of Saint Francis de Sales. All Pajou's faces mirror a strong psychological realism, making his an outstanding contribution to the art of the portrait. It's often as if we are reading not only the face, but the very soul of a sitter.
Pajou was assigned an apartment in the Louvre by Louis XV, which made inevitable a meeting with Madame du Barry, the mistress of the king. She prevailed on him to do her bust, and because she wielded considerable power especially in the area of taste, he readily acceded. He did a total of five of her portrait busts as well as sculptural decorations for her chateau at Louveciennes.
The earliest bust shows a carefully coifed du Barry. Her face is serene and elegant. Her dress is skillfully gathered about her right shoulder. The critics of the time praised the portrait highly -- "There is nothing so beautiful as this bust, unique in its authenticity, charm and expression. It strikes even the most inept viewers with the air of sensuality that infuses the face."
(Mme. du Barry had never been a favorite of Marie Antoinette, and quickly lost favor when the king died in 1774. She fled to England, but made the gross error of returning to France too early and was guillotined in l793.)
Contemporary judgment was much more critical of the statue Psyche Abandoned. This larger-than-life-size sculpture presented Psyche at the moment she had been abandoned by Cupid, her lover. Cupid had insisted that Psyche could never see him, and that he would meet with her only at night. Unable to restrain her curiosity, Psyche prepared herself both with a lamp -- in Pajou's sculpture, now shattered at her feet -- and a knife, in case Cupid should look like a monster.
Abandoning his Neoclassical mode, Pajou modeled the face of Psyche on that of a beautiful Parisienne, although he had complained that "pretty models cost three times what plain models would ask." Some critics were disappointed that Psyche did not have Grecian features and wrote that "this Psyche looks like a chorus girl from the Opera." Her face mirrors pain and dismay, and the modeling of her back was superb. Yet critics complained Pajou did not show the body of a "young girl, but that of someone more than 25 years of age."
The statue's display in the courtyard of the Salon brought another protest, this time from the Curate of Saint-German L'Auxerrois, who was shocked by Psyche's total, and notably realistic, nudity. The authorities promptly had the statue removed to Pajou's studio, where the artist then had to fend off an onslaught of curious visitors.
During the worst of the Terror in Paris, Pajou was in Montpellier, attending to his wife Angelique, who was ill (she died in 1794). He was able to return to Paris, though the inscription "du roi" had been chipped off his signature on the base of his Psyche.
One of the most heroic statues commissioned by Louis XV was that of the great French naturalist, Buffon (George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, 1707-1788). (Buffon had inherited an estate at Montbard, only to replace it with a tree nursery and a menagerie. He was to collect the fauna and flora of France which were documented in 44 volumes that to this day are one of the trophies of avid book collectors.)
The statue shows Buffon partially cloaked, stylus in hand, a globe near his feet and a sleeping lion at his side. It is interesting to note that Buffon had his hair dressed more than three times a day and so it's not surprising that Pajou took extra care with Buffon's coiffure. His erect stature and eagle eyes show him to be in robust health and at the height of his powers, strongly resembling the statues of Roman senators and philosophers.
Among other notable sculptures are Pluto Keeping Cerberus in Chains, l760, which was Pajou's required entry piece for admission to the French Academy. Here the god of the underworld is presented with crossed legs indicating tension, his torso in a half turn, with eyes averted as he holds the three-headed dog Cerberus in strong chains.
The four statues of France's "four greats": Pascal, Descartes, Turenne, and Bossuet show Pajou at his best.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Pajou exhibition are the artist's clock designs, in particular the one commissioned by the King of Denmark. The spectacular bronze clock case is one of the most opulent examples of 18th century clock work extant, and remains a highlight of the Copenhagen royal collection.
To see the work of Pajou's contemporaries, one need only descend to the Petrie Court of European sculpture also at the Met. Here the viewer encounters a bust of Madame Pompadour by Jean Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785) showing the marquise at 27 at a time of her first triumphs at court. Other contemporary work includes the four large limestone representations of fire, water, earth, and air by Jean-Pierre Defrance (1694-1768) which decorate the south wall of the Court.
During his time, Pajou was much appreciated by his colleagues and the French aristocracy, but he has limited presence in American museums. The fragility of sculpture and risks of mounting shows abroad have in the past discouraged exhibitions of this size. The current Pajou show begins to fill a void.
"Augustin Pajou, Royal Sculptor" at the Metropolitan Museum, Feb. 26-May 24, 1998.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.