The Bronze Horseman: Falconet's Monument to Peter the Great

The Bronze Horseman: Falconet's Monument to Peter the Great

by Alexander M. Schenker

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This book is the first comprehensive treatment in any language of the most consequential work of art ever to be executed in Russia—the equestrian monument to Peter the Great, or The Bronze Horseman, as it has come to be known since it appeared in Alexander Pushkin’s poem bearing that title.

The author deals with the cultural setting that prepared the ground for the monument and provides life stories of those who were involved in its creation: the sculptors Etienne-Maurice Falconet and Marie-Anne Collot, the engineer Marin Carburi, the diplomat Dmitry Golitsyn, and Catherine’s “commissar” for culture, Ivan Betskoi. He also touches upon the extraordinary resonance of the monument in Russian culture, which, since the unveiling in 1782, has become the icon of St. Petersburg and has alimented the so-called “St. Petersburg theme” in Russian letters, familiar from the works of such writers as Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Bely.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300212235
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/05/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Alexander M. Schenker is professor emeritus of Slavic linguistics at Yale University.

Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2003 Alexander M. Schenker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09712-2

Chapter One

Paris: The Early Years


[Falconet] has finesse, taste, intelligence, delicacy, kindness, and grace in full measure; ... he is awkward and polite, friendly and brusque, kind and harsh; ... he reads and reflects; ... he's amiable and caustic, serious and mocking, ... he's a philosophe, who doesn't believe in anything and knows perfectly well why. -Diderot (1765)

Etienne-Maurice Falconet came from a family of simple artisans of very modest means. How plain his origins were can be seen from an entry for February 12, 1714, in the register of the church of Notre-Dame de la Bonne Nouvelle in Paris, where his parents were married. According to the church records, his father, Maurice, and his uncle Pierre Falconet were journeymen joiners; his paternal grandfather, Claude Falconet, was a peasant from Savoy; his maternal grandfather, Nicolas Guérin, was a cobbler, and his uncle François Falconet was a servant. The newlyweds settled in a modest lodging on rue de Bourbon-Villeneuve, and that was where Etienne-Maurice saw the light of day on December 1, 1716.

Falconet's digital dexterity was inherited from both sides of the family. His father must have possessed an ability to carve intricate designs on the furniture of his making in order to satisfy the dictates of contemporary fashion. On his mother's side, there was an uncle, Nicolas Guillaume, who owned a stonecutting workshop and is referred to in church records as a "sculptor." That is where young Falconet was initiated into the craft of working with a chisel and mallet. He helped to make marble mantelpieces, garden furniture, and tombstones. To earn extra money he cut wooden dummies for wigmakers' shops. His heart, however, was not in commercial art. He dreamed of making sculpture "in the grand style."

There was little sympathy for such fantasies in the Falconet family. As his friend the painter Robin wrote: "if sometimes, driven by a compelling force, he tried to shape figures out of wood or clay, he was reproached for wasting his time." But he was not easily discouraged. He may not have received much support from his family, but the country at large was alive with artistic creativity and was able to support a brilliant pleiad of painters, sculptors, and architects. They found their patrons not only at the court, in the nobility, or among the princes of the church, but also in the increasingly prosperous tiers-état. That artistic climate was all that a talented young sculptor needed to encourage him to pursue his calling.

Sculpture was best suited to reflect the glories of the times, and it was habitually called upon to do so. Every city of the realm wanted to have its own statue of the sovereign, equestrian if it could afford it, surrounded by symbolic representations of the country's achievements in war and commerce, industry and agriculture. Sculptors were asked to produce freestanding allegories of provinces, cities, rivers, and seas, and to express in the language of the visual arts such abstract concepts as Wisdom, Vigilance, or Fame, and the various branches of human endeavor traditionally symbolized by the nine Muses. Demand created supply and there was no shortage of artists who were eager to offer their services to anyone willing to pay, preferably the king himself.

Of the Paris sculptors born in the eighteenth century, Jean-Baptiste II Lemoyne (1704-78) was certainly the best known. As a favorite sculpteur du Roi, he received many commissions and needed skilled apprentices. Since he enjoyed an excellent reputation as a teacher, it was to him that Falconet, then aged seventeen, bore a sample of clays he had made in the workshop of his uncle. Here is how Pierre-Charles Lévesque, Falconet's earliest biographer, describes their first meeting: "After trying for a long time to muster enough courage, [Falconet] takes the best of his pieces and goes to ring the bell at the door which was indicated to him. A small man in a working blouse covered with plaster, powdered marble, and clay opens the door. Falconet asks timidly for Monsieur Lemoyne. 'That's me,' answers the little man, 'Come in!' It is too late to retreat. The trembling Falconet uncovers the samples of his work. The indulgent sculptor finds them promising, and agrees to guide him in his artistic career."

Denis Diderot (fig. 1.1), the greatest admirer of Falconet's art and his closest intellectual friend in Paris, offers a somewhat different version of the same episode. According to him Falconet was brought to Lemoyne's studio by the painter Dumont le Romain, who had seen a hollow torso made by Falconet. "The young Falconet offered to be Lemoyne's servant, his valet, whatever he wished. But seeing the torso, Lemoyne said: Young man, you as my valet? You, my friend, are not made for that. You'll be my colleague."

Bright and hard-working, Falconet soon became Lemoyne's favorite pupil. He helped him execute several major commissions, including the Basin of Neptune in Versailles and a large equestrian statue of Louis XV in Bordeaux. Falconet would always recognize his debt to Lemoyne: "[He] deserves my praise and my gratitude. He has earned them by his knowledge and the excellent lessons he had taught me." He was not alone in retaining such warm memories of Lemoyne. The talented group of Lemoyne's children, as the maître used to call them, included such sculptors as Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Jean-Jacques Caffiéri, and Augustin Pajou. They, together with Falconet, represent the best among the young eighteenth-century French sculptors.

The ten years that Falconet spent with Lemoyne were an unusually long term of apprenticeship. Was he simply too comfortable in the household of the hospitable and avuncular Lemoyne? Was he apprehensive about exchanging the modest financial security his work for Lemoyne offered for the incertitude of the highly competitive art market? Or was he eager to stay in a large enterprise and use the time afforded by it to make up in independent study for what he had missed in formal education? All those reasons must have delayed his striking out on his own until well after his marriage imposed upon him serious financial obligations. When he finally left Lemoyne's atelier, he was coming up to thirty, which in those days was considered an advanced age for an artist starting an independent career.

Falconet and Anne-Suzanne Moulin, daughter of a high-class cabinetmaker (ébéniste du Roi), were married on November 19, 1739, in the church of St.-Eustache. She was a woman of no intellectual pretensions, preoccupied with daily domestic problems. Of the couple's four children, only the first one survived into maturity. Pierre-Etienne was endowed with modest artistic gifts, sufficient, he thought, to ensure success as a portrait painter. His father, however, did not think much of his son's abilities and diligence and did not shrink from airing this opinion in public, when he thought that the young man deserved such treatment. Nevertheless, Pierre-Etienne was persistent. He shook off his father's strict controls and demanding standards and settled in London, where he eventually achieved a measure of success as a society portraitist. At thirty-two, however, he reentered his father's life and, from then on, played an important part in it.

In order to become "accredited" a French artist had to submit an original project to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. If the work was judged acceptable by the jury, the artist would be allowed to initiate the process of full membership in the Académie. For sculptors, the next step was the submission of a clay or plaster model of the project. Its approval gave the applicant the title of agréé of the Académie, along with the right to exhibit in the biennial Salons in the Louvre. He would then proceed to the definitive version of the work, which would become his morceau de réception to the Académie.

An ambitious applicant could use this process to define his own artistic persona by challenging the work of his predecessors. An eighteenth-century French sculptor would have many distinguished masters to measure himself against. In the large group of sculptors born before 1700, six names at the very least stand out: Pierre Puget (1620-94), François Girardon (1628-1715), Martin Desjardins (1640-94), Charles-Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720), Guillaume Coustou, Senior (1677-1746), and Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762). They all worked in the idiom of the Baroque, the dominant style of the day, characterized by a restless line, a whirling composition, and chiaroscuro. By depicting dramatic situations with two or more participants, who displayed their sensations and emotions, the Baroque artist could present durative and dynamic aspects of action, conquering thereby the inevitable limitations imposed by inert matter and "single-frame" representation. The highest point of the Baroque is associated with the oeuvre of the Italian sculptor, architect, and urban planner Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). His Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1645-52) is often cited as the most programmatic and paradigmatic example of the Baroque. It was also the inspiration of what is generally regarded as the supreme example of French Baroque sculpture, Puget's Milo of Crotona (1672-82).

The theme that inspired Puget was a dramatic story about a powerful sixth-century B.C. Greek athlete Milo of Crotona, who won so many laurels in military campaigns and wrestling competitions as to be considered invincible. One day, while walking through a forest, Milo came upon a tree trunk which several lumberjacks had tried to split. Unable to do so, they had walked away, leaving behind a wedge stuck in the trunk. Milo, confident of his strength, decided to split the trunk with his bare hands. But as he tried to tear it asunder, the wedge slipped out and fell to the ground, while the trunk closed in on his hand. His arm now rendered useless, Milo was attacked by the animals of the forest and killed.

The bulging muscles of the athlete trying to free his trapped hand and defend himself, the anguish of pain and fear, the ferocity of the beasts-in short, all the visual aspects of the scene-offered a challenge to a Baroque artist and attracted a number of interpretations in sculpture and painting. At the same time, the story of Milo's tragic death in spite of his superhuman strength had a deeper symbolic significance. In ancient Greece it referred to the inexorable powers of Fate, while in the age of the Baroque it became laden with other meanings. On the one hand, it deplored the victory of sheer strength over reason, a concern which was at the center of the intellectual debates of the times. On the other, it alluded to the conflict between the individual and the absolute monarch. That tension must have been on the mind of Puget, who was born in autonomous Marseilles and traveled extensively in Italy, where he became used to the freedom accorded the artist. When he returned, he found himself hemmed in by the authority of Versailles, which had by then been imposed on Marseilles. That is probably why Puget injected royal symbolism into his sculpture by replacing the wolves of the original story with a lion. Puget's idea appealed to Falconet, who on August 29, 1744, presented his own variant of that theme to the judges of the Académie.

The jury of the Académie, however, turned down Falconet's terracotta model of the Milo of Crotona on the grounds that it was too similar to Puget's piece. Not only was Falconet assigned an entirely new subject, an allegory of the Genius of Sculpture, but he was asked to work on it in one of the rooms of the Académie in order to prove that he did not benefit from outside help. When these humiliating demands were fulfilled and it became obvious that the newly submitted work was truly Falconet's own, the jury allowed the sculptor to return to the Milo of Crotona theme and submit it in a different version as his morceau de réception. The damage, however, was done, the reception piece was delayed, and Falconet had to petition the Académie for deadline extensions. Worse than that, the experience made Falconet realize how dependent he was on the whims of his older confre'res. It could not but heighten his hypersensitivity to criticism and to real or imagined threats to artistic freedom.

However unpleasant the jury's initial misgivings must have been for Falconet, they gave us two treatments of one and the same theme, Milo 1744 and Milo 1754. The difference between them can be observed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, where their plaster models are exhibited side by side in the collection of eighteenth-century French art (figs. 1.2 and 1.3).

The frontal view of the 1744 version shows Milo hanging by his right arm, caught in the tree trunk. As he falls over the lion, he stretches his left hand trying to push the lion's head away from his body. But weakened by the struggle, all he can do is tug at the lion's mane. He looks defeated and resigned. In fact, in the foreshortened view from top and left, Milo appears more like the crucified Christ, in the final moment of agony. The arms are extended, the head is inclined to the left, the eyes are turned upward, and the parched mouth is half-open, giving the face a mysteriously smiling expression. From that vantage point the composition is not unlike the downward perspective of the Crucifixion by Salvador Dalí.

This suffering Christ-like aspect is what Falconet's Milo 1744 shares with Puget's, and it is that similarity that must have made the judges make their original ruling against it. Puget's Milo is trying to stand, his disproportionately small head hanging limply on his shoulder. His eyes are closed. The chiton slides down his left arm. There is an empty itinerant's bowl lying on the ground. Milo's whole figure seems resigned and impassive. Even the lion lacks the features of a beast of prey. He looks up at Milo's face with a quasi-human expression of curiosity, as if to see what effect its fangs and claws are having on the dying man. In the words of Réau, it is an animal from "a book on heraldry, not a menagerie." Despite their strikingly different positions-Puget's ellipsoid composition being vertical and Falconet's early Milo being horizontal-the judges must have been struck by their emotional kinship.

In Falconet's Milo 1754 the mood changes. While Puget humanized his lion, Falconet turned his Milo into a wild animal. He gave him a plain face, an upturned nose, a hirsute aspect, and a wide-open mouth as if in a growl of anger rather than pain. Instead of a resigned victim, we see a fighter who is down, but not out. The end may be inevitable, but Milo, though fallen, has not given up the struggle. His muscular body tenses and writhes, his right leg stretches stiffly beyond the boundaries of the composition in a dynamic that brings to mind the Hellenistic group of the Laocoön.

As Levitine perceptively observed, the triangular shape of the composition and its flattened bas-relief aspect suggest "a Hellenistic or Baroque faun caught in the rigorous geometry of a Classical metope." Falconet's predilection for triangular compositions is evident in a number of his works, especially in the small projects prepared for execution in biscuit during his employment in the porcelain Manufacture in Sèvres.

There is another aspect of Falconet's Milo 1754 that deserves closer scrutiny. As the sculptor himself admits, the head of Milo was his self-portrait. A bust made by Marie-Anne Collot in 1768 (fig. 1.4) confirms the veracity of that claim. Despite its time remove, it shows the same high forehead, deep-set eyes, upturned nose, and prominent chin. Yet, how different these two portraits are in depicting the inner essence of their subject! In the gentle Falconet of Collot's bust one would never suspect someone with a notoriously difficult character. It is a portrait of a relaxed and mildly bemused man, still quite youthful for his fifty-two years, with intelligent eyes and a light smile playing on his lips. The self-portrait in the Milo sculpture comes closer to the inner essence of Falconet. It shows a plain, satyr-like face, whose features may resemble those on Collot's portrait, but more as a caricature than as a likeness.


Excerpted from THE BRONZE HORSEMAN by ALEXANDER M. SCHENKER Copyright © 2003 by Alexander M. Schenker. Excerpted by permission.
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William Mills Todd III

As the most thorough and intelligent study of Russia’s most famous monument, a monument executed by a French Enlightenment sculptor, the book will have wide appeal among scholars of history, literature, and art.—William Mills Todd III, Harvard University

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