Bouchardon the Draftsman: Two Reviews by Tomas Macsotay

LEFT: Juliette Trey and Hélène Grollemund, Inventaire général des dessins du musée du Louvre. Edmé Bouchardon (1698-1762), Paris : Musée du Louvre, 2016, ISBN 9782350315515

RIGHT: Édouard Kopp, The Learned Draftsman: Edme Bouchardon, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017, ISBN  978-1-60606-504-4

The exhibition dedicated to the eighteenth-century French sculptor Edmé Bouchardon (at the Louvre in 2016, traveling on to the Getty in 2017) has resurrected a key component of the artist’s legacy: his drawings, over a thousand in total. Until some years ago, anyone taking an interest in the sculptor would have had to dust off Alphonse Roserot’s monograph, published more than a century ago and illustrated with red chalk drawings. To the author of this review, browsing through Roserot was a rabbit hole experience, the distance between the elegantly austere Fontaine de Grenelle and the funny, anti-monumental Cupid making a bow interrupted by attractive images of graceful youths, realistic watercarriers, bearded curiosities, and handsome animals. To the authors of the two books under review, the responsibility was enormous, but they handled it with aplomb. Their books warrant a joint review because they were apparently achieved in mutual consultation, suggesting just how much can be gained by collective scholarship and generous institutional collaboration. Kopp in particular has produced a new benchmark in Bouchardon studies.

Back when he kept shop in two studios (one in the Louvre, another to the west of present-day Place de la Concorde), Bouchardon’s astonishingly firm-handed red chalk drawings found approval among the most discerning of viewers. At the time of his death in 1762, the pursuit of his drawings became a Parisian fad of sorts. Kopp notes how the finished red chalks that comprised the artist’s three volumes of prints of street occupations, the Études prises dans le bas peuple, were sold in 1765 at the auction of the important collection of Bouchardon’s friend, Anne Claude de Caylus, for 1235 livres. This astronomical amount, which stands in stark contrast to the 72 livres at which the set of Études had been valued in the Caylus probate inventory that same year, is evidence of the degree to which the art market had managed to alter the value—and, with it, core concepts of thematic hierarchy and artistic differentiation—of works by contemporary artists. One wonders if anyone at the time was able to understand how effectively royal protection and traditional patronage could be outperformed by the market.[1]

Sometimes the best insights appear at the end of a cycle, and perhaps the 2016-2017 exhibition and these two related publications constitute the climax of a movement of thought initiated by Roserot—that of detained oeuvre description and patient archival excavation in a “life and times” plot. If so, then Kopp, seemingly informed by Bourdieu’s sociological approach, completes the cycle. Armed with a sound sense of the extent to which the print economy, auction houses and a vast private collecting sector had changed the climate for the valuation of Bouchardon’s lighter fare, he rightly unpacks the sculptor’s dedication to drawing—quantitatively, but also qualitatively—as a symptom of the modernity of his times.

The sumptuous Louvre catalogue, put together by Juliette Trey and Hélène Grollemund, offers the fruits of an arduous work of systematic object analysis on the most significant museum collection of Bouchardon drawings. Their catalogue must be consulted alongside an even more ambitious work of classification: Pierre Rosenberg’s Les dessins de la collection Mariette, published in 2011. One of the merits of Trey and Grollemund’s research is that it negates the arbitrariness of previous attempts at dating through subject-matter or hand. They instead combine traditional connoisseurship with an analysis of watermarks, offering conclusive evidence of whether the paper was obtained in Rome or Paris. By working in this way, both Kopp and the Louvre catalogue have cleared up many uncertainties regarding chronology. For example, Italian watermarks show that Bouchardon’s awe-inspiring “pictorial composition” drawings with scenes from the lives of the Saints and mythology were not primarily a response to the Salon exhibitions, as was previously thought, but instead began as an open-ended series in Rome.

Similarly, both books demonstrate that, although he was an indefatigable copier of sculpture in Rome, upon his return to Paris Bouchardon continued to develop an eye-catching style of notation in his studies of antique heads and sculptural fragments. Trey and Grollemund’s new reconstruction based on watermarks heavily favors Rome—the “Paris” period starts almost halfway through the catalogue—and goes on to show that Bouchardon managed, in spite of a hectic work schedule, to continue all of the drawing formats he had already begun when a pensionnaire. This pushes an important creative moment to Rome in the early 1730s rather than to Paris in the late 1730s, with the advent of yearly Salon exhibitions.

All of this may seem puzzling to those of us reared in traditional Franco-centric art history, accustomed to the idea that Rome offered traveling artists little else than sights of canonical works of art. The point is worth emphasizing, as it calls into question the prevailing notion that painters’ and sculptors’ careers did not develop fully until they had left Rome or shaken off “training” practices of the copy. Rome was indeed very much a fertile soil for mature artistic practice, as is attested for instance by the work of Pierre Subleyras, Boucharon’s junior by a year, who went from French pensionnaire to painter of ambitious religious canvases as well as an odd series of pornographic cabinet pieces. Bouchardon too launched his journey as a draughtsman in and for a Roman milieu, making copies and inventive works intermittently, without trading one for the other.

In both cities, Bouchardon’s drawing practice seems to have been designed to attract the interest of collectors and amateurs, although it also often became a solipsistic enterprise. Drawing consumed the artist, who had a characteristic way of making it work to his advantage in negotiations with patrons over sculptural commissions. Patrons who sought to get Bouchardon to work on actual statues learned that the sculptor avoided meeting their terms directly or requested extra endowments of time and money. A number of surviving letters and contracts often mention drawing and modeling. Bouchardon’s requests that patrons finance more and more live models and preliminary studies suggest that preparatory drawing took center stage in his projects, helping him “ennoble” whichever piece of sculpture he was working on. If refused, Bouchardon could come to resent a client. This occurred during the problematic commission for a statue series for the church of St. Sulpice, when the sculptor fell out with its curé, Jean-Baptiste Languet de Gergy, over payment, then rushed completion of an industrial installment of statues with poor finish.

In fact, Pierre-Jean Mariette, in the introduction to the Basan inventory of Bouchardon’s collections from 1762, made the point that his drawings were the product of obstinacy. Designing the same project a hundred times, but every time with “the same grace and the same interest,” Bouchardon was in fact producing endless tangential possibilities for a single commission.[2] Mariette, himself a collector—and the focus of a recent exhibition as well as monographs by Kristel Smentek and Valérie Kobi[3] —was either acknowledging in Bouchardon a sort of pet artist to the new, acquisitive class, or fabricating the image of one after his death. Obstinacy, “zèle,” was that which rose above the needy and greedy guild artist, whose fonds d’atelier had prototypes and presentation drawings capturing a detailed image of what type of work the patron could expect. By contrast, Bouchardon’s hundreds of études would increase expenses, sometimes making a commission more costly simply by the sheer fact that such studies were being made. Obviously aware of how Bouchardon had passed on the cost of preparatory drawings to clients, upsetting the typical proportion of money allotted to the material execution of sculpture, Mariette’s apology of Bouchardon’s methods arguably also underscore a possibility for commodification of these subsidized études. Indeed, Mariette’s account can be interpreted as an invitation to the reader to approach the sheets as end-products in their own right, precious to anyone well-versed in a more conscious form of artistic investigation.

Kopp intriguingly suggests that Bouchardon’s drawn oeuvre is in many respects disorderly: it adheres neither to rules of genre or hierarchies of subject-matter. The oeuvre is also non-teleological: simpler formats, like heads or figures, do not necessarily “prepare” or function as modest try-outs for more complex compositions. Instead, Kopp presents us with five groups of drawings that cluster themselves under the aegis of function, in response to real and imagined spaces of interplay with a contemporary audience. The nature of their success, Kopp adds, might have been only fleeting, provisory or altogether unpredictable. For instance, Bouchardon presented his compositions on literary themes and accounts of Roman festivities and cults (in fact his most pictorial work) at the Salons, but stopped short of turning them into commercial prints. But it was not all for naught: the success of exhibiting these drawings at the Salon may have been a calculated move to create a market of potential buyers for prints after his other serialized ventures, such as the 60 street vendors and servant-kitchen vignettes—the Études dans le bas peuple—which, as noted before, became an epochal fad. Moreover, Kopp also suggests that some groups of drawings were not as open-ended and “obstinate” as Mariette wished. Aware of patrician supporters and middlemen as well as buyers, Kopp sees Bouchardon as making a series of pragmatic moves, particularly in the serialized production not directly tied to the completion of a sculpture.

Kopp marshals a rich documentary corpus that includes some new finds like the Preisler memoirs. His keen understanding of how economic forces and questions of prestige shaped Bouchardon’s work as a draftsman produces gems like his extraordinary account, at the end of the chapter on the street profession drawings, of the affinities between the work of Caylus and that of Bouchardon. The themes broached here are extremely varied: the promotion of artisanal labor, literary hedonism, and the image of the uneducated and disenfranchised. Kopp suggests that some of Bouchardon’s strange balancing acts between classical form and the observation of ordinary things were in fact manifestations of a complex moral and aesthetic operation, produced by the interface between the laboring classes and the idle gentry as subject and audience, respectively.Kopp persuasively argues that Bouchardon did more than represent street vendors to people of leisure: he seemed to embrace in his own working habits their hard and repetitive labor. Moreover, his interest in base professions created a common ground with Caylus, who was a key protagonist in the growth of fictional genres set in street milieu and devoted to the observation of rough-and-tumble urban lives.

Although recent scholarship on the genre of the Cris has reintroduced these questions, Katie Scott’s brilliant article on the Études prises dans le bas peuple appears underexploited in Kopp’s analysis.[4] Given the sculptor’s tendency to study and represent the bodies of society’s underclasses—also at evidence in Bouchardon’s project for Cupid cutting his bow and its study drawings—Scott has woven a fresh account of the drawings and of the sculptor’s “naïve” rendering of his subjects, hovering between the wide-eyed, the witty, and the languid. The way in which Bouchardon infuses his vendors and musicians with a sense of classical simplicity and grace neither elevates nor demotes them: it captures rhythmic, repetitive, dance-like patterns that constitute the distanced yet empathic “ethnography” Kopp otherwise thinks is inspiring this set.

Two questions might be posed of the books under review. First, is it fair to treat Bouchardon as a national (i.e. preternaturally French) proponent of the classical tradition? Is there a danger that some of what has been done to recuperate Bouchardon leaves unexamined the implications—which clearly informed Roserot’s nationalist generation of art historians—of a French artistic identity in the grand tradition of Poussin? Second: do Bouchardon’s drawings actively, circumstantially, and institutionally come together to assemble something like an artist’s oeuvre? The two questions relate to similar problems of inherited methodological bias. While the idea of a French classical tradition has been vindicated time and again by the way in which scholars and curators frame the poetic classicism of Poussin and Couperin, Cézanne, late Debussy and Le Corbusier, much the same can be said of the idea of individual artistic creativity that survives in the concepts of an oeuvre and of a “Master Draftsman.” The oeuvre in particular is tainted by its long use as a non-social and trans-historical method for unifying all of an artist’s activity into a single soulful intention. Both concepts are in danger of dominating interpretations of the sculptor at the delicate moment of his revival.

What if Bouchardon was not primarily concerned either with Frenchness or with the classical canon? The best indication to this effect is a piece of gossip from Charles-Nicolas Cochin’s personal recollections: Bouchardon did not know, really know, about grandeur, believing that the protagonists of Homeric epics had been Giants who roamed the earth.[5] Cochin is the great prosecutor in a case against the sculptor’s rapport with classicism, recording that Bouchardon, not long after his return from Rome in 1734, was part of a clique: one would never encounter only him, but also his defender Caylus, or to a similar extent Mariette. Cochin believed this was just his manipulative nature: Bouchardon, in Cochin’s mordant recollections, was manoeuvring Caylus to “court him assiduously,” while regaling Mariette with offers of original chalk drawings and counterproofs. The sculptor and his privileged friends were locked in a bond that not even their enemies could fathom, but that had a familiar ring because it resembled a court intrigue. Meddling by Mariette and Caylus at the desk of the Bâtiments meant rival sculptors were left out of commissions or even pensions. Similarly, in the decade before the vogue for art criticism, explanatory pieces on each of the sculptor’s new projects appeared in the Mercure de France.

To try to unmask the “true” image and identity of Bouchardon behind this defensive wall may well be impossible. But the point would need to be that the artist likely instrumentalized drawings in two ways: first, to create a system of interpersonal support; and second, to afford viewers a critical form of spectatorship—a close viewing that would nurture an amateur’s technical understanding and a collector’s sense of stylistic discernment. Bouchardon may have felt liberated by the making of finished red chalks because they allowed him to interfere in lively ways with the expectations that certain viewers might harbor when encountering them. This is not quite the same as asking the public to praise the artist for subscribing to Poussin’s encyclopedic interest in costume, as Kopp suggests in his chapter on the drawings he submitted to the Salon. In fact, there is little in the written record to suggest that Bouchardon was looking to be “understood” in a sense of direct kinship with any great artists of the classical or French past.

But similarly, Bouchardon’s drawings seem odd when measured against the idea of an oeuvre in the traditional sense. Rather they represent a specific way of engaging his chosen audience, and of using classical simplicity and grace to subtly mould and shift form and meaning, to insert innuendos, to surprise and detain the eye. After Bouchardon conjured in his drawings a sower or a bread-vendor with a keen interest in the rhythmic movements of classical contrapposto, these motifs became staples of artistic and visual culture without quite helping to establish the name of their maker. The sower traveled on to appear in paintings by Millet and Van Gogh, while the bread-vendor more recently became the prototype for a figure in the tiled decorations of the Bastille metro station in Paris, where it participates in a procession of the French people on their way to revolutionary liberty.

While catapulting to fame in Rome in his late twenties, Bouchardon authored over a dozen extant letters to his father, containing clues about the sculptor’s commitment to his Catholic faith and showing his determination to become skilled in what he enthusiastically called the Italian “genius.” [6] An Enlightened, Poussinesque, French “classical” aesthetic may well have gripped Bouchardon later in life. Or one may suspect that an insular Frenchness still operated, in 2017, to whitewash the cosmopolitan nature of the Bouchardon who made portrait-busts of two popes, and who offered his extraordinary Fêtes de Palés to a British client, Lord Cholmondeley. It is curious that while Kopp mostly contextualizes Bouchardon’s work through comparisons with Poussin and French contemporaries, Trey and Grollemund complete their catalogue with a list of wrongful attributions that reads like a VIP list of late baroque Italian painters. One of these Italian draughtsmen, Giuseppe Crespi, made a series of Seven Sacraments that were eagerly copied by French pensionnaires in Bouchardon’s day. Crespi had also taken an interest in red chalk for mythological and Biblical pictorial compositions, and he too competed for noble and ecclesiastical employment while giving an entirely new direction to the Italian tradition of painting vagabonds, street trades, and house servants, just as Bouchardon would do in Paris and Giacomo Ceruti would do in Northern Italy. Given such parallels, it would be interesting to denationalize future Bouchardon scholarship in favor of a transnational vista and, indeed, to take matters in the direction of an entirely different historical force field: the visual culture of Catholic Enlightenment.

Tomas Macsotay is a Research Lecturer at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona


[1] Kopp, The Learned Draftsman, 75.

[2] Anonymous, “ Avertissement,” in François Basan, Catalogue des tableaux, desseins, estampes, livres d’histoire, science & arts, modèles en cire & en plâtre… (Paris: chez Delormel, 1762)., p. 3-8 (5).

[3] Kristel Smentek, Mariette and the Science of the Connoisseur in Eighteenth-Century Europe (Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014); Valérie Kobi, Dans L’oeil du connaisseur. Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694–1774) et la construction des savoirs en histoire de l’art (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017).

[4] Katie Scott, “Edme Bouchardon’s ‘Cris de Paris’: Crying food in early modern Paris,” Word & Image 11 (March 2013): 59–91.

[5] C.-N. Cochin, Mémoires inédites de Charles-Nicolas Cochin sur le comte de Caylus, Bouchardon, les Slodtz, ed. Charles Henry (Paris: Baur, 1880), 25-66, 83-99.

[6] For transciptions of the full letters see Henry Ronot, Jean-Baptiste Bouchardon: sculpteur, architecte (Dijon: Éditions Faton, 2002), 101 ff.

Cite this note as: Tomas Macsotay, “Bouchardon the Draftsman: Two Reviews,” Journal18 (April 2019), http://www.journal18.org/3900.

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