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Nella Buscot  >  The World of Sculpture  >  The 19th Century French Sculpture

The 19th Century French Sculpture

and the main artistic trends

Some words about the 19th century French sculpture

How much do people actually know about 19th century French sculpture?
If one was to take a survey on the street asking people to quote the names of sculptors of this period, one could be certain that Auguste Rodin would be practically the only quoted name - perhaps also Camille Claudel (but more due to Isabelle Adjani's role in the film "Camille Claudel" than by her works). The almost non-existent "Sculpture" departments in bookshops supports this observation, with more than half of works devoted to these two artists. But still, what century had such an abundance of talented sculptors with various ideas and showing such infinite creativity Carpeaux, Injalbert, Barye, Boucher, Desbois, Larche, Rude, Dalou, Falguière, Cordier, are relevant examples of this period.

I quote only these few because the list is so long, After having been the prerogative of only the Church and princes, 19th century French sculpture became more democratic. Its expansion was facilitated by many public orders where the 2nd Empire and the 3rd Republic compete. In background, there is the urban transformation, the secularization of the society and the development of a growing middle-class with its taste for the statuary of funeral monuments and small pieces of bronze. 19th century sculpture is remarkable by the richness and the diversity of its subjects, of its techniques, and the extent of the creations.

What can be said about the main artistic trends that suddenly appeared in the 19th century, making of it the the Century of Sculpture par excellence? These trends, that are often contradictory, are overlapping, sometimes are blending. So, they could be listed as:


Appearing during the Renaissance, Neoclassicism, which means "inspired by the classical antiquity", had developed in the late 18th century in a context of archaeological discoveries. Influenced by the Italian Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and the Danish Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), Neoclassicism in sculpture is the search for ideal beauty with its heroic nudes and its antique drapes. Neoclassicism is also characteristic of the Napoleonic period. The imperial family had encouraged this art which culminated with the painting school of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).
The main representatives of neoclassicism in sculpture were: Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), Francis Joseph Bosio (1768-1845), Jean Pierre David d'Angers (1788-1856), James Pradier (1792-1852), Albert Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), Emmanuel Frémiet (1824-1910)...


Unlike Neoclassicism, Romanticism searches to express the depths of the human inner world, its feelings, its torments and its revolts. In Romanticism, expression takes precedence over the purity and the accuracy of forms. This movement of freedom and rejection of Classicism had relatively little support among sculptors, with some exceptions, such as François Rude (1784-1855), who expressed an epic lyricism in "La Marseillaise" (Arc de Triomphe in Paris), or in some of the works of Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875).


During the Second Empire, wanting to exceed Neoclassicism and Romanticism, artists such as Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875) looked for inspiration in the styles of the past without prioritizing the antique one: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, East... They did not hesitate to associate in the same sculpture several of these references.
Other representatives of eclecticism in sculpture were: Jean-Antoine Injalbert (1845-1933), Charles Cordier (1827-1905), the "Group of Toulouse" (Falguière, Marqueste, Mercié)…

Realisme and Naturalism

Gustave Courbet, a leader of realistic painting along with Jean-Francois Millet and Honoré Daumier, defined what a realistic work should be, in this way: "Being able to express customs, ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my opinion, to be not only a painter but also a man, in a word, to make living art, this is my goal."
Once it was perceived as less subversive, Realism became Naturalism. The naturalist sculptors feature real characters, workers and peasants, and glorify the republican values with allegories in which human beings are not idealized.
Some representatives of Naturalism in sculpture: Aimé-Jules Dalou (1838-1902), Constantin Meunier (1831-1905).

Art nouveau

"Art nouveau" (New art) appeared about 1895. A significant representative is Raoul Larche (1860-1912). Promoting aesthetics, "Art nouveau" is intended to be widely distributed for the masses. That is why there are so many reproductions in a variety of materials.

Auguste Rodin

Auguste Rodin Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), an unclassifiable artist, marked the end of the 19th century with his creative power and the expressiveness and diversity of his works.
For him, "it is entirely unnecessary to bring in laws, rules and principles that have germinated in commentators' brains after dissecting a series of works, twenty centuries after, and of which the artist never thought for a moment. It is equally unnecessary to employ a vocabulary scattered with bizarre words forged after the fact and misunderstood by almost everyone: in art, the most difficult things can be explained with caretakers' words. [...] There are neither laws nor wild words: there is a man who makes a statue, and that's all." (Auguste Rodin, Eclairs de pensée, Ecrits et entretien sur l'art)

The transition to the 20th century

The end of the 19th century is marked by the end of the realistic themes and the search of the aesthetics and the harmony of antique sculpture. And without in any way trying to imitate the neo-classical, sculptors such as François Pompon (1855-1933), Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929), Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), Charles Despiau (1874-1946), Robert Wlérick (1882-1944) simplified forms and produced smooth and highly regular surfaces.