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Claude Michel, called Clodion

French (active Paris), 1738 - 1814

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Claude Michel, called Clodion, was one of the most inventive and versatile French sculptors of the second half of the eighteenth century. Born into a family of artists in Lorraine, he was the tenth child of Thomas Michel and Anne Adam. His maternal uncles were the famous sculptors Lambert-Sigisbert, Nicolas-Sébastien, and François-Gaspard Adam, and it was to Lambert-Sigisbert's studio in Paris that Clodion went for his initial training before the spring of 1756. His uncle had spent nine years in Rome, where he was deeply influenced by antique sculpture as well as by Roman Baroque art, particularly that of Bernini. He also owned an important collection of antique marbles that had belonged to Cardinal Polignac, a catalogue of which he published in 1755. Clodion was to absorb these influences, which would mark the rest of his career.

Following the death of Lambert-Sigisbert in May 1759 Clodion was briefly the student of Pigalle until the fall of that year, when he won the prix de Rome. In December he entered the Ecole des Elèves Protégés, where the painter Carle van Loo was director and Michel-François Dandré-Bardon was professor of history. In preparation for his stay at the French Academy at Rome he studied Greek and Roman history and mythology, as well as drawing and modeling after life and plaster casts. He left for Rome in the fall of 1762, arriving at the French Academy on Christmas day.

Clodion was to spend nine years in Italy (from December 1762 until March 1771), and while there he studied the major collections of antique sculpture, many individual items of which were to have a profound influence on his work for the rest of his career. Charles-Joseph Natoire, the director of the French Academy, encouraged students studying sculpture to make copies after the antique in clay rather than drawing them (Montaiglon, Anatole de, ed. Correspondance des directeurs de l'Académie de France à Rome avec les surintendants des bâtiments., vol. 11, p. 97, no. 5113), which may partially explain why there are no known drawings attributable to Clodion. Following the example of his uncles, Clodion also familiarized himself with Italian Baroque sculpture, particularly that of Bernini. By 1765 he had perfected a type of highly finished small terracotta sculpture that was in demand from an international clientele, including Catherine II of Russia and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, as well as famous amateurs such as La Live de Jully, Jean de Julienne, and Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret. Natoire himself had several works by Clodion in his collection, as did François Boucher. Clodion's decision to prolong his stay in Italy six years beyond the three years funded by the academy may have been the result of his success in Rome. His biographer wrote: "His charming productions, some inspired by the antique, and others by this taste for the pleasant and graceful genre that was natural to him, were much sought after. They were bought even before they were finished" (Dingé, A. Notice sur M. Clodion, pp. 1-2).

Clodion returned to Paris in the spring of 1771. He was accepted as a candidate for membership in the Académie Royale in May 1773, and he exhibited at the Salon for the first time in August of that year, presenting a figure of Jupiter as the model for his morceau de réception as well as a number of his Roman works such as Le Fleuve du rhin séparant ses eaux. Anxious to prove himself a master not only of small decorative terracotta and marble sculptures, but also of monumental works, Clodion received commissions for two funerary monuments in 1772, only one of which, that for the Comtesse d'Orsay, was completed (Poulet, Anne L., and Guilhem Scherf. Clodion, 1738 - 1814, pp. 150-56). In 1773 he was chosen to execute several sculptures for Rouen Cathedral (ibid., pp. 164-79). Between December 1773 and July 1774 Clodion returned to Italy to choose the marble at Carrara for the Rouen commission as well as for four large allegorical sculptures ordered by Abbé Terray, superintendent of buildings to the king, for his new Paris hôtel. While in Rome, Clodion seems to have made a careful study of Baroque monuments, as is reflected in his statue of Saint Cecilia for Rouen cathedral, which recalls Duquesnoy's Saint Susanna in S. Maria di Loreto, as well as in the relief of The Death of Saint Cecilia, which echoes the composition of Domenichino's fresco of the same subject.

Between 1776 and the French Revolution Clodion enjoyed a highly successful collaboration with the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brogniart, who designed a number of luxurious new houses and interiors in Paris for which Clodion created decorative reliefs, vases, and sculptures. Among the most famous of these collaborative projects is the Salle de Bains (Musée du Lourve, Paris) of the Hôtel de Besenval, and completed in 1782 (Poulet, Anne L., and Guilhem Scherf. Clodion, 1738 - 1814, pp. 228-51). Clodion carved for the bathroom two large reliefs executed in limestone, Venus and Cupid and Leda and the Swan and Pan Pursuing Syrinx while Cupid Watches, two pairs of vases, and a large female figure of The Fountain.

Despite his academic training, Clodion never became a member of the Académie Royale and only received one major royal commission during his long career. In 1778 the Comte d'Angiviller, superintendent of buildings to the king, chose Clodion to do the seated figure of Montesquieu (Musée du Lourve, Paris), one of the series of Famous Men intended to decorate the Grande Galerie of the Louvre. The plaster model (lost) exhibited at the Salon of 1779 was severely criticized for its vaguely antique costume and partial nudity. In the final marble version of 1783, Clodion showed the philosopher in a historical costume with his books and pen in hand, and it met with a far more enthusiastic reception.

There was a constant demand among famous collectors, financiers, ministers, and aristocrats for Clodion's small terracotta and marble figures, vases, and reliefs from the 1760s until the revolution, and they were the mainstay of his career. From about 1759 he created a series of ambitious terracotta Neoclassical groups of extremely high quality, which were collected by the returning émigrés and newly rich in Paris.

Under the consulate and the empire the demand for Clodion's sculpture diminished. Nevertheless, he produced a number of important and innovative works. In an effort to prove to Napoleon and to the artistic establishment that he was able to create monumental sculpture in the taste of the time, he exhibited at the Salon of 1801 a life-size plaster group entitled Scene of the Flood. Despite its critical success, it did not lead to the commission of a marble, as Clodion had hoped (Poulet, Anne L. "Clodion's Sculpture of the 'Déluge.'" Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, pp. 51-76). In 1804 he did, however, receive the commission for a statue of Cato of Utica for the new Salle des Séances designed by the architect Chalgrin for the senate in the Palais de Luxembourg, as well as for several busts in plaster and in marble. In 1802 Alexandre Brogniart, director of the porcelain factory at Sèvres and son of the architect who had collaborated with Clodion before the revolution, hired the sculptor to design a column for the Olympic Service. Clodion was also involved in creating other decorative models for ceramics. By his death in 1814 his sculpture had fallen from favor.

Anne L. Poulet, from Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (2000), pp. 246.

Montaiglon, Anatole de, ed. Correspondance des directeurs de l'Académie de France à Rome avec les surintendants des bâtiments. 18 vols. Paris: Charavay Frères, 1887-1912;
Dingé, A. Notice sur M. Clodion. Paris, 1814;
Thirion, Henri. Adam et Clodion. Paris: A. Quantin, 1885;
Guiffrey, Jules-Joseph. "Le Sculpteur Claude Michel, dit Clodion." Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 3rd ser., vol. 8 (1892), pp. 478-95;
Guiffrey, Jules-Joseph. "Le Sculpteur Claude Michel, dit Clodion (1783 - 1814)." Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 3rd ser., vol. 9 (1893), pp. 392-417;
Lami, Stanislaus. Dictionaire des sculpteurs de l'Ecole Française au dix-huitième-siècle. Vol. 2. Paris: Honoré Champion, 1911, pp. 142-59
Guiffrey, Jules-Joseph. "Inventaire après décès de Clodion." Archives de l'Art Français, n.s., vol. 6 (1912), pp. 210-44;
Poulet, Anne L. Clodion Terracottas in North American Collections. New York: The Frick Collection, 1984;
Poulet, Anne L. "Clodion's Sculpture of the 'Déluge.'" Journal of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, vol 3 (1991), pp. 51-76;
Scherf, Guilhem. "Autour de Clodion: variations, répétitions, imitations." Revue de l'art, no. 91, (1991), pp. 47-59;
Poulet, Anne L., and Guilhem Scherf. Clodion, 1738 - 1814. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 1992.

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