Treasures from the Vault: Antoine-Louis Barye

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

I have an appreciation for most types of art; but, I especially love animal art and the smile it brings to my face. In curating Bronze: The Artistic Interest, now open at the FWMoA, I discovered a new favorite: Antoine-Louis Barye, a prolific French sculptor from the 19th century.

From one side, the lion sculpture turns its head to the viewer. We can see it's tail whipping and his haunches are prominent, showing off the lion's force and power. His mouth is open, as if caught mid-roar over his catch.
Antoine-Louis Barye, French, 1795-1875. Reclining Lion with Antelope. Cast bronze, 19th century Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William McNagny, 1986.28. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A true Frenchman, Antoine-Louis Barye was born in Paris and may have never left, dying there in 1875. His father was a sculptor who taught his son his craft from an early age. Barye studied under the master goldsmith to Napoleon(!) and at the École  des Beaux-Arts from 1818 to 1823, a prominent and influential art school. There he received high praise, winning awards and debuting at the Salon. In fact, his work in the Salon led to several commissions from the government, boosting his career. Later, however, the Salon refused several entries, despite his many requests for casts, which led him to refuse to submit again until later in life. Though he received high acclaim, his desire for perfection meant Barye often refused to sell works; suffering financially, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. To pay off his debt, he had given up his rights and sold plasters and models. Between 1848 and 1857 casts were made of his work without his own personal touch, and the work greatly suffered in his absence. In 1848, Barye became the Director of Casts and Models at the Louvre but was replaced shortly after in 1850. In 1851, he made his return to the Salon with a masterpiece later collected by the Louvre. He then became the Professor of Drawings at the Museum of Natural History at the Jardin des Plantes in 1854, a position he held until his death.

Despite this turbulent life, Bayre was a leader in a group of French artists called Les Animaliers. Known for their animal sculptures (like our friend Cats Adam!) the name was initially coined as an insult, but was happily accepted by the artists. Bayre first began this work while visiting the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden in France, vigorously sketching everything he saw. His sculptures usually include wild animals in violent poses, creating dynamic, tense moments with calculated perfection of scale, whether large or small. Barye took small sculptures, often not viewed as worthy of accolade, and turned them into a high art. He displayed a masterful level of sculpting, whether he was working on a large commission or a small tabletop piece.

From the front, the lion's face is turned to the side as it clutches the dead antelope in its paws.
Antoine-Louis Barye, French, 1795-1875. Reclining Lion with Antelope. Cast bronze, 19th century Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William McNagny, 1986.28. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Barye’s work easily falls into Romanticism, characterized by its emphasis on emotion and glorification of nature. The Romantic period was formed as a rejection of the Enlightenment era, which found reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. During this time, there was a shift in many forms of creativity: art, literature, music, architecture, and theatre. Romantic art reflected an uncontrollable power and unpredictability within its imagery, displaying an ominous quality. With the Animaliers, the fascination of animal figures were often metaphors for human behavior. They also embraced individualism, displaying their subjects alone and exploring psychological states or moods.

The back of the lion, we can see his powerful haunches and the front of the antelope's head as his mane streams down the side of the lion's neck. Below the lion's haunch is the artists name: BARYE.
Antoine-Louis Barye, French, 1795-1875. Reclining Lion with Antelope. Cast bronze, 19th century Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William McNagny, 1986.28. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Looking at Reclining Lion with Antelope, after seeing the characteristics of others Barye sculptures, this sculpture may have been done from one of his casts after he lost his rights; it does not have the same punctuation of detail as many of his famed creations. In addition, it lacks the tension and dynamism, falling flat (although, we are spared from the gore of the lion devouring the antelope!). There is no telling when it was made; it could also be a model, or sculptural “sketch”, for a larger work and, therefore, not worked on in as much detail as a fully finished piece. Although the details feel incomplete, the lion still possesses a proud and powerful stance over his kill, even in such a small sculpture, sitting at just 9 inches in length. Even though it sits at such a small size, it conveys a sense of grand scale, as if you can still feel the presence of what a large sculpture expresses.

The creation of Antoine-Louis Barye’s bronze works stands out among others, in size and style. Come see it on display in Bronze: The Artistic Interest, on view now through May 30th, 2021!

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