Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution

With 535 pages, Cast in Bronze is not a standard exhibition catalogue. Created in conjunction with an exhibition that toured the Louvre, the Met, and the Getty in 2008–09, the book is the product of “an unprecedented in-depth study of French bronzes” and functions more like an encyclopedia than a catalogue. It is an exhaustive attempt to cull together the lesser-known work of French artists, which are frequently out-shown by bronzes from Italy and Northern Europe. The exhibition relied heavily on the Louvre’s collection, but also offered a chance to see works from private collections and other difficult-to-visit museums such as the Windsor Castle Royal Collection, Versailles, Fontainebleau, and the Dresden State Art Collection.

As stated in the Directors’ Note (written by the directors of the three participating museums), this is not the first attempt to bring focus to the French bronzes, but it is the most comprehensive. The directors believe that previous texts and exhibitions did not provide sufficient study, stating: “[N]umerous questions remain unanswered because of the lack of an overall perspective into the various aspects of the French production of bronzes, such as the authors of the models, their founders and chasers, techniques used, networks of commissioning, collectors, and stylistic influences.” To answer all of these questions is a large task—which may be why Cast in Bronze is such a large book.

The volume is divided into three sections and organized chronologically. Each section includes one or two critical essays and biographies of the French (and sometimes Italian) artists. The exhibition included works “created in France from the 16th to 18th centuries.” This detail allowed the curators to include works by many of the Italian artists working in France during those two centuries (Benvenuto Cellini the most prominent among them). Unlike most catalogues, Cast in Bronze devotes pages to each work featured in the exhibition. The texts are generously illustrated, though more details would have been helpful. There are 142 works, each accompanied by one to four pages of text describing the work and its history. The entries are not simple repetitions of museum signage; instead, they are richly detailed and include historical references and technical discussions that do give the reader “an overall perspective.”

Cast in Bronze is also an excellent resource on the history of the period, with discussions on techniques, patronage, and the relationship between founders and sculptors. Some of the essays on technique may be too basic for an experienced founder, but the diagrams and x-rays allow non-experts to understand the process. The essays depict an art world not that different from our own. The Founders’ Guild in France was recognized from the Middle Ages and later became a legal entity. Membership resembled current studios with elected jurors, membership dues, requirements for entry, and assistance for members in need. The book highlights the tenuous relationships between founders and sculptors as they fought over copyright and intellectual property. In order to understand a work, sometimes context helps. Cast in Bronze illustrates not only the artwork, but the world in which it was created.

Beth Wilson

Book Description:

Cast in Bronze: French Sculpture from Renaissance to Revolution

eds. Genviève Bresc-Bautier, Guilhem Scherf, and James David Draper
Chicago: Art Stock Books Ltd.
535 pages, 536 illustrations, $85.00 (On sale in the Met store for $42.50)
ISBN: 2757201832

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