NEW YORK—Pierre-Jean David was just 5 years old when his father joined the French Republican army in 1793. Amazingly, the youngster was brought along to the battlefield. There he was exposed to the carnage of war—disembodied heads popping out of the ground, bloodied corpses strewn everywhere—and the images of the French Revolution would influence his politics as an adult and as an artist.
It would not be the last time the world around him would be turned upside down. David was born on the eve of the French First Republic. By the time he was a teenager, the monarchy was restored under Napoleon I. By the time he died in 1856, France would have gone from republic to monarchy twice.
During his lifetime, David would become a renowned sculptor, taking the name of David D’Angers, after his birthplace. He was in contact with nearly all of the most influential thinkers, writers, and artists of his day—those hailing from France to America—and created monuments to many of them.
Yet he is not very well known, not even in France.
Now, for the first time, David’s work is being exhibited outside of France, with the Frick Collection taking that honor.
Emerson Bowyer, Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at The Frick Collection, organized the exhibit of 48 works consisting mainly of bronze sculptures and medallions—a very small portion of the artist’s ouevre, most of which resides in France.
For the edification of the population and free of charge, David created bronze portrait medallions of influentials like Nicolo Paganini, Eugene Delacriox, and Alexandre Dumas (with his erratic curly mutton chops).
“He was just in the middle of this enormous web of important people,” Bowyer said. “He was the most connected artist in the 19th century.”
Man of the people though he was, he was not quite a social butterfly.
“He had a quiet and severe personality,” Bowyer said. “He cared deeply about France and world, and saw his mission as an artist as a serious one.”
With the images of civil war still alive in him, he desperately wanted France to stay democratic, and his democratic spirit showed itself in how he conducted business.
Unlike most of his artist contemporaries, he gave away most of his work. Whenever he cast a bronze portrait medallion, he would make three copies: one to keep, one to give to the sitter, and one for his museum.
“He would leave the original at the foundry and tell the founder, essentially, to do what he will with it,” said Bowyer.
The only caveat was that reproductions would be sold for the lowest price. In this way the maximum number of people could afford to have a copy, like a 19th century version of today’s open source.
In total, he made 500 of these portrait medallions, which were circulated widely on the streets. In doing so, he revived the Renaissance art form of medallion casting. But unlike their Renaissance predecessors, David’s medallions did not depict aristocracy but the top thinkers of the time.
Though he never traveled to America, he admired the country for its republican values. He created statues of Washington, Lafayette, and Jefferson, the latter currently residing in the Capitol rotunda.
His expressive style and dynamic compositions give the viewer a sense of motion. David’s friend Victor Hugo called him the Michelangelo of Paris, and the praise is deserved.
David’s talent was evident even in his early work. A 1811 plaster head of a man in pain won the Expressive Head competition in the École des Beaux-Arts. The Frick exhibit opens with this piece, which seems to scream in frozen anguish.
The exhibit includes several bronze reductions of larger sculptures. They reveal David’s keen sense of movement, gesture, personality, and elemental balance.
“He was the first sculptor to step from neoclassicism to romanticism,” said Bowyer. Bowyer noted the artist’s unusual compositions and forms and the social and political functions his sculptures served.
“He had an enormous influence on those after him, especially Rodin.”
His intrepid use of artistic voice to influence public discussion earned him imprisonment and exile in the early 1850s, but today his work is again gaining appreciation, at least with institutional collectors. In the last two years, the Louvre and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France both held exhibitions of his work.
Perhaps the current exhibition at the Frick will spark more and broader explorations of this fascinating figure outside of France.
David d’Angers: Making the Modern Monument
Until Dec. 8
The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
www.frick.org; admission $10–$18