Claude Michel, given the diminutive Clodion in childhood, was virtually predestined to become a sculptor. Born in Nancy in 1738, he was the son of Thomas Michel—himself a sculptor of little distinction—but the maternal nephew of one of the greatest French sculptors of the age, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam (1700–1759), whose Paris workshop he entered in 1755. On the death of his uncle in 1759, Clodion joined the studio of Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and that same year, with Pigalle’s influential support, he was awarded the Prix de Rome for sculpture by the Académie Royale. Following another three years of training at the École des Elèves Protégés, he arrived at Palazzo Mancini, home to the French Academy in Rome, on Christmas Day, 1762; he was later assigned a shared studio with Jean-Antoine Houdon. Prodigiously talented, Clodion had by the mid-1760s developed an illustrious international clientele for the small-scale terracotta statuettes and vases that he created in the antique style—many of which are incised with such delicacy that they seem almost drawn in wet clay rather than modeled. His terracotta sculptures were soon in the collections of Pierre-Jean Mariette, La Live de Jully, the duc de Rochefoucauld and the bailli de Breteuil and by 1770, so great was his renown that Empress Catherine the Great invited him to live and work in St. Petersburg, an offer he declined.
Well-educated in the classics, Clodion had been able to study the large library and extensive collection of plaster casts of antique and modern sculptures belonging to his uncle, Lambert-Sigisbert Adam. Clodion’s own inventory indicates that he possessed published compilations of prints by Piranesi, and the antiquities that were etched and engraved by the comte de Caylus and the abbé de Saint-Non, as well as illustrated publications of the spectacular archeological finds at Herculaneum. As a pensionnaire at the French Academy in Rome, Clodion had access to the greatest public and private collections of antiquities in the city. He was also exposed to the important contemporary painters and sculptors who made Rome their home. As is well known, one of the earliest Roman works to bring him fame, his terracotta of the Penitent Mary Magdalen of 1767 (Musée du Louvre, TH 44; fig. 1), derives her pose from Pompeo Batoni’s celebrated painting of the saint (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, Gal.-Nr.454), which the artist knew in one of several versions, or in Joseph Camerata’s engraving of 1752 (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, A 107971). Clodion’s three variant versions of The River Rhine from 1765 (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1064–1884; Kimbell Art Museum, AP 1984.05, fig. 2; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1989.17) owe their dramatically twisting, muscular river god to the example of Bernini’s fountain at the Piazza Navona.
No specific source, ancient or modern, has been identified for the present, newly rediscovered and previously unpublished terracotta of Love Taming Fortitude. Depicting winged Cupid riding the back of a rearing lion, which he restrains with a floral garland and whips with a flaming torch, this charming statuette finds corollaries in the frolicking bacchanals of children, putti and baby satyrs found in any number of ancient friezes and vase decorations. Yet closer sources are found in Roman art of the 17th century, notably François Duquesnoy’s famous marble relief of a Bacchanal of Putti Playing with a Goat (ca. 1620s) in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj and, especially, the bacchanalian paintings of Nicolas Poussin. Two of Poussin’s earliest paintings, datable to the 1620s, shortly after the artist had arrived in Rome, depict the Dionysian revelries of naked putti as they drink flacons of alcohol, fall into vats of wine, disguise themselves in classical masks and make mischief with farmyard animals. In one of these, a putto rides on the back of a rearing goat, both child and animal in poses that Clodion repurposes almost exactly in Love Taming Fortitude. Today in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Poussin’s paintings were among the celebrated treasures of the Chigi collection during Clodion’s decade in Rome.
Love Taming Fortitude is designed with Clodion’s characteristic wit and imagination and modeled with an unexcelled mastery of the medium. The clay is softly molded to convey Cupid’s bulging belly, pudgy arms and baby feet; the lion’s fur is applied in thick, billowing tufts in his mane and incised with the lightest, most feathery touch on the underside of his carriage. A dynamic sense of movement is created by the forward lunge of the lion, his paws shooting forward, as Cupid is thrown back by the jolting motion, his right arm raised forcefully upward. A long swath of drapery falls from the animal’s back to the ground, cleverly disguising its function as a necessary support for the otherwise precarious composition.
At least two other small terracotta groups by Clodion are of related themes: one, A Putto Riding a Dog (private collection; see Poulet and Scherf loc. cit., fig. 90) may represent ‘Love and Fidelity’; the other, A Putto Riding a Lion (private collection; loc. cit., p. 423, fig. 248), like the present work, may symbolize ‘Love Vanquishing Strength’. The present group is likely that in the collection of Pierre Nicolas, a gilder and printmaker, sold in Paris on 3 November 1806, lot 194: ‘La Force vaincue par l’Amour, morceau en Terre cuite par M. Clodion’.
Clodion returned to Paris in 1771, where he was admitted to the Académie Royale two years later. He was made Keeper of the King’s Statues in 1777 and professor of the Académie in 1781. Large projects ensued—the great stucco reliefs on bacchanalian subjects for the Hôtel de Bourbon-Condé (1781), and the monumental, seated statue of Montesquieu in marble, commissioned in 1778 by the crown for the ‘Great Men’ series (Musée du Louvre, ENT 1987.02), perhaps the artist’s masterpiece. But for the remainder of his career, he continued to make the small-scale terracotta groups on ancient themes that he began in Rome. It is in his poetic attachment to a pagan past that Clodion’s genius resides. As Michael Levey observed, ‘…it is noticeable that Clodion’s preferred mythological climate is not that of the Olympian deities. He concerns himself with humbler, rustic creatures, fauns and satyrs, denizens of the fields and woods, male and female votaries of Bacchus (rarely the god himself), who fleet the time in a golden age, enchanted and light-hearted perhaps but always artistically serious’ (‘Clodion, Paris’, Burlington Magazine, 1992, p. 397) It can be said of Clodion, as Sir Joshua Reynolds said of Poussin, that his was a mind ‘naturalized in antiquity’.❖
Alan P. Wintermute