Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Venus with a snake 5: Woman Bitten by a Snake by Auguste Clésinger

Auguste Clésinger, Femme piquée par un serpent (1847)

Time for another woman with a snake with this sculpture by the French artist Auguste Clésinger.  This sculpture caused a huge scandal when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1847.  There were two aspects of the work that outraged Parisians: primarily it was the sensuously abandoned form of the female figure sprawled in a way that had not been seen before. 

Secondly, Clésinger, in order to perfect the pose, had used a full body cast of his model from which to work.  So not only was the female figure depicted in an erotic pose but was a direct representation of a real woman rather than a classically idealised form; she even has cellulite!  Needless to say it did wonders for Clésinger's reputation and fame.

Jean-Baptiste Auguste Clésinger (1814-1883)

Jean-Baptiste Auguste Clésinger, to give him his full name, was born in Besançon on 22nd October 1814. His father, Georges-Philippe Clésinger was also a sculptor and he  trained his son.  Clésinger first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1843 but it wasn't until Woman with a Snake that his fame was assured.

Solange Clésinger (1828-1899)

The same year that the sculpture was exhibited he married George Sand's daughter Solange Dudevant but they seperated in 1855 and shortly afterwards their only child died at the age of seven. 

Clésinger figure of Euterpe, the muse of music, tops Chopin's monument in Paris

In 1859 he made Chopin's death mask and sculpted the figure for the composer's funerary monument at the  Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.  He had been awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1849 and became an officer of the order in 1864.

Auguste Clésinger Marianne modellled by Berthe de Courrière

Later in his life  Clésinger took as his mistress and model Berthe de Courrière who was 38 years his junior. A generously proportioned lady who had already been the mistress of General Georges Boulanger who later, as a politician, was on the point of launching a coup d'état in Paris n 1889 but, at the last minute, decided to go the democratic route.  In the meantime the French authorities ordered his arrest, he fled to Jersey and only returned to mainland Europe to committ suicide on the grave of another of his mistresses, Madame de Bonnemains.  Berthe then went on to be the mistress of several French ministers before Clésinger. 

Berthe de Courrière by Clésinger

Clésinger called her, rather ungallantly,  la grande dame ("the big woman") or Berthe aux grands pieds ("Bigfoot Bertha").  Clésinger left his entire estate to her, making her a rich woman.  Three years after Clésinger's death she became the mistress of the French writer and critic Remy de Gourmont.  He left his entire estate to her as well but she died only a year later in 1916 and was bured alongside Clésinger. Berthe was the model for Clésinger's sculpture of the Marianne in the French Senate. 

Apollonie Sabatier by Vincent Vidal

The model who had her body cast for Woman Bitten by a Snake was another colourful inhabitant of Parisian society at the time, the salonnière (a polite word for a high class courtesan) Apollonie Sabatier  (born Josephine Savatier Aglaia ). She was the illegitimate daughter of   Etienne Louis Harms, Viscount Abancourt and a laundress.  She moved to Paris, changed her name and became friends with many of the writers and artists of the day including Théophile Gautier, Alfred de Musset , Gustave Flaubert,  Édouard Manet, Hector Berlioz and Alexandre Dumas pere.  

Gustave Courbet's (1819-1877) The Artist's Studio (1855) At the far right of the painting are (l to r) Apollonia Sabatier, Alfred Mosselman and Charles Baudelaire

She became  Baudelaire's secret mistress and is depicted with the writer, posed with her lover, the Belgian businessman Alfred Mosselman, in Courbet's The Artist's Studio.  Mosselman actually commissioned Woman Bitten by a Snake and owned it until he sold it in 1863.  Clésinger also produced a portrait bust of Sabatier the same year that Woman Bitten by a Snake was exhibited although it is noticeable that the generous proportions of her actual bust have been reduced for the more classical and less realistic head and shoulders portrait.  After Mosselman's death in 1867 she became the mistress of famous Paris-based English art collector Sir Richard Wallace whose eponymous art collection is now housed in his former house in Manchester Square, London.

Auguste Clésinger Madame Sabatier (1847)

The sculpture itself depicts a woman writhing in agony following the effect of a snakebite although, as we know that the original title of the work was supposed to be Dream of Love it suggests that the woman is writhing about for entirely different reasons.  It was this sensuality that scandalised the public on its exhibition. 

Woman Bitten by a Snake - Height 56.5; Width 180; Depth 70 cm

The critics were scandalised for other reasons.  They felt that the use of a life cast was, somehow, cheating and evidence of a lack of integrity on the part of the sculptor although, to be fair, the figure still needed to be carved from marble. Delacroix, who was the first major artist to use photographs as reference later on, sniffily called it a "sculpted daguerreotype".   However, the real thing that offended was the fact that the figure was a direct representation of an actual body rather than a classical idealisation.  Mme Sabatier's  generous proprtions are a long way from a classical sylph.

The figure's generous breasts and belly were groundbreaking but controversial

Interestingly, the snake itself is a tiny creature depicted as being wrapped around the figure's left wrist suggesting that the title was, indeed, something of an afterthought (see below). However not all were scandalised by this new, realistic depiction of the female body. The French poet Théophile Gautier said that Clésinger had made "beauty without cuteness, without affectation, without mannerism, with a head and a body of our own time".   

The snake is just visible on the left wrist

A year later Clésinger produced a similar sculpture of an equally abondoned looking female figure.  This time the contorted figure is depicted on a bed of vine leaves and bunches of grapes and is, if anything, even more sensual than Woman Bitten by a Snake.

Auguste Clésinger, Bacchante (1848)

Again, Clésinger models a woman with  a large bust, not the neat hemispheres of the classical approach, complete with erect nipples.  The ruffled material of her carelessly discarded dress caresses her pubic mound.

Bacchante (1848)

Clésinger's later sculptures (which included many religious ones for Parisian churches) were more conventional, especially as regards his depiction of women.  He even revisted the woman with sbnake theme with the much more classically inspired Woman and Snake.

Femme et Serpent (1863)

However, whilst Clésinger did not return to his "realistic" style other sculptors, no doubt hoping to gain the same notoriety, produced a series of abondoned, contorted women in their works.  Also in the Musée d'Orsay is Reclining Bacchante (1892) by Augustine-Jean Moreau Vauthier (1831-1893).

Reclining Bacchante (1892) by Augustine-Jean Moreau Vauthier

Augustin-Jean Moreau-Vauthier was originally  an ivory carver but later went on to study sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1850 under Armand Toussaint. He became a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1885.  His reclining Bacchante owes everything to Clésinger's earlier work and nothing to Moreau-Vauthier's earlier style where he worked in ivory.

Augustin-Jean Moreau-Vauthier, La Peinture Ivory figurine

Completing the trio of sprawling women in the Musée d'Orsay is Young Tarentine by Pierre-Alexandre Schoenewerk (1820-1885)

Pierre-Alexandre Schoenewerk, Young Tarentine (1871)

Although Schoenewerk  was French his parents were German and so he was barred from competing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He began his career  in the studios of Henri-Joseph-François, Baron de Triqueti and David d’Angers and exhibited plaster religious and biblical pieces at the Paris Salon between 1841 and 1847.  It is no coincidence that in 1848, the year after Clésinger's Woman Bitten by a Snake was exhibited, he turned to mildly erotic mythological subjects. Young Tarentine depicts the drowned body of a girl from the poem of the same name by André Chénier.

In a way Clésinger's work, with its accurate depiction of a contemporary body and its complex and arousing pose is a precursor of the contorted figures of Rodin and is more influential than is generally recognised today. 

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