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Sculpture and Theory in Nineteenth Century France

Author(s): Charles W. Millard

Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Autumn, 1975), pp. 15-20
Published by: Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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turewas fed by three streams. The first of

these-what might be called the grand tradition in sculpture-was that descended from
Michelangelo which specialized in the production of monumental and architectural
sculpture, dealing principally in the heroic
human figure, and using as material whatever it found most appropriate; marble, stone,
or bronze. Many of the best sculptors of the
century belonged to or were touched by this
tradition, which was largely without a body
of theoretical or critical writing to support it,
existing chiefly because of the direct influence
of Michelangelo's accomplishments on the
sculptors who followed him. The second
stream, the academic neoclassical, was supported by a huge body of theory and critical
justification and was far and away the most
prominent and powerful sculptural influence
throughout the century. Taking the nude
human form as its ideal and marble as its
material, it accounted for almost all the
theoretical writing on sculpture and almost
all the sculpture exhibited at the Salons. The
third stream, descended from the Berninesque
tradition of the French eighteenth century,
favored bronze as its material, prepared in
rapidly-worked wax or clay. For subject
matter, it preferred fugitive or movemented
actions, exotic themes or those with social
overtones, and animals. It was supported by
CHARLES W. MILLARD is Chief Curator of the Hirshhorn

Museum and SculptureGarden, Washington,D.C.





a body of critical writing which followed the

sculpture rather than leading it on and which
varied in quality and quantity with the
vitality of Romantic sculpture itself.1
Probably no other artistic production has
been so thoroughly under the control of a
body of theoretical writing, or so thoroughly
bent to the ends seen as desirable by that
writing, as was academic sculpture in the
nineteenth century. As great a sculptor as
Canova, constantly importuned by Quatremere de Quincy toward a purer classicism,
seems to have altered his style and conceptions in the face of these theoretical demands.2
The basis for nineteenth-century academic
writing on sculpture was laid by Winckelmann, who propounded the idea that constant observation of nudity, due to the light
clothing allowed by the Greek climate, had so
familiarized Greek artists with the healthy
body that they had been able to create generalized forms drawn from that familiarity
which synthesized the best of all particular
forms. These generalized forms, so the Platonic argument ran, were of such beauty as to
be vehicles of moral good, driving out
bestiality and leading to noble individual
and public behavior. This idea of the moral
benefit of Greek art was the basis for the
promotion of classical copies on the part of
Winckelmann's followers in France, and is a
constant refrain in their writings. It was felt
that copying the sculpture of the Greeks as
closely as possible would enable one to recapture their imputed moral superiority and

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the generosity of behavior and simplicity

of life style that seemed increasingly threatened during the course of the nineteenth
century. The important early propagators
of these ideas in France were Quatremere,
Emeric-David, Seroux d'Agincourt, and
Paillot de Montabert, the first two of whom
had the most lasting influence.3Quatremere,
the more orthodox, urged that sculptors copy
from the antique to learn and to improve their
art. Drawing from nature was a second step
to be undertaken only after the uplifting and
formative experience of copying Greek work.
Em&ric-David,on the other hand, suggested
that copying from nature come first, such
copies to be constantly corrected toward the
perfection of Classical form, and advocated
that sculptors learn from the outset by
modelling and not only by drawing as
QuatremErewould have had it. Thus, there
were liberal and conservative strains within
the neo-classical camp itself, although neither
would have questioned the artistic and moral
superiority of Greek sculpture. In general, it
was the more conservative set of ideas that
won out, and both the teaching dictated by
the Academy and the tenets proposed by most
writers on art were those which sprang from
Quatremere. The principal writer on sculpture of the second half of the century, Henry
Jouin, was wholly devoted to an orthodox
academic position, as the chapter headings
of his most important work indicate. "The
end of art is the manifestation of the beautiful," "But the beautiful itself is inseparable
from the good," and "The beautiful is the
splendor of the true." 4 In Jouin's chapter on
the sources of art "nature" precedes "the
ideal" and "the divine" only because he saw
nature as clothed in beauty derived from God
and therefore sufficiently idealized to be acceptable as the source for an uplifting art.
What is of most importance, however, is not
that theories derived from Winckelmann persisted through the century, but that they had
an immense formative influence on all public
instruction in sculpture and were behind the
choices made by juries for the Salon. Indeed,
artists themselves paid them constant homage, and David d'Anger's notebooks, for example, are filled with theoretical observations of the most orthodox sort. In David's
case, and those of other sculptors of his calibre, written obeisance to academic ideas was



far more important than their effect on his

work. In the case of less talented artists, the
work itself became the exposition.
Neoclassical theory exercised its greatest
control over sculpture through the teaching
methods sanctioned by the Academy through
the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Drawing was considered basic to both sculpture and painting,
and students began by drawing from Classical
sculpture, plaster casts of such sculpture, or
from prints or photographs. Since neo-classical draftsmanship stressed the importance of
contour and outline, the sculpture student
was encouraged to concentrate on profile and
to conceive of forms as flat. In advocating that
students be compelled to make "sketches after
engravings and photographs, particularly
those reproducing bas-reliefs," Guillaume
noted that, "This would be the time for the
teacher to give the rudiments of what is called
in this branch of art the understanding of
planes,"6 and Emiliani-Giudici urged students to "indicate your planes boldly and
draw square rather than round, because from
planes result relief....

In sculpture it is a

question of reliefs and it is therefore necessary

to take heed of profiles...."

6 In the purest

neoclassical sculpture internal modelling was

kept to the minimum inflection consonant
with the character and function of the outline.
Thinking in terms of recessive flat planes, the
young sculptor created objects which, although they existed in space, did not use space
in any active sense. Guillaume spoke of a sculpture for which the sculptorhad to "breakdown
into planes forms which may seem twisting, so
as to give to their representation the firmness
and power that make up for the absence of
movement and life, and to make understood
the ideas of stability, repose, and duration
which, being the basis of every sculptural conception, makeof a statue a veritable monument." 7 Openings were simply the points at
which the greatest number of planes had been
cut away. They connected the front of the
sculpture with the back but did not otherwise
function to lead the eye around the piece. By
exposing the background against which the
piece was seen, they made it stand out from
that background, emphasizing that sculpture
and wall were parallel. Full-round sculpture
was, consequently, conceived of as free-standing relief, an object with four faces cut away
until the final work was exposed. 8 Point of

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Sculptureand Theoryin NineteenthCenturyFrance

view was thus of great importance, and that
from enfacewas the principal aspect, with the
back and two sides considered subsidiary, although more generous theoreticians allowed
an infinite number of points of view adding
up to a full-round object. Such a method was
clearly consonant with the preferred academic material, marble.9 Considered the most
permanent and perfect material, it lent itself
to planar cutting and to the subtle modulation
and textural differentiation important to
refined finish. It was also the material that
could most easily be worked to resemble flesh,
and since the academic sculptor "has but one
type, which is man," 10 this was of importance. The standing human figure, nude or
draped a l'antique,was the highest form after
which an academic sculptor could strive. In
Jouin's words, "the statue . . summarizes
the art of the sculptor; it is the perfect art." 1'
If academic sculpture was constantly led on
by academic theory, the process was the reverse with Romantic sculpture. It was the
sculpture that led on the writers, and as that
sculpture waned in quality and disappeared
from exhibition those who wrote about it
turned to other things. Furthermore, a great
many writers sympathetic to Romantic sculpture bent their best efforts toward chastising
academicism. There was, thus, no coherent
body of writing relative to what would constitute a peculiarly nineteenth-century sculpture, no theorist who set out a series of expectations for sculpture to fulfill. Although the
major writers on Romantic sculpture were
those critics who also wrote on paintingPlanche, Thore, Baudelaire, and other defenders of the avant-garde-Emeric-David,
representing the more liberal aspect of a neoclassicism still viable at the beginning of the
century, had early suggested that principles
rather than forms drawn from antiquity
should be applied to modern sculpture and, as
has been noted, that young sculptors should
be trained by practice in modelling from the
outset. In 1810, Guizot, still faithful to neoclassicism, carried this idea further not only
by encouraging students to model more frequently but by pointing out that all arts have
laws proper to themselves which are violated
at the artist's peril, and by urging sculptors
to search for "that warmth, that truth, without which a picture or a statue is only a
painted canvas or a carved marble. .. ." 12 In

1831 Gustave Planche noted more pointedly
of Pradier's ThreeGraces,
He is mistaken, like Canova, in following in the
composition a pictorial rather than a sculptural
idea. Now, in my opinion, this is a grave fault and
never goes without unfortunate results; it is never
without considerable detriment that one mistakes
the province of the instrument one uses. See, almost at the same time, the Italian sculptor paint
in marble and the head of the last French school,
David, sculpt on canvas. Both, for different reasons, merited the celebrity they acquired; both
worked with perseverance to regenerate the art
they professed. But the way on which they entered
was a false and excessive way; they being dead,
no one has progressed further in it.'3

By 1824, soon after painting had announced its independence of neoclassicism,

Stendahl felt able to proclaim that:
The statuary art is on the eve of a revolution: need
it servilely copy the Antiquelike most French sculptors? One knows the sad fate reserved for copyists. 'If you always follow the ancients, you will
never rival them,' said Montesquieu.'4

It was nine years before that revolution was

accomplished, however, and in the meantime
critics were reduced to castigating neoclassicism and pointing out that "Science has
killed the centaurs as it has killed the angels
of the Middle Ages." 15 When the Salon of
1833 finally produced concrete evidence of a
new sculpture, that sculpture found critics
worthy of it in Gustave Planche, Gabriel
Laviron, and Bruno Galbaccio. All three saw
the power and novelty of Preault's and
Barye's work particularly, and Laviron and
Galbaccio wrote that:
Sculpture seemed to us progressing this year, not
because it had almost abandoned the Greek and
Roman heroes of the Academy, but because the
art presents itself with a completely new character
of thought and execution. The nude figures have
left rigidity and aridity as the lot of some workmen
of the old school, who hold to it not knowing how
to do otherwise. For a long time this was called
purity of line and sobriety of composition,when the
language of the style-brumairewas in fashion, that
is to say when words took the place of things. . ..16

Writing in the same vein two years later,

Decamps noted that:
Academic sculpture, like painting, descends a step
each year, losing in every battle it wages in the
Salon a little of the ground it has occupied for
thirty years. A young man has arrived bringing to
art principles so simple, so new, that he has hardly
had the time to make himself understood and

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already the deserters of rhetoric crowd in his footsteps: disgusted with the geometric rigidity of the
sculpture of the Institute, he called them from the
routine of the professors to the imitation of nature,
and the simple and spirited inspiration that characterizes the work of M. Barye was too powerful
not to strike the eyes of the crowd vividly; consequently the impression has been universal and he
has had the rare privilege of preaching the truth
without his word having been contested hardly
at all.'7

If critics were instantly able to see the value

of the new sculpture, however, and if they
fully understood that the neoclassical tradition was decaying, they seemed never able to
draw general conclusions about what specific
qualities a contemporary sculpture might
have that would mark it as of its time apart
from contemporaneity of subject. This may
be partly due to the fact that sculpture itself
failed at making a sustained statement in the
sense that its first impressive appearance at
the Salon was not sufficiently followed up in
later years. It was not until 1878 that
Eugene Veron made bold to say that "if we
wish sculpture to become a truly modern and
independent art, we must apply ourselves
above all to developing it in the direction of
the modern spirit, which is to say in that of
expression and of movement," 18 recommending even unstable movements as suitable for
sculpture. Although both Planche and Thore,
as well as Baudelaire, the Goncourts, About,
Chesneau, and others, supported Romantic
sculpture in their Salon reviews, its decreasing
quality and the relative infrequency with
which its experiments appeared led them to
devote less and less space to it. By 1861 Thore
could write, "Of great sculptors, there are no
more," 19and three years later Auguste Ottin
echoed writers of almost fifty years earlier by
calling for a new sculptural teaching method
and pointing out that, "In the production of a
work of art, the copy of a pre-existing object
does not demand the same aptitudes as the
realization of an idea." 20 By 1883, academicism was once again in such complete control
of publicly exhibited sculpture that Henry
Houssaye, writing in support of it, was able to



.. has


faithful to tradition, it has maintained the

worship of the beautiful without sacrificing
to odious contemporary tendencies . .." 21
while the despairing Felix Feneon could only
cry, "0O these sculptors of pleasing things,



dainty, pretty, and polished! O the war of

Canova! And yet Canova had the Princess
Pauline Borgheseto pose before him; but from
what living flesh do they copy these clockcase
subjects, fit at most to excite the libidinousness of dirty old men?" 22 The quality of the
sculpture promoted by the academic theoreticians drove even the best critics to concentrate on painting and, as Pontus Grate has
observed of Theophile Thore, "Finally, everything Thore wrote on the statues of his time
barely conceals a certain indifference in regard to this form of art, an indifference he
shared with so many of his contemporaries."23
The attempts of sculptural Romanticism to
build on eighteenth-century foundations, and
the phenomenal ability of sculptural academicism to turn that attempt, and others, to its
own uses, raises the complex and important
question of nineteenth-century sculpture's
relationship to the art and politics of the immediate past. In 1836 Gustave Planche
pointed out how art had already begun to be
judged by moral and poetic-by extrinsic
rather than intrinsic-standards in the late
eighteenth century.24These moral justifications were placed at the service of the neoclassical style and made the latter particularly
suited to a revolution dedicated to ridding its
country of what was seen as a morally degenerate aristocracy.25With only slight alteration
the same style was taken over, with continued
emphasis on morality, to justify the Roman
pretensions of an empire. Thus, a style which
was at first allied with political liberalism
became the instrument of an imperial establishment and, over a period of years, the
agency of conservatism. When Laviron and
Galbaccio identified le style brumairein 1833,
they added caustically, "Good luck to the
FRENCH REPUBLIC, of which the other
side of the coin was the EMPEROR NAPOLEON." 26 This series of events not only
conflated artistic and moral judgments,
making art answerable for matters that were
properly those either of politics or of life
itself, but irrevocably isolated the general
public from an understanding of the better
art of its time by creating an officially sanctioned art that was easily accessible in nonvisual terms. Thus, artists unwilling to subbordinate artistic to non-artistic concerns
faced an almost irreconcilable dilemma. On
the one hand, they were barred from a neo-

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Sculptureand Theoryin NineteenthCenturyFrance

classical style discredited by the extra-artistic
uses made of it, and on the other they faced
a Rococo style that still too strongly suggested
aristocracy to be easily acceptable. It was a
dilemma that sent painters to the seventeenth
century in search of support, while the better
sculptors continued to build on the foundations of the Rococo, realizing that, whatever
its imputed political position, it at least
offered a vital and continuing sculptural
Writers on art faced somewhat the same
predicament. Academic theoreticians were on
fairly secure ground, since their association of
ancient Greece and modern France merely
enhanced their contention that sculpture was
a particularly French art that had never
reached a higher level than in the nineteenth
century.27 More liberal writers, feeling that
neo-classical and Rococo style had both been
discredited, abandoned matters of style altogether to concentrate on content and intent.
By 1833, the call for a socially responsible and
realistic art, as opposed to an abstractly justifiable and idealistic one, was particularly
strong.28Laviron and Galbaccio wrote:
Relevance and the social tendency of art are the
things about which we are most anxious; then
come truth of representation and greater or less
skill of material execution. We ask for relevance
above all else because we want [art] to have an
effect on society and to push for progress; we ask
for truth because [art] must be living to be understood.29

Jean Reynaud said more bluntly:

Aristocracy seated in the dust, know that the
world has no other foundation than intelligence
and virtue, and that dust, be it of gold, is nonetheless dust. The sight of our social distress maintains
courage and tranquil conviction in our souls, and
the friends of humanity have learned to recognize
as their first obligation not resignation, but hope.30

The Romantic sculptors of 1833 realized

that this social program had to be built on the
foundations of eighteenth-century style if it
were to be built at all, and Preault's Deux
of 1833 and his Pariahsof 1834,
both also heavily indebted to Michelangelo,
are among the most successful expressions
such an amalgam ever found. This working
realization that the eighteenth century was
the source of the only living stylistic tradition,
along with the increasing expropriation of
sculptural realism by academicism in the
work of Cldsingerand others, soon legitimized


the Rococo for critics as well. In his "LEtudes

sur la statuairedu dix-hiutiemesiecle" of 1847,
Thore went a long way toward re-establishing
eighteenth-century style as a meaningful
background to the mid-nineteenth century,
castigating Winckelmann and neoclassical
sculpture as an "incredible heresy that
sacrifices the future to the past and completely denies the activity of living poetry and
the eternal rebirth of the human spirit." 31
The triumph of the eighteenth century was
assured when the failure of internationalist
political hopes in 1870 turned attention away
from the internationalist neoclassical style
toward that of the French eighteenth century,
and remnants of neoclassicism were blended
with the eighteenth-century revival to produce a new version of academic style. This
revival in turn focused attention on the
Berninesque survival style, which came to be
seen as particularly modern in its vitality and
concern for prosaic anecdote.32Thus the general revival of interest in the eighteenth
centuryrtoward the end of the nineteenth succeeded in blurring earlier liberal-conservative
distinctions and making academically acceptable ideas that were simultaneously
praised for their modernity. This curious conflation underlies much of the art of the Goncourts and of Carrier-Belleuseas well as that
of Rodin, who was at last able to conceive
and produce a Romantic sculpture of sustained greatness. It shows how entwined the
threads that had knit political conceptions to
art became and is the tangle that lies at the
root of the avant-garde appearance taken on
by academicism in much twentieth-century
art, a tangle that infinitely confused the task
of nineteenth-century artists seeking a usable

1 The term Romantic is used here to denominate

this stream in deference to Luc Benoist's La Sculpture
Romantique(Paris, 1927), the most perceptive investigation of French nineteenth-century sculpture to date.
2 Cf. Gerard Hubert, Les Sculpteursitaliens en France
. . . 1790-1830 (Paris, 1964), pp. 38-40.
3Cf. especially Quatremere's Le Jupiter olympien,
Essai sur l'ideal, and Considerationsmoralessur la destination des ouvragesde l'art; meric-David's Recherchessur
l'art statuaire; Seroux d'Agincourt's Histoire de l'art par
les monumens, v. II; and Paillot de Montabert's
Theorie du geste and L'Artistaire. The difference between Quatremre's and ?meric-David's interpreta-

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tions of Winckelmann have been noted by Pontus
Grate, Deux critiquesd'art de l'epoqueromantique:Gustave
Plancheet TheophileThore (Stockholm, 1959), p. 3.
4 Henry Jouin, Esthetiquedu sculpteur.This book is
composed of a series of essays written as introductions
to Jouin's Salon reviews beginning in 1873. Similar
ideas are expressed in Charles Blanc's Grammairedes
arts du dessin,which appeared as a book in 1867 after
having been published serially in the Gazettedes Beaux
Arts between 1860 and 1862.
6 Eugene Guillaume, Essais sur la theorie du dessin
(Paris, 1896), p. 35.
6 Paolo Emiliani-Giudici,
"Correspondence particuliere," Gazettedes Beaux-Arts, 1859, v. I, p. 242.
7 Guillaume, op. cit., p. 29.
8 The essential problem of bas-relief is to bring a
round thing out of a flat one and hence it is, like perspective painting, illusionistic. The forms of a relief
exist in front of a surface, either in front of what
becomes the background when the relief is carved
away, in direct carving, or in front of the surface with
which the artist begins, in wax and clay. In both
cases there is a surface analogous to a picture plane
through which forms break or in front of which they
extend. The point of reference, thus, is always planar.
9 For the academic viewpoint on sculptural materials cf. Henry Jouin, La sculptureau Salon de 1874.
This material was later reprinted in Jouin's Esthetique
du sculpteur.A more liberal examination of the same
subject is Eugene Guillaume's "L'art et la matiere:
le Salon de 1881," Atudesd'art antique et moderne,pp.
'? Jouin, Esthetique,p. 131.
1 Ibid.,

pp. 130-131.

Guizot, Atudes sur les beaux-artsen general (Paris,

1852), p. 65.
13 Gustave Planche, ktudes sur I'ecolefrancaise (Paris,
1855), v. I, p. 83.
14Stendahl, "Salon de 1824," Melanges d'art et de
litterature(Paris, 1867), p. 254. It should be pointed
out that Stendahl's taste and theoretical beliefs in
sculpture were squarely on the side of neo-classicism.
16Reynaud, "Coup d'oeil sur l'exposition de sculpMarch 1833, pp. 590-591.
ture," Revue encyclopedique,
16 Gabriel Laviron and Bruno Galbaccio, Le Salon
de 1833 (Paris, 1833), pp. 38-39. This remarkable
book is among the outstanding critical statements of
the nineteenth century, the more so because of its
date, and deserves to be quoted at length. Beginning
with a statement of principles, the authors say:
Laissant de cote les questions de forme et les
querelles d'ecoles. . . nous cherchons ce qu'il
pourra y avoir d'individualite et de puissance, et
par cela meme d'avenir, dans l'oeuvre d'un artiste
. . . Dans une sculpture ou dans un tableau nous
cherchons d'abord la pensee s'il y en a, et la
tendance de cette pensee. Puis nous examinerons
jusqu'a quel point l'artiste est parvenu A rendre la
nature dans sa verite en typant chaque chose dans
le caractere qui lui est propre.
They proceed to distinguish two kinds of artists,
those who work in an era of faith under the force of
a poweful idea, and those who live in an era with no
common belief and make "l'art pour l'art." Of the
latter, they say:



C'est l'art des epoques oii la societe n'a plus ni

crovances ni lien commun, et n'a pas encore r6velation des tendances qui doivent amener son
avenir; ou les hommes forts oublieux de progres, se
replient sur eux-memes pour etudier exclusivement
la nature, c'est l'art de Shakespeare et de l'Arioste;
c'est l'art de Ribera, du Correge et du Caravage.
Noting that this is also the art of modern times, they
go on:
L'art ne consiste pas a faire des trompe-l'oeil, mais
bien A rendre le caractere particulier de chaque
chose que l'on veut representer. Pour cela il faut
voir et comprendre, c'est-a-dire qu'il faut avoir
l'ame assez puissante pour saisir les differences
caracteristiques qui sont dans la nature, et, ce qui
peut-tre est encore plus rare, l'audace de les
rendre dans toute leur verite.
Following this clear-sighted credo, they proceed to a
detailed criticism of the Salon which, if it is not rigorously enough discriminatosy in the terms of the introduction, is among the more perceptive such efforts
of its time.
17 Alexandre D..
.. [Decamps], Le Musee, revuedu
Salon de 1835 (Paris, 1834 [sic]), p. 69.
18Eugene Veron, L'Esthetique(Paris, 1878), p. 237.
l9Theophile Thore, Salons de W. Burger, 1861 2
1868 (Paris, 1870), v. I, p. 86.
20Auguste Ottin, "Esquisse d'une methode applicable a l'art de la sculpture," Press scientifiquedes
Deux Mondes, 16 March 1864, p. 337.
2 Henry Houssaye, L'art francais depuis dix ans
(Paris, 1883), p. 111.
22Felix Feneon, "Exposition nationale des Beaux
Arts," Oeuvres (Paris, 1948), p. 96. This essay originally appeared in La Libre revuefor October 1883.
23 Grate, op. cit., p. 244.
24Gustave Planche, ktudes, v. I, p. 303.
26Louis Gonse has noted apropos the French Revolution, "I1 est a remarquer que, depuis cette date
fameuse, l'idee r6volutionnaire a toujours fait bon
menage avec l'idee academique" (Gonse, op. cit., p.
26 Laviron and Galbaccio, op. cit., p. 39.
27 On this often repeated view of sculpture as a
French national art see Castagnary, whose sculptural
tastes were soundly academic, "Salon de 1869,"
Salons (1857-1870) (Paris, 1892), p. 384; Houssaye,
op. cit., p. 286; and Leonce Benedite, La Sculptureau
Musee Nationale de Luxembourg(Paris, n.d.).
28Reversing the situation of half a century later,
the avant-garde art of 1833 was moving toward
realism, while conservative art tended to be abstracting.
29 Laviron and Galbaccio, op. cit., p. 30.
30 Reynaud, op. cit., p. 597.
31Theophile Thore, Salons de T. Thore: 1844,
1845, 1846, 1847, 1848 (Paris, 1868), p. 405. The
essay "tudes sur la statuaire du dix-huitieme siacle"
is an introduction to Thore's Salon of 1847.
32 The important distinction between the eighteenth-century survival and the eighteenth century
revival styles has been discussed in relation to painting
by Aaron Sheon in Monticelli and the Rococo Revival
(unpublished doctoral thesis, Princeton, 1966), pp.

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