Barye in His Heyday: It Was the Beast of Times
BALTIMORE ighty Auguste Rodin, it’s now pretty well agreed, was the most important French sculptor of his age. But he didn’t think so. “The great man of our century,” Rodin kept insisting, is “the great Barye.”
Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) made classical bronze sculpture a bloody, snarling action art. In his elegant, alarming, obviously superior bronzes for the tabletop — now on exhibition at the Walters Art Museum — the movement never stops.
Tigers claw at elephants. Elephants squash tigers. Swords stab into flesh. In “Untamed: The Art of AntoineLouis Barye,” the energy is palpable. Growling bears maul mastiffs. Serpents swallow deer. And every time you move your head, the polished metal gleams anew as if it were alive.
Once upon a time, but alas, no longer, the “Michelangelo of the menagerie” was regarded as a giant. Barye (pronounced “berry”) was patronized by princes, and by the middling classes, too. He helped decorate the Louvre. He won the Legion of Honor. And his influence was vast.
Paul Cézanne copied Barye. So did Henri Matisse. What Rodin took from Barye — the shimmering of the surfaces, the knotted muscularity — isn’t hard to see. And it wasn’t only Rodin. America’s Frederic Remington, that bucking-bronco specialist, bought the Frenchman’s bronzes. Romantic Eugène Delacroix, the poet of the tiger hunt, also took from Barye. Walt Disney did, too.
Barye’s reputation might still be way up there — had taste not turned against him. Here’s where he went wrong.
He did not foresee the car. Instead he stuck with horses. He understood completely why equestrian statues are equestrian. He was certain — and no wonder, this had been the case for centuries — that the elevating emblem of man’s heroic spirit would always be the image of the rearing, plunging steed.
Nor did he imagine how movies first, and then TV, would become the crucial media for showing nature’s violence. Statues of cast metal never really had a chance. Barye lived in Paris. He learned his animals from art, and from watching them in zoos, and seldom, if at all, saw them fighting in the wild. He made his battles up. Those now on TV — a great white shark, a fish, shoots out of the sea to gobble a whole seal — make Barye’s metal dramas look too compact. His battles were invented. They weren’t really scientific. Today that’s pretty obvious, but it wasn’t then. He was one of the last sculptors whose bronzes were applauded because they were believed.
Something else has worked against him. He was emotionally incorrect.
MIn Vogelherd in Germany some 30,000 years ago, someone carved a little archnecked horse out of mammoth ivory. Horses would remain — in stone Assyrian basrelief, Chinese Tang ceramics, tomb paintings in Egypt and the friezes of the Parthenon — a staple of world art. Leonardo depicted them incessantly; so did Edgar Degas. Barye holds an honored place in that long tradition. “Freely inhaling the air through its nostrils, proudly raising its head as though death or enslavement could ever be its fate” is how his “Turkish Horse, No. 2” (1844) was described by an admirer when it was still new.
That great tradition’s crumbled. It lingered for a while in Hollywood’s B-movies (Silver, Trigger). And it still survives, decayed, in Breyer Animal Creations (whose stamped-out little horses, 5.5 million a year, are mostly made for little girls). But it’s lost its art cachet. Who draws horses now?
Muscled long-maned lions, another high-art staple, and another Barye favorite, haven’t done much better. When the French filly Fille de l’Air defeated an English entry in the Grand Prix de Paris at the Longchamps race track in 1865, a silver Barye lion — now striding through the Walters — was personally presented by Napoleon III to the filly’s owner, the Count of Lagrange. Such animals in those days symbolized state power and Europe’s right to rule. They’re out of fashion now.
One of Barye’s virtues is that his wild animals are much more than mere emblems. They’re also scientific studies of the wonders of the wild world, and this, too, has a noble history in art.
In May of 1515, a horn-headed rhinoceros, the first seen in Europe since antiquity, disembarked in Lisbon. It had been brought to fight an elephant. “It has the color of a speckled turtle,” noted Albrecht Durer, the great German master, who made a woodcut of that wondrous beast, though he never got to see it. Barye, as a careful student of the wild world, was more fastidious than that.
He spent endless hours at the Paris zoo, the Jardin du Roi, studying the animals. And he studied them carefully, noting all their muscles, and the true shapes of their bones, once the beasts had died.
Observing blood and gore presented as science, on the Discovery Channel, for instance, or in National Geographic, is still regarded as respectable. Attending bestial battles — simply for the fun of it — today is not in vogue. But such age-honored entertainment is key to Barye’s art. As one wanders through the Walters, one cannot help remembering that not so very long ago most people of the better sort, and lesser sorts as well, thoroughly enjoyed watching wild animals being torn apart.
The violent scenes on view suggest old regal privilege. The pharaoh Tutankhamen liked to show himself in gold spearing hippopotamuses. The emperors of Rome built colossal coliseums so that they might share such pleasures with the public. As late as 1699 English politicians lost a crucial vote in Parliament when too many members left to see “a tiger baited by dogs.” Well into Barye’s day the kings of France kept hunting grounds, and watching bloody slaughters — bearbaiting and bull-baiting, cockfighting and the like — were common public treats.
The most impressive objects in the Walters exhibition are the sculptures he produced in the mid-1830s as very worldly, very gory table decorations for the heir to the French throne.
All of them are hunting scenes. One shows an Indian tiger hunt. One’s a German bear hunt. Others are depictions of Arabs hunting lions, Tatars stabbing elk, and Spaniards spearing wild bulls. Barye was no snob. A thick-handed republican accustomed to the dirt and heat of the studio and the foundry, he took pride in his position as a man of the people. But he also knew his public. His hunting scenes provided a keen upmarket thrill. By inviting their observers into regal hunting grounds, they made each shivering viewer feel as fearless as a king.
It should not be surprising that discriminating, rich American collectors enjoyed such art enormously. The 19th-century men who built the Walters gallery, William T. Walters and his son Henry Walters, both bought Barye’s art assiduously (more than 170 sculptures, many paintings, too, and more than 300 drawings). Collector George A. Lucas, whose estate would form the core of the Baltimore Museum of Art, was another Barye champion. (As was William Wilson Corcoran, the man who gave to Washington its first major art museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art.) The Baryes now in Baltimore admirably compare with the best in France.
Very painful violence — expensive, finely wrought, and vividly imagined — is as popular as ever. Now we seek its entertainments in fiery cinematic explosions, not in screaming wild beasts; it reaches out and grabs us still as it always has. By evoking who we were, Barye’s extreme statues remind us who we are. The Walters Art Gallery has abolished its admission charge. Its exhibits are now free. Associate Director William R. Johnston conceived the Barye exhibition. Simon Kelly, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow there, served as his co-curator. The two of them produced the exhibition catalogue. Their Barye show is big, more than 160 objects. It closes on May 6.
The circa-1844 “Turkish Horse, No. 2,” and “Elk Hunt,” from 1834-38, are part of “Untamed: The Art of Antoine-Louis Barye,” at the Walters Art Museum.
Untamed: The Art of Antoine-Louis Barye,