by Brooke Chilvers
Virginia thoroughbred breeder Patricia R. St. Clair has donated her museum-quality collection of 30 Barye bronzes to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Three days of traveling through “Constable Country” in the company of Patti St. Clair, and other friends of sporting art, convinced me she was a discerning and well-informed connoisseur.
But her donation over the last 20 years of 30 outstanding bronzes by 19th century French Romantic animalier sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye (1795–1875) to the VMFA proves her commitment to future generations of art lovers.
St. Clair’s first-class collection is on display in the museum’s Mellon Focus Gallery, in an exhibition entitled Romantic Bronzes, curated by Dr. Sylvain Cordier, VMFA’s Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art.
Although the exhibit cannot be visited online, it does offer a wonderful innovation: Visitors can scan the QR codes that accompany each piece, and receive instant expert commentaries in both text and audio formats.
St. Clair started her collection in the early 1990s with the purchase of two Barye bronzes from the Washington, D.C., Guarisco Gallery, which specializes in 19th century art: Walking Tiger (Un tigre qui marche), modeled in 1836, and a rare Dromadaire Monté Par un Arabe (Arab Rider on a Camel), in perfect condition, which is rare because the prominent lance that elevates the sculpture’s inherent grace is often broken off or missing.
St. Clair, a serious horsewoman since the 1970s, was naturally attracted to Barye’s “rigeur.” He uses his knowledge of anatomy, conformation, and movement “to carry the subject’s energy and feelings, as well as his own thoughts and meanings about animals and their behavior,” says St. Clair.
She appreciated Barye’s use of patinas, which contribute to the movement of a piece by trapping the light and making the surfaces palpitate. As her knowledge grew through consulting various experts, including Edward Horswell of Sladmore Galleries in London, she decided not to collect any Barye bronzes that were cast after the artist’s death, and returned Walking Tiger, which had a “greenish patina that was not customary for his bronzes.”
The moral of the story is that a bronze is only as good as its casting. Even when the original model is excellent, if details are lost in the manufacturing process, the end result can be worthless both artistically and commercially.
Bayre, a goldsmith’s son, was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts at age 23 where his distinctive, expressive style made him a forerunner of the Romantic movement.
Like Delacroix, he studied the developing comparative anatomy collections at the Musée d’histoire naturelle in Paris, and sketched and modeled live animals at the Jardin des Plantes. They even attended dissections of dead zoo animals such as lion.
Barye constructed moveable skeletal models, telling his student August Rodin, “I model from the bone up.” He had the naturalist’s love of detail, distinguishing between red deer, fallow deer, axis deer, Java deer, Ganges deer, and Virginia deer.
Barye started numbering his castings 50 years before this became standard practice. But buyers didn’t understand it and wanted only #1, so he stopped. Numbered pieces stamped with his cachet are those most coveted by collectors today,
Interestingly, St. Clair’s collection offers the visitor the unique opportunity to see all four plaster/wax master molds or models of the four versions of Barye’s sculpture, Pheasant, Head Turned Left (ca. 1845); apparently no other museum owns all four editions of any of Barye’s bronzes.
One of St. Clair’s earliest donations was Horse Surprised by a Lion (ca. 1850), where the muscular feline has thrown himself onto his prey, trying to topple it while sinking his teeth and claws into its hide. Patti loves horses so much, their dignity and beauty, that she just couldn’t enjoy the piece and donated it!
American collectors were early appreciators of Barye, and brought much of his work to our shores. In that, Patti St. Clair is to be congratulated for sharing her carefully chosen acquisitions with us all.
Brooke Chilvers reminds readers that Barye’s huge lion sculptures are found not only in Paris, but also in New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.