by Brooke Chilvers
I wish I could say the larger-than-life lions in front of Manhattan’s New York Public Library that I grew up with were sculpted by the great 19th century French animalier bronze sculptor, Antoine-Louis Barye (1795–1875). Alas, the iconic twins, Patience & Fortitude, so named by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to describe New Yorkers during the Great Depression, were created by American equestrian sculptor Edward Clark Potter (1857–1923); they’ve been in place since 1911.
I’m always on the lookout for any of Barye’s work in the United States, whether monumental or petit. Americans were among Barye’s first great fans and clients. He is generously exposed in the Met in New York City, both the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Fine Art, and the Norton Museum in Shreveport. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) was added to the list when, in 2021, Virginia thoroughbred breeder Patricia R. St. Clair donated the 30 museum-quality Barye bronzes she’d spent twenty years carefully collecting.
Mrs. Nelson L. St. Clair, Jr., 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 Arab Rider on a Camel (Dromadaire Monté Par un Arabe)—reputedly his last sculpture—in perfect condition. The latter is especially appreciated as the prominent lance that elevates the sculpture’s grace is often broken off. She consulted specialists, including Edward Horswell of Sladmore Gallery in London, whose informatively written and beautifully illustrated 2007 book from his exhibition L’Atelier de Barye: A group of rare sculptures from the artist’s atelier, is an excellent introduction to Barye.
Now, an exhibition of these Barye bronzes, curated by Dr. Sylvain Cordier, VMFA’s Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art, is being welcomed by Director and Head Curator Claudia Pfeiffer to the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) in Middleburg, Virginia, from April 14 to August, 2023.
Antoine-Louis Barye was a goldsmith’s son, apprenticed to a die-maker making metal buttons for military uniforms. He subsequently joined the workshops of the famous jeweler, Fauconnier, and made skillful miniatures in bronze and gold. At 23, Barye was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts where his distinctive, expressive style made him a forerunner of the Romantic movement.
Barye, like Delacroix, 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 attended dissections of dead zoo animals such as lion, which allowed them to exam the laid-bare musculature, and measured tibias, tails and genitals, and the angle of an ear’s attachment. Barye constructed moveable skeletal models, telling his student Auguste Rodin, “I model from the bone up.” He had the naturalist’s love of detail, notably distinguishing for the viewer between red deer, fallow deer, axis deer, Java deer, Ganges deer, and Virginia deer.
Viewers are naturally attracted to Barye’s obvious knowledge of anatomy, conformation, and movement. Horse Surprised by a Lion (ca. 1850) shows a muscular feline viciously throwing himself onto his prey, trying to topple it as it sinks its teeth and claws into the horse’s hide. His use of patinas subtly contributes to the movement of a piece by trapping the light and making the surfaces palpitate.
On a grander scale, Barye’s Lion and Serpent was first shown as a life-size plaster model in the Paris Salon of 1832. Although he produced five variants of the subject, its violence reflecting the violence of the 1830 revolution, the only life-size bronze casting of it in his lifetime remains forever in Paris’s Tuileries Garden. The Philadelphia posthumous casting has lived in Rittenhouse Square since 1892.
In 1846, King Louis-Philippe commissioned Barye to produce another life-size lion, this one regally seated to suggest the stability of the Orléans monarchy. Some 21 years later, a second Seated Lion was cast from the original, the two flanking Napoleon III’s entrance to his Palais du Louvre. Today, “La Porte des Lions” graces the Musée du Louvre. A reduced-size version has lived at the Walters Art Museum since 1931.
Barye started numbering his castings 50 years before this became standard practice. But buyers didn’t get it, and only wanted #1 and not #5, so he stopped. Numbered pieces stamped with his cachet are those most coveted by collectors today. Still, 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.
It is always a joy to see any show at the National Sporting Library & Museum, to revisit its permanent collection, check out the interesting library, and walk the gardens. Middleburg has its own long list of charming shops and restaurants. Just don’t overstay any 20-minute parking. The Shield hands out tickets all day long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Brooke Chilvers reminds us that the Middleburg region, bounded by the Potomac River to the north and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west, is also home to some 30 wineries.