I was in Frederick, Maryland the other day visiting a large antique shop so full of artifacts that it could have easily passed as a museum. Alongside the usual array of old books, worn out furniture, spooky porcelain dolls and vintage cameras, there were also shelves upon shelves of art pieces from all over the world, ranging from jade Asian sculptures to European paintings. I am an artist who over the past couple of years has specialized in illustrations depicting children in nature. Since then my eyes have been skinned to find kindred pieces, both amateur and historical. Upon seeing the various works of art in the shop, I had a feeling I would come across something that would fall within my interests sooner or later—and I was right.
Perched atop a wooden stand I saw a small cast metal sculpture, about 8 inches high by 6 inches wide. It depicted two girls wearing billowing dresses with their hair tied up in ribbons, examining what appears to be an olive branch. I was immediately struck not only by the familiar themes but also the mastery of the piece itself. I have a great admiration for realist sculptors, so finding a classically-styled cast figure which carried themes similar to my own work was a welcoming sight. Although the name on the price tag was difficult to read at first, with some help I learned that it was a cast of one of many works by French sculptor Auguste Moreau.
Those who have kept up with this site may have heard the name Moreau before. There is already an article showcasing the work of his brother Francois, AKA Hippolyte, and Auguste himself has one of his works featured in an article discussing various depictions of the Greek figure Psyche. The Moreau dynasty, as it is often called, actually spans three generations, starting with Auguste’s father, Jean-Baptiste. Himself a sculptor specializing in cast bronze, Baptiste would have three sons: Hippolyte, Auguste, and Mathurin, all three of whom followed in their father’s footsteps. Auguste himself was born in 1834 in Dijon, and would go on to have two sons of his own named Louis Auguste and Hippolyte Francois, who themselves would also become sculptors producing very similar works, thus making researching this article very confusing.
Auguste began sculpting under the tutelage of his father and would make his public debut in 1861 at the Salon in Paris, an exhibit regularly held by the renowned Académie des Beaux-Arts. His works would be shown here regularly until 1913, just 4 years before his death. Looking through his extensive gallery, it quickly becomes clear that his work fall in line with the rest of the family. Like his father and siblings, Auguste specialized in figure sculptures of pastoral or genre scenes, two fancy terms which essentially mean scenes of everyday country life. And these pieces truly are countless. Searching for Auguste’s work brings up an endless array of sculptures, though many are mixed in with his son Louis Auguste’s work. Together with the rest of the family, a massive catalog of these figures was produced over their lifetimes, and each one could be considered a masterpiece in its own right.
Although Auguste’s sculptures are quite remarkable even just at face value, his pieces often took on symbolic meanings which ran deeper than the simple depiction of nude figures and common peasantry. Take for example Young Lovers, a statue which features a boy and a girl on the verge of physical embrace. The boy, nearly completely nude, stands proudly with a floral crown adorning his head while holding what appears to be a bundle of flowers. The girl, clutched gently in his arm, is clothed in a wispy thin dress which drapes daintily around her shoulder. In her hands is her own floral crown, untied yet presumably about to be fastened and worn. Her pose indicates a certain level of shyness, but it is clear from her gaze that she is completely smitten by the boy’s charms. The unfurling tension between the two makes for a very intimate and romantic piece.
This statue could be interpreted as a nice little love scene and left at that, and even then it would still be successful—but looking a bit beyond the surface, we can see that the piece carries with it a few allegorical interpretations, be they intentional or not. Arguably the most obvious one is the allegory of the figures Cupid and Psyche, two star-crossed lovers from entirely separate worlds who meet and fall in love by divine happenstance. But along with the famous Greek duo we can also reason that the boy serves as an allegory for nature itself, his lack of clothing representing a lack of manufactured barriers between man and earth, and his floral crown defining him as the ruler of his domain. His pose exudes confidence, as though he has mastered this connection and become one with the world that birthed him. The girl, enamored with his charisma, is about to take her own leap of faith as her fabric restraints fall away.
In fact, nearly all of Auguste’s sculptures have some type of natural imagery to them, as if to remind us of where we came from—a memento naturae, if you will. It’s only fitting, then, that a piece celebrating nature would also have its figures be in their natural form. Nudity seems to play an important role in Auguste’s work. It serves a multifaceted purpose, not only celebrating the beauty of the human body but also leveraging the powerful symbolism which it carries, especially in regards to children, acting as a metaphor for innocence and purity. A lack of clothing also can represent a lack of danger, since any situation where we willingly shed all protection and present ourselves in our most vulnerable state is likely a place of trust and safety. Looking at these sculptures, one gets the feeling that they are looking at angels in the Garden of Eden, innocent souls who exist in a reality completely absent of sin and suffering.
Even when Moreau clothed his figures, he seemed to only do so begrudgingly, possibly to make his works more palatable to the public. Most of his boys are portrayed fully nude, and women and girls wear fabric so thin that every curve and crevice of the body underneath can be seen. Even the girl’s navel is visible in Young Lovers. Children’s outfits are often depicted as being so loose as to be nearly falling off. Many times their sleeves are draped down to expose their shoulders, as though the figures inside are trying to escape their confinements. Whatever the reason for the smoke-thin attire, it does conveniently demonstrate Auguste’s skill at rendering delicate fabric and clothing while still allowing him to portray the human form. In a way it is similar to modern superhero comics, which often depict their characters’ costumes as being more like body paint in order to show off their figures and musculature.
One of Moreau’s favorite subjects was that of Cupid and Psyche, likely continuing a Renaissance-era tactic of using Greek mythology as an excuse to portray the nude figure without being questioned or judged. Other statues aren’t explicitly the two lovers, but will still appear angelic or fairy-like in appearance. Even the fully nude figures, however, will always have a thin trail of cloth covering their groins.
It is easy to look at Auguste’s art and feel that it is timeless—which it is, but what I found most interesting while researching the Moreaus was just how much a product of the times their work really was. The Moreaus lived during the heyday of the Art Nouveau movement, a period during which artists began to challenge the parameters and limitations commonly associated with fine art, especially sculpture and painting. This movement often featured natural and organic lines and shapes, which would make the Moreaus’ nature-themed sculptures perfectly exemplary of the period. In fact, searching for Art Nouveau figures brings up many similar-looking works by other artists.
But more noteworthy of Art Nouveau is the development of the decorative arts, also known as applied art. The Industrial Revolution in the decades prior had resulted in a creative lull when it came to the design of functional objects. As such, artists began to fill the void by creating works that were not only beautiful but also utilitarian. The Moreaus were no exception, and it is here where they cement themselves as Art Nouveau staples. Many of the Moreaus’ sculptures served some kind of secondary purpose; lamps were a popular function, but one can also find table stands, fountains, candelabras, clocks, and likely more. Thanks to the casting methods used to create their work, multiple copies of any of their statues could be made, and thus the Moreaus’ art was reproduced on a massive scale. Even to this day, one can find plenty of authentic antique casts for sale, both as standalone sculptures and as functional objects, and these art pieces can easily go for thousands of dollars.
Some of Auguste’s works even had multiple versions, one with a utilitarian design and one without. Many of his sculptures had large glass flowers which lit up to serve as a decorative lamp. In fact, multiple lamps might even exist for the same sculpture, some with smaller fluted petals which serve a more decorative purpose, and others with one or more large floral bulbs which shine a light from overhead for better functionality. A closer look at the antique store statue shows that there are two small holes drilled into the back of the base, which leads me to believe that this statue likely served a functional purpose at one point in its life—though why someone would dismantle such an object to sell just the sculpture is unknown. Perhaps someone down the line felt it was better without.
It was difficult for me to find a direct answer on whether or not the utilitarian versions of these sculptures were designed by Auguste himself. A cursory search shows that modern electricity was first introduced to France in 1881 starting with an exhibit at the Paris Palace of Industry, so likely most of these lamps would be retrofits, even if they were of his own design. However, some of the lamps I came across were more brutish in their implementation, with some sculptures simply having a hole drilled into the figure’s head so that a light fixture could be attached. These ones certainly feel more bastardized in their approach, but regardless of if it was a Moreau or a third party, the sell prices certainly show that even these pieces are still highly valued. Lamps such as the one below sell for just as high or even more than the Young Lovers lamps, depending on where you look. It could be that they were indeed genuine lamps whose original light fixtures wore out and were thus refurbished with more modern equipment.
Either way, I do think the difference between seamlessly ingraining a function into your art piece while adhering to the original theme and aesthetic versus brute-forcing your way from point A to point B is what separates a unique and valuable Art Nouveau antique from a kitschy thrift store trinket. Does that mean the sculpture being used as a lamppost carries less artistic value than the one that is not? Not necessarily, but the caustic commoditization of such a masterful work does exhibit a disrespect to the piece itself, and if I had to choose between the two, I would take the one without the frivolous functionality.
The Moreaus certainly took full advantage of their skill and knew how to market themselves during a time when people were starved for aesthetically appealing utilitarian pieces. That said, not everyone is as appreciative of the family’s decision to mass produce and commercialize their work. While researching, I came across an article on the site MySculpturesGallery by a writer named Dee Bee, who seemed to take issue with Auguste and Hippolyte’s business practices compared to Mathurin. She writes:
Mathurin received many awards and specialized more in large statues… Many of [his] sculptures can be found around Paris… Mathurin also won first place at the Paris World Fair in 1855 for his Fontaine de Tourny, which is now located in Quebec.
The other 2 of the 3 brothers were more into “production”, and the whole family was in the sculptor “business”.
Since the sculptures were cast, there was nothing stopping the family from using the cast to produce multiple statues. So, while a statue might not be a “fake”, it might still be an “in house” reproduction. Since the family was known to reproduce their own sculptures, the likelihood of having the original statue is pretty low. A Paris stamp on the statue is indicative of the factory that continued to produce statues even after the family members passed. Some Moreau statues do command a good price, but most are made of spelter, and many are painted.
They were very talented men, but definitely in the sculpture “business”.
On a side note, spelter is a casting metal made from a mix of copper, zinc, and lead, and it is seen among appraisers as a low-grade material which degrades the statue’s value.
Bee seems to look down on Auguste and Hippolyte for mass producing their work for the sake of profit, compared to Mathurin, who seemingly created for the more noble cause of intrinsic inspiration and grandeur rather than monetary gain—though simple research indicates that Mathruin partook in the commercialization of his own art as well, providing figures for the Val d’Osne foundry, which specialized in decorative cast iron.
This brings up the question of authenticity versus marketability, AKA “selling out”. We seem to have this unspoken notion that art, especially personal art which comes from the soul, should always be free, and that those who create it should do so completely intrinsically while living in squalor and/or working a “real job”. Applied to any other career, this mentality of self-destructive purism would seem absurd, like a lawyer who only ever works pro bono while making ends meet by moonlighting as a cashier.
Is an artist supposed to live in poverty rather than use their skills to support themselves? What is a “real job” anyway? The context seems to imply that one’s profession is supposed to be inherently miserable. From my own experience, the term is most often used when condescendingly mocking a well-known creator who is beginning to fall on hard times yet refuses to give up. And yet when all those working “real jobs” come home after a long day, they will indulge in one of countless TV shows or movies, listen to music, watch Youtube videos, read books or perhaps stare at one of the statues adorning their shelves.
Bee seems to imply that the Moreau Brothers’ mass production of their sculptures cheapens the value of their work as a whole, to the point that a low-end copy of a statue is akin to having a counterfeit—this, despite the “original” sculpture also being a cast, while the wax or clay model it would have been cast from was likely destroyed during the production process. What’s interesting is how this sentiment appears if we apply it to other forms of media. The original manuscript for a best-selling novel may certainly fetch a high price, yes, but we wouldn’t say that the millions of books printed from it make its contents worthless. One gets the same story whether it is read straight from the author’s typewriter or from a bootleg PDF. Likewise, one sees the same statute whether it is made of bronze or spelter.
The idea of deliberate scarcity seems archaic in today’s context, as though in order for a work of art to retain value, it’s not enough that one gets to enjoy it; others must not. I can understand the notion of wanting to invest in a higher-quality version of a product, but perhaps growing up in a digital era where images of nearly anything are available at the click of a button and can be duplicated infinitely, the idea of owning the original of something holds significantly less importance—though the advent of NFTs seems to indicate that there is still a market for it.
Then again, the entire concept of assigning monetary value to a work of art is arbitrary in itself. A wise man once said that the only thing which truly determines how much money an art piece is worth is how much others are willing to pay for it. To two parents who have lost their child, a drawing by that child from elementary school may be indispensable, if monetarily worthless. Conversely, Ringo Starr’s art—and I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground by saying this—can be pretty heinous to look at, yet can still sell for thousands of dollars apiece by virtue of having been made by Ringo Starr. There are clearly two entirely different perspectives when it comes to valuing art, monetary versus sentimental, which seem to rarely cross paths, as if each side compromises the other.
That said, I do feel there can be a loss of value when it comes to decorative arts. Object design is subject to trends just like any other form of style and décor, so while on its own a Moreau sculpture may be a priceless work of art, once we fasten some light bulbs to it and use it as a lamp it could easily become nothing more than outdated fashion once everyone moves on to the next big thing. And not only is the price for adding aesthetic appeal to a utilitarian object oftentimes a loss of functionality, over time whichever object is being made will almost inevitably have a better-performing iteration released, thus making its functional aspect obsolete. Moreau’s lamps may be pretty, but they are easily outperformed by a simple articulating desk light. So while the lamp aspect in itself may carry historical importance, in the end the art alone is what survives the test of time.
This isn’t to say that aesthetic object design is completely undeserving of recognition, however. One of the most interesting art museums I’ve visited was a folk art museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. This museum was dedicated to showcasing the skill and creativity that goes into all of the things we may overlook in the face of more conventional fine art. For example, there was an exhibit on carousel horses. Another section focused on cigar store statues. There was a section on weathervanes, one on toys, on crocheted bed covers, and a wide variety of other objects and items which we see every day, yet whose designs we take for granted. The purpose was to highlight the creative aspect of the everyday, to shine a spotlight on the oft-overlooked fields of art and design.
I would imagine that, if broadened to international bounds, the Moreaus’ work would fit perfectly in such a museum. One of the purposes of Art Nouveau was to combine form with function and blur the line between fine art and applied art. In many cases, the transformation of the Moreaus’ work into utilitarian objects was done so in a manner which honored and respected the original piece. So while in the end I still personally choose to admire their works on their own, I can appreciate the way they were created as functional products of their time, and I certainly don’t fault the Moreaus for effectively using their time and skill in a manner in which they could support themselves.
*Young Lovers, Young Lovers Lamp (version 1) and Flower Arranger photos are courtesy of World of Bronze. Alerte and Bandinage and Young Lovers Lamp (version 2) photos are courtesy of Catawiki. Photos of Charmeur are both courtesy of 1stDibs.