Manon Gropius, the Muse

(Last Updated On April 26, 2022)

The Wikipedia entry for Manon Gropius lists her occupation as “muse”. It was not an occupation for which she was paid, but she did inspire works of music, literature, and sculpture.

Anonymous – Manon Gropius as a Baby (1917)

Alma Manon Anna Justina Carolina Gropius (nickname Mutzi) was born in Vienna, Austria in 1916. She was the daughter of Walter Gropius and  Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius. Manon’s father, Walter Gropius, was one of the outstanding architects of the 20th century, and the founder of the Bauhaus school of art. Manon’s mother, Alma Gropius, was a composer, diarist, and socialite. Alma Gropius was an attractive woman known for a scandalous life of adulterous affairs and multiple divorces. Alma began an affair with poet Franz Werfel in 1917. Werfel was the father figure during Manon’s childhood.

Anonymous – Manon Gropius, Anna Mahler on Right, and Two Others (1917)

Manon’s parents separated when Manon was two years old. Her early childhood was spent traveling between her mother’s three homes, two in Austria and one in Italy. She was short-tempered as a young child. At age five Manon decided that she wanted to be an actress, and that was her goal for the rest of her life. Alma was quite proud of her daughter Manon’s beauty, and she allowed Manon to go naked as much as possible.

Anonymous – Manon, Grandmother Anna Sophie Moll, Sister Anna Mahler in Venice (1922)

Manon mellowed as she entered puberty. She developed an interest in religion. Although she had been baptized as a Protestant, Manon felt that the Catholic concept of spirituality was more compatible with her. In 1932 she converted to Catholicism. Manon’s kindness, innocence, and beauty made a deep impression on people. The author Elias Canetti described 16-year old Manon as “an angelic gazelle”.

Anonymous – Manon Gropius Naked (c1923)

Canetti considered Manon to be the opposite of her mother Alma. Alma, in Canetti’s opinion, viewed Manon as just another trophy of which to boast; like Alma’s expensive possessions, and the many men with whom she slept. As Alma aged her ability to manipulate men with her beauty waned. Alma apparently hoped to continue to manipulate men, at least vicariously, through her beautiful daughter Manon. Manon, however, was developing into a very gentle, non-manipulative young lady.

Anonymous – Manon, Franz-Werfel, Alma Werfel in Venice (1924)

Franz Werfel seems to have had a deep platonic love and respect for his stepdaughter Manon. He compared her to saints, especially to St. Francis of Assisi, the patron of animals. This was because Manon had a remarkable affection for animals. Manon loved animals, and animals loved her. It is normal for a girl to love her pet cat, as Manon did, but Manon’s empathy with animals extended much farther. Domestic dogs and cats that did not know Manon would follow her. She could approach wild animals that normally fear people. Her affection was not only for cute animals like dogs and cats, but even included snakes.

Anonymous – Walter Gropius and his Daughter Manon Gropius at Dessau (1927)

In the spring of 1934 Manon caught polio in Venice, Italy. She started to recover to an extent, but other complications arose, and she was in poor health for the rest of her short life. She died a year later on Easter Monday 1935. She was eighteen.

Anonymous – Manon Gropius and her Cat (1932)

Franz Werfel and composer Alban Berg were both at Manon’s funeral, and both vowed to memorialize her in art. Berg had been working on an opera at the time of Manon’s death. He quit working on the opera and switched to composing a violin concerto in memory of Manon. He completed the concerto Dem Andenken eines Engels (In Memory of an Angel) before he died on Christmas Eve, 1935. Critics of classical music consider Berg to be one of the great composers of the 20th century, and Dem Andenken eines Engels is considered to be his greatest work. An article in Pigtails about Gilbert O’Sullivan’s muse Clair Mills provoked controversy due to differing interpretations of the lyrics expressing love for Clair. Dem Andenken eines Engels uses programmatics in the music, rather than lyrics, to express love for Manon, and has not aroused any controversy of which I am aware.

Anonymous – Manon Gropius on a CD Cover for Berg’s Violin Concerto (no date)

Werfel took longer to write his novel as a tribute to Manon. In 1935 he planned a novel about a fictional 17th century saint, but it was still only a plan in 1940. By that time Europe was at war, and Werfel was among the refugees fleeing to neutral Spain. On the journey to Spain he stopped at the French village of Lourdes. There he heard the story of the teenage girl, St. Bernadette Soubirous, who in 1858 encountered the Virgin Mary at a grotto near the village. Werfel changed his plan from a novel about a fictional saint to a novel about a real saint, and completed writing Das Lied von Bernadette in 1941. Das Lied von Bernadette is what we would now call a historical narrative; the main events and characters are real, but details and conversations have been added to give the characters a personality and make them seem alive to the reader. The personality given to St. Bernadette is that of Manon Gropius. Das Lied von Bernadette was translated into English as Song of Bernadette in 1942, and was number one on the New York Times best seller list for thirteen weeks. Song of Bernadette was released as a movie in 1943.

Manon Gropius has also been memorialized in literature in the Nobel Prize winning memoirs of Elias Canetti. Canetti devotes two chapters of his memoirs to Manon. Manon’s World : A Hauntology of a Daughter in the Triangle of Alma Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel by James Reidel (2021) is another novel about Manon Gropius.

Manon’s half sister Anna Mahler sculpted a statue of a young woman holding an hourglass for Manon’s gravestone. This statue was destroyed by bombing during the war, before it was ready to be placed on Manon’s grave.  After the war Manon’s father, Walter Gropius, designed the Bauhaus style marker currently on Manon’s grave.

Maiden Voyages: March 2022

(Last Updated On April 26, 2022)

The month of February sure did go by fast. Sorry for the late post; I finally have a little time off to deal with this.

Guest Writers: I would once again like to express my appreciation for the work of our guest writers. Apart from a couple of items from Moko, there is a new submission from Ben and a few others have promised articles soon.

Random Images: Raffael Esquivel

(Last Updated On May 9, 2022)

This artist contacted me to express an interest in getting his art presented in an article on this site. Raffael Esquivel is an illustrator living in Costa Rica. According to his Behance account, he is available for hire and told me that he intends to do a series of pieces that are on-topic for Pigtails hopefully warranting more coverage and getting his name out there. Below is the image I believe is most relevant to this site so far. Also interesting is an image called Wolf girls.

Raffael Esquivel – Fairy Child resting (2021)

Random Images: Vadim Vyshinsky

(Last Updated On April 26, 2022)

A reader found and shared this delightful artist with us. Vadim Vyshinsky (Вадим Вышинский) (b1967) says he never studied art anywhere and apparently has artistry in his blood. Both his mother and father draw and exhibit and he has traced his family from a long line of artists back to the 16th century. He became an officer in the Russian military and retired at the rank of colonel to pursue his art full time.

Many of his images feature boy and girl children captured in a moment of action or in fantasy themes. The image below is especially delightful. The figure with its exaggerated posture and erect pigtails simply exudes joyful energy.

Vadim Vyshinsky – Счастье (Happiness)  (date unknown)

To see more of his work simply click the link on his name above.


Barbara Bradley, Queen of the Perkies and Cuties

(Last Updated On April 26, 2022)

Barbara Bradley was one of the most popular illustrators of the 20th century, but her name is not well-known by the general public. Artists recognize her as one of their profession’s greatest. She was born in 1927 and developed an interest in drawing while still a child. In a 2008 interview for femaleillustrators.blogspot she said that she was influenced by comic artists Hal Foster and Milton Caniff. She drew the illustrations for her high school yearbook. After high school she attended college for seven years, but did not get a degree. Later she was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Barbara Bradley – Polly Pigtails (1951 – 1957)

In the early 1950s she was working as a professional illustrator. Bradley was well-known for her illustrations in Polly Pigtails’ Magazine for Girls. Below are three of Barbara’s illustrations featuring Polly Pigtails and her dog. She said that the dog was one of her best models.

Barbara Bradley – Polly Pigtails (1953)

Barbara Bradley – Polly Pigtails (1950s)

Bradley also worked for the Merrill Publishing Company. Four of her cover illustrations for Merrill children’s books are shown below. The books were for both boys and girls, and so a typical cover illustration included children of both sexes. However, Bradley’s main interest throughout her career was to draw girls. Barbara Bradley referred to herself as “Queen of the Perkies and Cuties”.

Barbara Bradley – Read Write Count Color (circa 1950s)

Barbara Bradley – Busy as a Bee (circa 1950s)

Barbara Bradley – Sound and Say (circa 1950s)

Barbara Bradley – Bobby and Betsy’s Easy Coloring (circa 1950s)

Advertising illustrations were another important part of Barbara’s work. Below are two of her advertising drawings. The Carter’s ad has a boy, a girl, and a dog. Note how often Bradley has animals in her drawings. The other illustration is for a Dole’s Pineapple advertisement. The style is entirely different than her other drawings, proving Bradley to be a very versatile artist.

Barbara Bradley – Carter’s Advertisement (circa 1950s)

Barbara Bradley – Dole Pineapple Hawaiian Kids (circa 1970)

Barbara Bradley – Two Girls (date unkown)

Barbara Bradley – Two Girls and Two Boys (date unkown)

The next two illustrations show a helpful sister, and girls getting attention from boys. I thought these illustrations were particularly effective in evoking a mood. The last picture is the cover of her book, Drawing People. This book has been acclaimed by artists as one of the best instruction manuals for drawing the clothed figure. When Bradley began the book she went at it as a perfectionist. Then her granddaughter was born, and the book occupied a much lower priority. Her book was published in 2003, and Barbara passed away five years later.

Barbara Bradley – Drawing People Cover(2003)

Maiden Voyages: February 2022

(Last Updated On April 26, 2022)

My apologies for the late posting, but I have gotten really busy recently. There is not too much to report but there are a couple of items of interest.

Guest Writers: I wish to thank Marlin for his recent submission of an article. I want to remind readers that guest writers are encouraged. I have another submission to look through that was recently submitted and I hope this will motivate others to write. All articles will be edited by me so no worries if you feel you aren’t particularly skilled at English. Images must be submitted as jpeg (compatible with WordPress format) and should be between 150 and 250 kB if possible.

[20200205] It seems I really botched things up. In my haste to get this post up, I did not notice that I presented the item below in a misleading way. It was not my intent to have an innocent man get railroaded nor to engage in hearsay because I was not certain of all the details of the case. I realize now that readers would completely miss the point of this post. I certainly don’t want to be lumped together with those in the criminal justice system or mainstream media who would make rash statements for the purpose of political gain or sensationalism. I intend to revise the paragraph below. Changes will be in italics and, in the interest of transparency, I will leave the offending statement below with a strikethrough. I hope to have the necessary revisions in place by this evening. I think you will agree this gives readers the wrong idea and I sincerely apologize to those who were harmed by this.

Mitigation or Punishment? An associate forwarded a message received from G4S (Public Protection Department, Offender Management Unit) in the UK. He had sent a Christmas card to someone in prison which had the image shown below. It was disclosed that the prisoner is serving a sentence for a crime against minors. The case has more of a peripheral connection with minors which may have justified the prison system to restrict images of children but, in fact, no children were actually harmed and the defendant was not charged with anything of that nature. Convicted prisoners have no expectation of privacy when it comes to communications with the outside world, but I am not sure if the logic for returning this particular card has firm grounds. Is this some kind of protection to rehabilitate the prisoner or really just some veiled form of punishment? Or perhaps we can be generous and conclude that the authorities in charge were not acting competently because they did not trouble themselves to know the specifics of this prisoner’s case. Is it policy for images of children to not be allowed in this particular facility or is the prisoner being singled out? (More details about this case are discussed below the image)

The item was returned with an explanatory note from G4S:

… Due to safeguarding measures, [the prisoner] is not permitted any contact with anyone under the age of 18 including photographs. Please refrain from sending in any images of children.

(Artist Unknown) – Two ballerinas (©2003 courtesy of Rubberball Productions)

The image was licensed from Getty Images and printed by Éditions du Désastre in Paris.

In my zeal to protect the privacy of the prisoner, I was afraid to divulge the necessary information in fear that there would be clues which could be used to identify him (and later harassment by vigilantes). In fact, the man is an open supporter of Graham Ovenden and this website. It is probable that this association is being used by the police to harass him. Being less high-profile and tenacious than Ovenden, he did not think it sensible to fight a drawn-out and expensive battle with the courts to demonstrate his innocence and so he accepted a plea bargain on a lesser petty charge and is serving a short sentence that is slated to end this fall. Essentially, because of UK obscenity laws, he was convicted of possessing materials one can find right here on Pigtails in Paint! I hope things are more clear now and why it is so puzzling that G4S should act in what appears to be a petty manner. -Ron

Maiden Voyages: January 2022

(Last Updated On April 26, 2022)

Happy New Year to all our readers!

Passing the Buck: Many if not most readers have noticed that this site has been down a number of times. We do not have the full picture yet, but I wanted to share what we do know and how we are investigating. The problem is that organizations (like the Canadian Centre for Child Protection) or individuals make a complaint and because we are being accused of promoting something heinous, the natural inclination is to err on the side of conservatism and shut us down without investigating. Most people cringe at having to look into this deeper in fear of what they might see or learn. Naturally, there is nothing really to fear in our case but someone in the internet chain is shutting us off without due process. Getting information has been difficult because each actor in this drama is in the uncomfortable position of being accused of either censorship or child abuse. In any event, Pigtails in Paint is switching to a different data center hosted in another country and see if that works better. Meanwhile, we will continue to investigate to work out the weak links in the chain.

Journeys of Gender Identity: Pip brought to my attention a graphic novel meant to help young people in the LGBT community to feel less alone. However, conservative communities have raised an uproar about the fact that this material is openly available to young people in a public school. You can read more here.

Tongue in Cheek: A reader brought to my attention a song featured in the film Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). Like all films of this ilk, everything in it is meant to be a parody. But I had forgotten about this one song called “Every Sperm is Sacred”. In it, there are some fairly young performers singing the lyrics to this facetious work. It seemed hardly worth mentioning but I can’t help but wonder what the auditioning process was for getting young people to appear in this kind of scene.

Merry Christmas: A Gift from Graham Ovenden

(Last Updated On May 9, 2022)

One of my contentions—which I perhaps do not mention often enough—is that the reason true artists produce their art is something akin to compulsion. There is something in their psychology that drives them to do it. To my mind, it is a valuable form of exorcising one’s demons and, by extension, that of society. I was quite distressed to learn that health concerns in the past year have made Graham quite frail (not connected to the extant coronavirus). For a time, his shoulder was too stiff for him to work and I became quite concerned that he would go mad (balmy to you Brits out there) if he were forced to stop painting permanently. Fortunately, things got a little better and one of his most ambitious projects is a triptych recently completed and given as a gift to his younger sister.

Graham Ovenden – The Wind (2021) (left panel)

Graham Ovenden – My Sister’s Ghost Arising (2021) (center panel)

This center panel is meant to depict Graham’s sister in her youth kicking a ball to another younger sister who passed away when she was young (figure on the right).

Graham Ovenden – Moon Jumping (2021) (right panel)

Not only can cows jump over the moon; girls can too which I’m sure many readers will agree is a more delightful metaphor.

Graham Ovenden – Triptych (2021)

The works were produced in oil on prepared paper laid down onto board or plywood. Graham says,” The three panels are very much a depiction of childhood freedoms and wonder.”

Happy Christmas to all! -Ron

Random Images: Waltham Watches

(Last Updated On May 9, 2022)

This item has been on my radar for a while and I keep hoping that a better-resolution image will appear on the internet. So perhaps someone out there has a good scan of this because I have seen this ad many times on the secondary market.

There is a long tradition of using the images of children to sell things and when the children are naked, it helps emphasize something specifically. In this case, the idea is that the watch will last a long time and this sweet little girl will still be using this reliable device even when she is grown up.

Waltham “Bare Facts” campaign ad (1968)

[20211231] A couple of readers have located a slightly-better version of the image which I have replaced above. Thank you, -Ron

Auguste Moreau and the Art Nouveau Movement

(Last Updated On May 8, 2022)

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.

Auguste Moreau – Untitled figure found in Frederick, Maryland antique shop (1)

Auguste Moreau – Untitled figure found in Frederick, Maryland antique shop (2)

Auguste Moreau – Untitled figure found in Frederick, Maryland antique shop (3)

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.

Auguste Moreau – Young Lovers (date unknown)

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.

Auguate Moreau – Flower Arranger (date unknown)

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.

Auguste Moreau – Alerte (c1890) and Bandinage (c1900)

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.

Auguste Moreau – Young Lovers Lamp (version 1)

Auguste Moreau – Young Lovers Lamp (version 2)

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.

Auguste Moreau – Charmeur (c1900) (1)

Auguste Moreau – Charmeur (c1900) (2)

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.