Today is the birthday of the great French Rococo sculptor Étienne-Maurice Falconet (1716-1791), an artist who was particularly beloved of Madame du Pompadour, one of the mistresses of Louis XV. Arguably Falconet’s most famous sculpture is the impressive equestrian monument dedicated to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, and nicknamed “The Bronze Horseman”. The monument was completed in 1782, but gained its descriptive nickname in 1833, as a result of the popularity of a narrative poem about the statue coming to life, written by one of Russia’s greatest writers, Alexander Pushkin. Falconet’s birthday is a good occasion for us to learn a bit more about his work, but more importantly to recall that sometimes we need to be challenged in our careers and in our personal lives, to achieve more than we ourselves and indeed others believe us capable of achieving.
Before he caught the attention of the Empress Catherine the Great, who commissioned the monument to her predecessor, Falconet had carved several sculptures of the kind of fanciful and erotic variety which the decadent court of Louis XV loved. Typically his work featured little putti – the pagan version of cherubs – or nymphs in various stages of undress, and often approached what I have referred to in a previous post as porn for rich people. That being said, if you are a fellow male I challenge you not to be discomforted by his 1745 sculpture of the Greek myth of Milo of Croton in The Louvre.
In 1757 Falconet was placed in charge of the sculpture department of the legendary French royal porcelain factory at Sèvres, and probably would have remained there creating small-scale aristocratic bric-a-brac for the dinner tables and sideboards of French châteaux alongside the occasional piece of garden sculpture for the rest of his life. However the French philosopher Diderot recommended his work to his friend and patroness Catherine the Great who, despite the somewhat silly nature of Falconet’s work, obviously saw something in his abilities that the artist himself did not. Falconet traveled to Russia in 1766, and worked on the monument to Peter the Great for twelve years before he returned to France after a falling out with the Empress. The final installation of the piece on its massive plinth – often believed to be the largest single piece of rock ever moved by human beings before the advent of modern machinery – only came in 1782.
The sculpture shows the Emperor, seated on a rearing horse that is trampling a serpent, while Peter points toward the River Neva which runs through St. Petersburg. Various interpretations have been made of the symbolism employed in the work, but I always think of how Peter was determined to crush the backwards provincialism of the Russians, and re-orient his people toward Europe. The sculptor is showing a dynamic, active ruler, rather than one seated in solemn majesty on a throne, who is thrusting his nation into a more modern world – whether it wants to be a part of it or not.
Building a brand new capital out of nothing, in the middle of a swampy marsh, was one of Peter’s ways of trying to create a new identity for his people, and it was an idea later emulated in part by George Washington in building this country’s capital, which was also placed on a drained swamp. I like to think that in this monument, the Emperor is pointing out a spot along the mucky banks of the marshland and saying, “Here’s where we going to build it, lads.” Falconet has, of course, not provided accompanying sculptures of courtiers and retainers looking at each other with bewilderment and rolling their eyes.
After returning to France, Falconet was only able to work for a few more years before suffering a stroke which left him unable to sculpt. He then spent the rest of his life writing about art theory and technique, augmenting works he had already published and which were widely read in his own lifetime. One of his ideas that began to take hold in the artistic community was that contemporary artists – “contemporary” being those working in his own day, of course – did not have to consider themselves second-fiddle to the artists of the past, and that great art equal to or better than that produced by the Greeks and Romans was being produced in Falconet’s own day. It is interesting that despite the wealth and opportunities available to him, unlike most artists of the 18th century Falconet never saw the need to make the Grand Tour of Italy and Greece to see ancient works of art; he thought that beautiful art could be created wherever you happened to be, so long as you had talent and worked hard.
Although Falconet and Catherine the Great ultimately had a parting of the ways, and he was not able to see his most famous work installed and completed, the sculpture that he created for her has become perhaps the most iconic symbol of the city of St. Petersburg. It has been lovingly protected by generations of Russians from attacks by invaders such as Napoleon and Hitler, even after the fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the Soviet state. The impact this single work of art has made on the collective Russian psyche cannot be overestimated, from poets like Pushkin to composers, filmmakers, painters, and photographers, who are perennially drawn to it.
And yet despite the centuries of admiration for this a massive, tremendously impressive piece of public sculpture, which struck so profound a chord with the Russian people, what to me is even more interesting is that this is the work of someone whom no one could reasonably have expected to produce something like it. Falconet was a man who more or less became famous for creating very personal and intimate statues and figurines of naked ladies getting out of the bathtub. That he could come up with something so powerful as this would be analogous to a popular sitcom writer suddenly coming out with a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama as searing as the work of Edward Albee or Arthur Miller.
As the saying goes, you never know what you can do until you try. In the case of Falconet, two of the most powerful people of the 18th century – one an influential philosopher, the other an absolute monarch – took an interest in him and gave him a chance to do something greater than perhaps even he believed himself capable of achieving. Not all of us will be so lucky as to have friends and contacts in such august circles, of course, but the lesson to be learned is still the same: challenging yourself to take your talents and abilities in a direction that you have never tried before, is certainly worth the attempt. You have no idea what wonders may result.