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Giraud, born in Aix-en-Provence on 21 June 1752, is regarded as a self-taught sculptor, however, one who entered the French academic system, having been named an associate (agréé) in 1788 and a full academician a year later. At that point he presented his most famous statue, the marble Dying Achilles (Salon of 1789; now in the Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence). The figure, very well received, according to Jean-Georges Wille, shows the warrior stretched out in pain, attempting to extract the arrow from his left heel. Jacques-Louis David wrote that Giraud “was instantly accepted on the basis of this work although of a style which still has not caught on much at the Academy which does not yet like the antique much. He is certainly our . . . foremost sculptor; he is the only one who follows the ancients . . . and is truly gifted.” (Quoted by Alison West, 1998, pp. 101-102).
Other known works (all lost?) include a marble Mercury, a Hercules, a Faun, and two full-sized wax sculptures: a Soldier-Laborer and a Female Bather. There was also a Sleeping Male Bather in wax. For Louis Gonse, Giraud is valued above all as an art theorist. A lengthy stay in Italy allowed the independently wealthy Giraud to assemble a museum of plaster casts, along with a museum for works by living artists, which he called the Musée Olympique de l’Ecole vivante des Beaux-Arts (Place Vendôme, Paris). Reportedly, Giraud made the first French casts of the Elgin Marbles.
Giraud’s friends included Ingres, François-Marius Granet (1775-1849) and fellow art theorist and attorney Toussaint-Bernard Eméric-David. The latter contested Giraud’s pragmatic belief that the Greeks sought to perfect realism in their art, rather than an “other-worldly” idealism. This was in direct opposition to the “main-line” Neoclassical theory established by Winckelmann, and in France represented by Quatremère de Quincy. In various academic discourses (see Appendix) Giraud argued that he was more qualified to discuss the issue since he was a sculptor. His “protégé” Eméric-David was only equipped with a doctorate in law. Giraud and the unrelated Pierre-François-Grégoire Giraud (1783-1836) established a unique school in which they attempted to rediscover the actual working methods of the ancient Greek sculptors. Miel (1840) explained that they “did profound studies of human anatomy and assiduously compared antique statues with the écorché [flayed model], with the live model, and with other ancient statues. . . they came upon the secret of Greek sculpture.”
Giraud died in Bouleaux, near Nangis (Seine-et-Loire) on 13 February 1830.
Miel. Notice sur les deux Giraud, sculpteurs Français. Paris: Imprimerie de Ducessois, 1839-40; Courajod, Louis. “Le groupe en cire de Pierre-François-Grégoire Giraud.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 5 (April 1891): 307-17; Vitry, Paul. “‘L’Achille blessé’ du sculpteur J.-B. Giraud.” Bulletin des Musées, 1923, p. 66; Shedd, Meredith. “A Neo-Classical Connoisseur and His Collections: J.B. Giraud’s Museum of Casts at the Place Vendôme.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 103 (May-June 1984): 198-206; West, Alison. From Pigalle to Préault: Neoclassicism and the Sublime in French Sculpture, 1760-1840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Giraud collaborated with Toussaint-Bernard Eméric-David on Recherches sur l’art statuaire des grecs (1805), published with the latter’s name as sole author. Giraud specified that his role was to serve as the source for sculptural techniques and perhaps the core of the theory, based on what Giraud had observed of Greek sculpture for the past thirty years, while Eméric-David was responsible for the research and the document’s literary style. Giraud accused Eméric-David of processing his ideas and taking credit for them in the final publication of Recherches sur l’art statuaire. In Giraud’s view, only an artist could understand the process of arriving at “perfected nature” (la belle nature). Apparently, Eméric-David turned to philosophy and metaphysics to define excellence in Greek ideal art. Eméric-David maintained that Giraud did not contribute his share of the work, that what he stated verbally was insubstantial, and asked how theorists such as Winckelmann could write on art without themselves being artists.
Much of the text focuses on the problem of idealism versus realism: did the Greeks develop mathematical canons or observe nature directly? Giraud believed that an objective representation of nature was the only way to begin (la vérité de l’imitation). Imitative naturalism combined with tight, precise drawing is the springboard to discovering beauty of form. In constantly comparing classical Greek masterpieces with the live model, the artist first establishes general masses of form, studies how the muscles interact but then omits unnecessary details that do not contribute to the whole effect, that is, he searches where nature is “regular.” Both authors believed in idealization to some degree. After all, both were from the Neoclassical Age: pure realism – direct observation of nature and the events of the contemporary world around us – would not become an option until after Giraud’s death in 1830.
Written and submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.