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French sculptor Pierre Julien was born on 20 June 1731 at Saint-Paulien near Le Puy-en-Velay. His father was a carpenter who probably taught him the fundamentals of wood carving. Pierre’s uncle led him to Le Puy where he entered the workshop of Gabriel Samuel (1689-1758) and created his first known work, Orpheus in the Clouds Playing the Violin. From there Julien went to Paris to receive instruction from Guillaume II Coustou (1716-1777), with whom he collaborated on the allegorical Monument to the Dauphin and the Dauphine (Sens Cathedral), finished later in 1777. It is believed that Julien executed the figure of Conjugal Love, perhaps with the assistance of a fellow student, Jacques-Philippe de Beauvais (1739-1781). The monument should be considered a progressive development in French sculpture since it breaks with the Baroque wall tomb, and rather than a hideous skeleton to represent Death, Coustou chose a classical figure of Saturn who gently draws a veil over the Dauphin’s urn. The viewer is urged to dwell on the good deeds of the deceased, not on the horrors of death, in this understated classical monument of allegorical figures and symbols.
Julien remained the student of Coustou through his participation at Sens Cathedral. In 1760 he won his first honor, a divisional medal in the Academy, and on 31 August 1765 he was awarded the Grand Prix for a lost relief that represented Lucius Albinus allowing the Vestals to board his chariot, a subject of family sacrifice, common in the late eighteenth century. A plaster bust of Albinus is in the Musée Crozatier, in Le Puy. As a prelude to the usual study period in Rome at the Académie de France à Rome, Julien entered the Ecole des Elèves-protégés (1765-68). Under his teacher Michel-François Dandré-Bardon, who had just published an essay on sculpture, Julien did life drawings from the nude, and another lost relief by Julien, Venus and Cupid Stung by a Bee comes from that time. It was most likely still in the Rococo style.
Julien arrived in Rome on 1 December 1768. He must have been dazzled by the collections of Greco-Roman, Renaissance and Baroque sculpture throughout the city. In addition, he would have been influenced by his contemporaries, including Clodion (1738-1814), Johan Tobias Sergel (1740-1814), a Swedish sculptor in the circle of Fuseli, and of course his fellow students. The director of the Académie de France in Rome was Charles-Joseph Natoire (1700-1777), an amiable and congenial master who emphasized drawing and initiated some academic reforms. In Rome, Julien executed copies of famous Antique statues, including the Apollo Belvedere, the Borghese Gladiator and a small-scale version of the Cleopatra or Ariadne Abandoned (Salon de la Paix, Château de Versailles). Through Fuseli, Sergel and art theorist Quatremère de Quincy, Julien would have been taught the neoclassical theories of art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann.
Back in Paris in 1773, Julien did some decorative work in the church of Sainte-Geneviève (presently the Panthéon) in 1776, namely a relief titled Sainte-Geneviève Restoring Her Mother’s Eyesight (the Louvre has the initial sketch and a plaster model). The spirited relief demonstrates well-rendered figures in active poses and classically inspired drapery. When Julien submitted Ganymede Pouring the Nectar for Jupiter, Disguised as an Eagle as an academic reception piece (at the stage called agréé), he suffered a humiliating rejection. It is believed that Coustou, Julien’s own teacher, arranged for the rejection in order to keep him on as his assistant. Timid and easily discouraged, Julien saw no future ahead other than as a carver of ships’ prows, without membership in the French Academy. Like Jacques-Louis David four years earlier, Julien contemplated suicide. He stated that he never really recovered from the psychological effects of this incident but his colleague Beauvais protested by dramatically destroying one of his own works: and both David and Quatremère de Quincy were outraged – and later during the Revolution, David would use this as ammunition in his campaign against the Academy, which he would finally have abolished.
Julien’s friends and colleagues convinced him to persevere. He covered up the Ganymede and began working on another plaster statue to submit, his own version of the Dying Gladiator. Meanwhile, Coustou passed away, so the 37-year-old Julien was finally free. His new statue was accepted unanimously by members of the Academy. He would execute another version of the same subject in marble (Louvre) as his formal reception piece (morceau de réception) for full membership in the Academy, which appeared in the Salon of 1779. It remains one of the finest reception pieces in the Louvre’s collections. Julien was inspired by the Hellenistic Dying Gladiator, as well as his friend Sergel’s Othyrades (Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). The critics were full of praises, such as “This isn’t marble, it is flesh.” One writer noticed “an abundance of veracious and skillful details, treated in a broad and soft manner, forms of great character.” In the same Salon Julien showed a charming terracotta bust of a Vestal (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Not long ago a marble version of the Vestal was discovered by Louvre curator Guilhem Scherf in the Musée de l’Histoire de France.
In 1781 Julien was showing still further interest in copying Antique statues, for instance an Atalanta (private collection). That year he contributed the marble Vestal and an unlocated marble Erigone, a character from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The questionable terracotta in the Musée Bonnat, Bayonne, designated as Julien’s first Erigone, may actually represent a Hebe, who holds her customary attributes: the vase and cup. Erigone’s grapes are not at all present (see Worley, 2003, pp. 44-45). At the end of 1781 Julien was named adjunct professor in the Academy, which counteracted his disgraceful rejection, only five years earlier. In the following year the Baron de Juys commissioned Julien to carve another version of the Ganymede.
Julien was honored with a royal commission, also in 1782, the life-size statue of Jean de La Fontaine, part of the Grands hommes (or Great Men) Series of celebrated figures in French history. Reductions of the statues in this series were made at the Sèvres porcelain works. Besides statues, history paintings were to be produced: “historical subjects to reanimate virtue and patriotic feeling.” Julien’s plaster model of La Fontaine is in the Musée Crozatier, Le Puy (Salon of 1783), and the marble version is in the Louvre, one of the more popular Grands hommes in the whole series (Salon of 1785). The poet and writer of fables is shown seated in a casual, cross-legged position, dressed in seventeenth-century costume. He is depicted at a characteristic moment of contemplation. One critic called it “a masterpiece of expression;” others admired the life-like quality of the statue in which the spirit of the good natured poet was captured. At his feet a fox looks up, while one paw rests on a book inscribed “Fables de La Fontaine.” Behind the poet’s shoulder dangles a bunch of grapes. A few minor works also appeared in the Salon of 1783: Nymphs Trimming the Wings of Sleeping Cupid, A Shepherd Killing a Serpent and a marble bust of Camille (all lost).
Julien worked on a sketch for a monument to the air balloon for the Jardin des Tuileries (unlocated) and a bas-relief for the gardens of the Château de Betz (destroyed) in 1784. Along with the marble version of La Fontaine in the Salon of 1785, Julien’s Silencing Cupid and the marble Ganymede were on view. James David Draper, Curator at the Metropolitan Museum rejects the terracotta in that museum, which has always been designated as Julien’s Silencing Cupid. But certainly Julien could have created such a light-hearted rococo subject, considering preceding light-hearted themes involving Venus and Cupid mentioned above. In addition, there is a penchant for fine, picturesque and naturalistic details, and a wistful, fleeting presence, worthy of Julien’s hand. French sculptors of the late 1700s used styles as modes, and were quite free to work in a variety of styles: rococo, Baroque and neoclassical. For reactions to the homoerotic element in Julien’s Ganymede and the nature of Julien’s life-long, sentimental friendship with sculptor Claude Dejoux (1732-1816), see Worley, 1994 (and 2003, pp. 71-74). In 1784 Julien signed a contract to execute a two-figure colossal statue group for the Place du Peyrou in Montpellier (project abandoned).
Julien’s crowning achievement, work commissioned by Louis XVI for Marie-Antoinette, was the decoration in the dairy at Rambouillet, one of the final projects of the Ancien Régime. Julien’s sculptural work dates from 1785-87. The gardens had been designed in 1779-80, then carried out by Hubert Robert. The dairy at Rambouillet is unique in its combination of the traditional dairy, grotto, temple and nymphaeum. The façade consists of two rusticated columns that support a pediment in which Julien’s roundel of a cow nourishing its young, is enclosed. The first room is a rotunda with marble walls, floor, and waist-high counters – the dairy proper, where the nobility came to enjoy dairy products in elegant surroundings. Julien’s five other roundels, which show various rural activities, were placed here. The largest depicts a High Renaissance-like mother nursing her child. Hubert Robert and others designed a 65-piece neoclassical porcelain service. The second rectangular space ends in an apse-like grotto. The grotto is completely internal, unlike Italian Renaissance examples. This demonstrates how the very first dairy, the mythical cave of Amalthea where Jupiter was nourished, was a highly innovative concept here at Rambouillet. The rocky interior apse recalls ancient artificial grotto constructions that served as temples.
Julien’s marble statue of Amalthea is one of his most successful and beautiful works. In contrast to its rough, craggy but Sublime setting, the statue is of purest white marble. Julien combined his own love for naturalistic detail (hands and folds in the flesh) with neoclassical idealization. He turned to the Capitoline Venus as a model yet captured the living, animated nature of an actual model. Most contemporary critics related how much the statue resembled the best Greco-Roman models but one was eager to add, “the marble breathes!” Julien executed another (unlocated) marble version for his patron-friend, the Baron de Juys, at the end of his career. There is also a small terracotta in the Louvre and a plaster cast in the Musée Crozatier, Le Puy. The two long bas-reliefs, which were hung in the second “grotto” room represent Apollo Guarding the Herd of Admetus and Jupiter with the Corybantes, Nourished by the Goat Amalthea. They were later in the collection of the Empress Josephine, along with the roundels, then in the Wildenstein Collection, New York, and finally they ended up in the Louvre in 2003. Louis XVI brought Marie-Antoinette to the dairy in late May or early June of 1787 for its “grand opening.” But the Queen returned only through the summer of 1788, the date of the final hunting parties of the court on the property.
Julien’s other Grand homme statue was of France’s greatest and beloved old master painter, Nicolas Poussin, which he began in late 1787. There is a terracotta preliminary sketch in the Cailleux Collection and yet another is in the Louvre. For the marble version, Julien came up with the innovative concept of showing the painter at a moment of inspiration. Having suddenly jumped out of bed to execute a rapid sketch, he throws a mantle or cloak around himself, which to our eyes resembles a Roman toga. In this way, Julien avoided the conflict of ancient vs. modern costume since the result is a kind of vague, form-fitting drapery. Still, a few critics regretted the absence of historical costume, while others agreed that a timeless, classical garb reflected the noble figures in Poussin’s own paintings. At any rate, the plaster model appeared in the Salon of 1789, but the final marble version of Nicolas Poussin was one of Julien’s final works (1801-04; Salon of 1804), and is now in the Louvre.
Julien was named full professor in 1790. During the French Revolution, Julien was considered to be a moderate, and his friendship with Jacques-Louis David (who regarded him as patriotic) probably contributed to his survival, as he preferred to lie low, making visits to the provinces, rather than to side with radical forces. His recent work for Marie-Antoinette might have made him suspect; in addition, he did own an engraving of The Apotheosis of Louis XVI, which was found in his studio, suggesting he could have been a “closet” royalist. Julien did not take part in the many ephemeral sculptural constructions for Revolutionary pageants, nor was he at all interested in Revolutionary iconography. Julien’s late works include the marble Leda, another lost work for the Baron de Juys and a rather severe, neoclassical plaster statue of Learning (both in the Salon of 1789). In the Salon of 1795 he exhibited a Maternal Tenderness (life-size; lost), Narcissus (lost), a terracotta statuette of Echo, Rejected by Narcissus (Musée Crozatier), a terracotta Adolescent Cupid (Musée Bonnat, Bayonne) and a group of Charity. There was another less finished Charity in the Paul Cailleux Collection (lost). The Matron of Ephesus and Hygieia (both in the Musée Crozatier) were featured in the Salon of 1799. The Messenger of Love is another graceful terracotta statuette from the late 1790s (Cailleux Collection). Another version of Learning, in marble, appeared in the Salon of 1799, along with Time Carrying a Globe, part of a clock executed for the King of Spain, Charles IV.
Julien married a widow named Jeanne-Etiennette Etevenet, at a very late age on 18 September 1802. That year he sent a marble bust of Demosthenes (Château de Fontainebleau) to the Salon. He was named a member of the Légion d’Honneur on 17 July 1804, a momentous occasion upon which he exclaimed, “How my heart is moved by the visit that you deign to give me . . . and this honor . . . I accept . . . but alas! Like a flower on my tomb!” His final work was a marble bust of Poussin, finished by Barthélemy Blaise (1738-1819). Death came to Julien on 17 December 1804. From his letters we learn that Julien was a kind, unpretentious and generous person, and something of a savant, in spite of his humble background. He was shy, quiet and modest, loving but reserved. There was a “myth” that Julien was one of the earliest of French sculptors to hold up the banner of classicism, rejecting the “decadent rococo.” Actually he spanned both eras – the rococo and neoclassical, or one might say that he utilized various styles eclectically as did most artists of his time. In all his creations he showed a love of nature, which gives a spirit of life to otherwise cold marble statues.
Benisovich, Michel N. “A Sculpture by Pierre Julien in the United States.” Art Quarterly 12 (1949): 370-372; Idem, “Pierre Julien at Rambouillet.” Burlington Magazine 79 (1941): 43-44; Grandjean, Gilles and Guilhem Scherf. Pierre Julien 1731-1804, sculpteur du roi. Exh. cat. Paris: Somogy, 2004; Guth, Paul. “La laiterie de Rambouillet.” Connaissance des Arts, no. 75, 1958, pp. 74-81; Pascal, André. Pierre Julien (1731-1804) sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris: Fontemoing, 1904; Scherf, Guilhem. “Pierre Julien.” in Julien de Parme, 1736-1799. Exh. cat. Milan: Skira, 1999; Idem, “Pierre Julien et le décor sculpté de l’église Sainte-Geneviève à Paris.” Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France, April 1988, no. 2, pp. 127-137; Worley, Michael Preston. “Catalogue of the Works of Pierre Julien.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 112 (November 1988): 185-204; Idem, “The Image of Ganymede in France, 1730-1820: The Survival of a Homoerotic Myth.” Art Bulletin 76 (December 1994): 630-643; Idem, Pierre Julien: Sculptor to Queen Marie-Antoinette. Lincoln, NE: Universe, 2003.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.