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Born in Paris on November 11, 1746, the sculptor and draftsman Moitte would become known as a representative of French neoclassicism. As the son of the engraver Pierre-Etienne Moitte, the boy must have learned drawing skills at an early age. His teachers were Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785) and Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1704-1778). Lami revealed that Moitte was rather frail, withdrawn and serious, which did not make him popular among his colleagues. Moitte submitted a bas-relief, David Carrying the Head of Goliath in Triumph, which won the first prize in sculpture in 1768. He began the traditional study period in Rome at the Académie de France in 1771 but had to return for reasons of health in May 1773. Nevertheless, he was agréé (made an Associate) at the Academy in 1783, yet he never gained full status as an academician. In 1784 the sculptor contributed numerous statues and reliefs to the decoration of the Palace of the Legion of Honor (Hôtel de Salm-Kyrbourg; in situ), under the direction of the building’s architect Pierre Rousseau. Terracotta preparatory sketches for statues along the cornice went to the Cailleux Collection: Ceres, an Atalante, Mars and Diana.
In 1787, Moitte received a royal commission to execute a full-size statue of the astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini (Observatoire, Paris), part of the series of Great Men of France (Grands hommes). The marble version was not exhibited until the year of the sculptor’s death (1810). Michael Levey compared the figure to Jacques-Louis David’s Brutus (1789). Moitte must have known the sketches of his friend’s painting and both artists probably went to the famous bust of Brutus in the Museo Captolino in Rome. In fact, Moitte had several of David’s works in his private collection. Moitte was one of the four sculptors chosen to provide figure groups for the monument at the Place du Peyrou in Montpellier in 1789. His contribution would have been Fénelon and Bossuet, had the project not been abandoned. Indeed, the French Revolution was at first distressing to the artist, who had been showered with commissions, however the sculptor adapted with fervor. His wife was one of the women who ceremoniously donated her jewels to the Assemblée Nationale in September of 1789. Before long, Moitte was a member of the Société des Jacobins; his remaining activities during the Revolution are described in depth by Gramaccini (1989). In 1792-93 Moitte carved the grandiose pediment of the Panthéon (The Nation Distributing Crowns to Virtue and Genius), eventually replaced by David d’Angers’ work during the Restoration. His situation under the Terror was not that happy, owing to rumors of his being a rich “moderate.”
Moitte was welcomed to the Institut as a founding member in 1795. Late works include a Bust of Leonardo da Vinci (1802; Versailles), the terracotta statuette of Minerva, exhibited in Germany not long ago when French sculpture in the Louvre went on tour (Skulptur aus dem Louvre, 1989) and a statue of the revolutionary military leader General Custine (1805-10; Musée de Versailles). Theorist and art historian Emeric-David (1853) had mixed feelings about Moitte. While he found his neoclassical nudes to be dry and superficial, he admired such productions as the pediment on the Panthéon and his exterior decoration in the courtyard of the Louvre and he was aware of his many superb neoclassical drawings – too numerous to mention here – but several appear in the exhibition catalogue Le Néo-Classicisme français (1974-75) and in Gramaccini’s publications (see below). Moitte passed away on May 2, 1810.
Landon, Charles-Paul. Précis historique des productions des arts. Peinture, sculpture, architecture et gravure. Paris: Landon, 1801; Emeric-David, Toussaint-Bernard. Histoire de la sculpture française. Paris: Charpentier, 1853, p. 203; Bellier de la Chauvignerie, Emile. “Les artistes français du XVIIIe siècle dédaignés ou oubliés,” Revue Universelle des Arts 21 (1865): 35; Kalnein, Wend Graf and Michael Levey. Art and Architecture of the Eighteenth Century in France. The Pelican History of Art Series. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1972; Campbell, R. “Jean-Guillaume Moitte: The Sculpture and Graphic Art, 1785-1799.” Diss., Brown University, 1982; Gramaccini, Gisela. “Jean-Guillaume Moitte et la Révolution française.” Revue de l’Art, no. 83, 1989, pp. 61-70; Idem, “L’inventaire après-décès de Jean-Guillaume Moitte (1746-1810).” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 119 (January 1992): 31-47; Idem, Jean-Guillaume Moitte: Leben und Werk. 2 vols. Berlin: 1993; Durey, Philippe. “Jean-Guillaume Moitte,” in From David to Ingres: Early 19th Century French Artists. The Grove Dictionary of Art series. London and New York: Grove Art, 2000, pp. 324-325.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.