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 Augustin Pajou  (1730 - 1809)

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Lived/Active: France      Known for: sculpture

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Augustin Pajou

French sculptor, born on September 19, 1730 in Paris.  At the age of 14 he entered Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne’s studio. Then in 1752 he went to Rome to undertake the traditional study period; that year Charles Natoire became the director of the Académie de France in Rome.  Natoire remarked that Pajou did not study the Antique sufficiently, and from the sixty-some sheets of drawings from Pajou’s Roman period (now in Princeton) there are few inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity.  One exception is the beautiful drawing with red washes in the Louvre, Diomedes Assailed by the Trojans (1756). One might also mention drawings after Baroque sculptors (Bernini and Puget), and there is even a pure landscape.  Therefore, the key to Pajou’s art is eclecticism, which was preached to students over and over in the academies.  Overall, there is a freshness and spontaneous quality about his drawings, some of which still appear in auctions today.  Pajou was, in fact, a superb draftsman, while many sculptors left us no works on paper at all.  The Goncourts (in La maison d’un artiste, n.d.) wrote how Pajou “draws with the brio of a professional draftsman . . . they are usually executed with a warm wash of bistre over a pen line.”

In 1759 Pajou was agréé, which means he became an associate of the French Academy and his marble reception piece was Pluto with Cerberus at His Feet (1760; Louvre).  It features a clever Baroque seated pose with crossed legs and the torso twisted in the opposite direction, while the head is turned back to the left. A likely source for the pose is Annibale Carracci’s Polyphemus in the Galleria Farnese.  Critics at the time, however sensed that Pajou was turning more to nature, compared to his contemporaries: “This figure is full of vérité, wrote Chaussard in 1806, at the height of the Neoclassical period, “the arms, the legs are beautifully formed. Mr. Pajou proved that one cannot accomplish anything without the study of nature.”

Pajou taught himself history and mythology, became associate professor in 1762 and by 1781 he was treasurer of the Academy.  He accepted various academic posts throughout his career.  Like most French sculptors, Pajou worked in an eclectic fashion, in various modes, including the harshly realistic style of portraiture, which was antithetical to Neoclassicism.  Two examples are the busts of Gaspard de Clermont-Tonnerre, Maréchal de France (Hospice de la Charité, Beaune), dated 1767 and Jacques Poitevin de Mézouls (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, n.d.).  The latter is especially uncompromising in its naturalism.  Another mode was classicism, which Pajou utilized now and then. We feel that Draper is in error (1998, p. 17) when he describes Pajou as “a leading Neoclassicist.”  But the most pure example of classicism is his relief dated 1759, The Princess of Hesse-Homburg in the Guise of Minerva (Hermitage, St. Petersburg).  It is part of the first wave of Neoclassicism, in which an international group of artists found inspiration in Rome, directly from Antique models.  Pajou’s decoration at the Opéra at Versailles (1768-70), largely wood sculpture, is still Rococo in comparison, though the Apollo in the foyer recalls the Apollo Belvedere in its own gentle way. The very nature of the material lends itself to an extremely fine and delicate treatment. While the drapery of the Muses has a classical severity, the group that crowns the stage (Two Angels Supporting the Royal Arms) obviously goes back to Bernini’s ultimate Baroque Cattedrà Petri in St. Peter’s with its golden rays and cloud forms. All of this demonstrates what an eclectic sculptor Pajou was.

Pajou participated in the Grands hommes series (Great Men of France), contributing Descartes in 1777 and Bossuet (both in the Institut de France) two years later and Pascal in 1785, a seated figure now in the Louvre.  The first two are imposing standing figures in the Baroque tradition.  He used the sweeping, deeply cut drapery in both, which creates a magnificent effect.  Descartes was not very popular with critics.  The concept of Pascal is more intimate, as we might encounter him contemplating in his study.  The philosopher himself was generally criticized in the 18th century: Voltaire referred to him as a “sublime misanthrope.”  Diderot thought Pajou’s figure suggested a hunchback but other critics admired it.  The austerity and severity of expression fit well into the Age of Enlightenment, however, and Pajou, the disciplined academician and intellectual, provided an appropriate, thoughtful image of the great philosopher.  James David Draper writes, “The statue of Pascal is a thinker-to-thinker confrontation in which both parties emerge triumphant.” (1998, p. 20).

Pajou’s best known work is his glistening, highly polished white marble Psyche Abandoned (1791; Louvre), a charming Rococo female nude that was commissioned as a pendant to Bouchardon’s Cupid (1750).  The plaster model for this statue had shocked the curate of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois because of its full frontal nudity, so much so, that he had it removed from the Salon of 1785 by the Directeur des Bâtiments, D’Angiviller. This only aroused more curiosity and people flocked to the sculptor’s studio to view it.  Still, some believed the sculptor chose a rather common model (une femme du peuple), which means he did not idealize her enough. For Michael Levey, in our time, “Psyche’s timid gesture fails to convince, being evocative not so much of heartache as of heartburn.”  But for the more thoughtful Dorothy Johnson (1992, p. 340), in the statue of Psyche Abandoned, the “confluence of psychological realism and formal naturalism reduces the distance between spectator and sculpted figure. The realm of myth approaches the daily modern world.” The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a terracotta version of Ariadne, which relates to the figure type and pose of Psyche.

Pajou’s standing statue of Buffon, finished in 1776 (Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris), joins the Psyche in the list of “The Best of Pajou.”  For this statue, ordered for the Jardin du Roi in 1775, the commission specified, “in the costume of a philosopher with accessories showing his genius and his talents.” Buffon was one of the very few statues erected of a living person, other than ordinary portraits. Another exception was the somewhat problematic Nude Voltaire (1770; Louvre). There is still a trace of Baroque flair in Buffon’s drapery with its exaggerated ornamental hem. The effect gives him something of a mythical quality. Draper and Scherf point out how the statue reveals a profound study of the writings of Buffon and they devote an outstanding chapter on this statue in their recent monograph on the sculptor (1998).  Pajou, having thrived during the Ancien Régime, chose to leave Paris during the turbulent years of the Revolution. In 1792 he went to Montpellier. There he met the painter Antoine-Jean Gros, one of Jacques-Louis David’s students. During his final years Pajou produced several terracotta busts. He was named chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1805. Death came to the sculptor on May 8, 1809.

Sources:
Chaussard, Pierre. “Notice inédite sur la vie et les oeuvres de M. Augustin Pajou,” in Le Pausanias français: ou Description du Salon de 1806. Paris: F. Buisson, 1806; Stein, Henri. Augustin Pajou. Paris: Librairie Centrale des Beaux-Arts, 1912; Benisovich, Michael N. “Drawings of the Sculptor Augustin Pajou in the United States.” Art Bulletin 35 (December 1953): 295-298; Dowley, Francis H. “A Series of Statues of Grands Hommes Ordered by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture.” Diss., University of Chicago, 1953; Japy, André. L’Opéra royal de Versailles. Versailles: Draeger frères, 1958; Kalnein, Wend Graf and Michael Levey. Art and Architecture of the Eighteenth Century in France. Pelican History of Art series. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1972; Johnson, Dorothy. “Le réalisme classique ou le ‘beau réel’ dans la sculpture française, 1790-1816,” in Le progrès des arts réunis, 1763-1815. Colloquium at Bordeaux and Toulouse, 1989, pp. 337-344; Draper, James David and Guilhem Scherf. Augustin Pajou, Royal Sculptor 1730-1809. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998; West, Alison. From Pigalle to Préault: Neoclassicism and the Sublime in French Sculpture 1760-1840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.


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