A sculptor’s sketchbook

March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Jacques-Edmé Dumont, set of 101 sketches, terra cotta, n.d.

Jacques-Edmé Dumont, set of 101 sketches, terra cotta, n.d.

The weekend before last I went to Maastricht for the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). I think I can now – just! – call myself a veteran, as it was my third year going, and by this time I know how to navigate the dizzying riches of the nearly 300 stands without inducing Stendhal Syndrome (divide and conquer) and actually be able to come away with a respectable number of works of art surviving with surprising clarity in my memory.

I had been planning to write a post about one of my highlights from TEFAF, and although I could tell you about the amazing rare colour aquatint by Munch or the Rembrandt etching plate (yes, I was actually even more excited about the plate than by the print itself – what does that say about me?) or the marvellous late Samuel Palmer watercolour, but the object I became so enamoured of that I kept returning to it at every available opportunity was the work of a now-obscure French Neoclassical sculptor, something utterly unlike anything I’d ever encountered before.

Jacques-Edmé Dumont (1761-1844) was part of a dynasty of sculptors that first arose in the seventeenth century. He had the good fortune to not only survive the Revolution but to find favour with Napoleon, and his work is now dotted around Paris (on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and on the Louvre itself).

Like virtually all of his contemporaries he followed the time-honoured practice of working out his initial ideas on a small scale in an inexpensive material – terra cotta, in his case. I imagine he would have kept them around his studio while he worked on larger and more finished iterations of the figures. What’s extraordinary is the manner in which they’ve been preserved. For Jacques-Edmé was one of the last of the Dumont sculptors, and a branch of his descendants went into the printing business. One of them must one day have seized on the no doubt expedient, but also brilliant, idea of preserving his or her famous uncle’s or grandfather’s maquettes… by storing them in a typesetter’s box.

What a strange and fascinating assemblage it is, like a Joseph Cornell box made before Cornell drew breath. Whoever slotted the maquettes into the compartments (I’d like to think the original arrangement has been preserved) obviously did so with great care and aesthetic sense. At the same time there’s an unshakeable poignancy about the whole thing. Dumont’s finished sculptures tend to be forbiddingly grand and impersonal, like much Neoclassical sculpture (which is why I’ve never been able to warm to it). But on such a small scale (the largest measure only seven centimetres) they feel fragile and deeply personal. My first thought on seeing them was that they resemble toys or game pieces, put away by a child and frozen in time.

In the time since I’ve returned from Maastricht I’ve realised maybe this isn’t the most apt metaphor. Many sculptors draw on paper, but many others consider these maquettes to be their sketches, their notes for future projects. By assembling them thus, Dumont’s unnamed relation created and preserved a sculptor’s sketchbook and gave us a glimpse into his mind.

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