Beside the Anglo-Chinese gardens and the Louis XVI- style furniture, what is so neoclassical about Little Trianon? This is a kind of question to ask at an oral examination if you want to fail a student. There he goes, shuffling his feet and sighing. So? OK, the Temple of Love. Let’s see what else he has to say. The temple itself is a perfect fit, but the statue for which it is built, like all of the Neoclassical sculptures, is a real trap, so much so, that most of the Art History teachers, at least back when I was a student, avoided this topic like plague.
Edmé Bouchardon, carving this neo-cupid, had no new model to go by: seeing the interior of a freshly excavated Roman villa in Herculaneum did not help. There were plenty of new frescoes there, but the sculptures remained the same as before. Visually Neoclassicism had little to say to sculptors, it was all about a simpler composition in painting and the classical life-style. To get a new model, Bouchardon had to invent one. Here our student may be tempted to talk about the XVIII century sensibility. The Enlightenment did find a new mode of feeling in the writings of Rousseau, but the theme of love conquering brutal force has been worn to the bone already by Baroque artists, for example by Rubens.
This is why, coming back to Paris, Bouchardon had to inspire himself locally and look for his model in the streets, finding it earning its bread in the sweat of its eyebrow. An ephebe, an adolescent Greek youth, was a new standard of beauty, passionately articulated in the writings of Winckelmann. Winckelmann might had had a slight pedophile bias, but a mountain of flesh would equally fail to turn on a sensitive XVIII century female. A carpenter’s apprentice working a piece of wood in the street met the neo-standard. He was in motion alright, although not as agitated as a Baroque marble, and not as plain as a classical contrapposto — you had to walk around the statue to appreciate the work.
Back in 1750 the cupid was not appreciated. Voltaire found it difficult to receive him the way he was — hands covered with callouses; and Diderot followed suit in attacks on this working class Eros. Louis XV agreed. The person who took the God of Love under her protective wing was Madame Pompadour; she also ordered a porcelain copy of the statue at her factory in Sevres and a marble one at le Louvre. By 1774, when both the king and his mistress were dead, Louis XV’s daughters kidnapped the latter copy; and I don’t know how but eventually Marie-Antoinette received it in her domain.
If our student tells us all of that, we may certainly give him a good grade; but if the smart aleck bothered us during the year, none of it should save him. Neoclasicism in sculpture is a gray area, and this is a payback time. After frowning and shaking my head all along his presentation, in the end I would sneer sardonically and give him an F.