(b Paris, 1 Dec 1716; d Paris, 24 Jan 1791).
French sculptor, designer and writer. He was one of the foremost French sculptors of the mid-18th century and is best known for his small-scale marble sculptures on gallant and allegorical themes, as well as for his widely reproduced models for the porcelain factory at Sèvres. From 1766 to 1778, however, he lived in Russia, and his most interesting work is the monumental bronze equestrian statue of Peter the Great that he designed for St Petersburg. Falconet was an autodidact of fiercely independent and moralistic spirit; he wrote a number of essays on the theory of art and left notable correspondences with the philosopher Denis Diderot and with Catherine the Great of Russia. He was made a professor at the Académie Royale in 1761. His son Pierre-Etienne Falconet (1741-91) was a minor draughtsman and engraver, whose most notable achievement was the illustrating of his father's article on sculpture for the Encyclopédie of Diderot.
(i) Early career and commissions for the Bâtiments du Roi.
Falconet was of humble origin; he entered the Paris studio of Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (ii) at the age of 18 and remained there for almost 10 years. He never went to Italy, but in spite of this was profoundly influenced by Bernini and the Baroque. In 1744, seeking acceptance into the Académie Royale, he presented the group Milo of Crotona (marble; Paris, Louvre), but it was thought to be too like the famous work on the same theme by Pierre Puget. The following year he was given a different subject, but it was on the strength of the Milo that he was eventually received (reçu) into the Académie in 1754. During this period Falconet worked to fill the gaps in his education, and no other sculptor of his time was to display such an inquiring mind. The inventory of his library shows the breadth and depth of his reading, much of which can be found more or less assimilated in his theoretical and polemical works (see §2 below).
The first commission Falconet received from the Bâtiments du Roi dates from 1748. It was for a marble, France Embracing the Bust of Louis XV, after a drawing by Charles-Antoine Coypel. Abandoned by Falconet, the work (Libourne, Hôtel de Ville) was not finished until 30 years later by Augustin Pajou. In 1750 Lenormant de Tournehem, Directeur des Bâtiments du Roi, commissioned a marble Genius of Music, the small model of which appeared at the Paris Salon of 1751. The statue (h. 2.08 m; Paris, Louvre), intended as a pendant to Lambert-Sigisbert Adam's Lyric Poetry in the entrance hall of the château of Bellevue, is an allegorical portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour. Falconet enjoyed further official patronage; in 1753 he was commissioned to execute La Jardinière, a stone statuette for the dairy at the château of Crécy, in 1758 the Duck Shoot, a plaster relief for the salon of the château of Saint-Hubert, and in 1759 a statue of Minerva for the gardens of the château of Choisy (all untraced or never executed). His last commission for the Bâtiments was in 1764, for a statue of Winter (St Petersburg, Gatchina Pal.), which was intended for the gardens of the Petit Trianon, Versailles, but was instead purchased by Catherine the Great.
(ii) Work for the Marquise de Pompadour; small models and groups.
The Marquise de Pompadour was Falconet's greatest patron. In 1757 she appointed him as director of the sculpture studios at the porcelain factory at Sèvres, an office that he filled until his departure for Russia in 1766. During this period he either executed or supervised the making of about 100 models for statuettes or groups. These fall into two categories, original creations and works made from designs by François Boucher. Of the figurines inspired by Boucher one series is devoted to trades, and a subsequent series, dating from several years later, is on the theme of the attractions of the fair. Several other loosely connected groups, also the result of collaboration with Boucher, were based on the fables of Jean de La Fontaine. The subjects attributable solely to Falconet are either those that are reductions of his marble statues or compositions specially designed for manufacture in biscuit. Some of these charming miniatures preserve the memory of statues that have been destroyed or have disappeared, such as Erigone or Sweet Melancholy; others are based on contemporary theatrical entertainments: there is a cycle of dances from the Opéra ballet, subjects from the comic operas of Charles-Simon Favart, and from the pastoral works of Jean François Marmontel; others illustrate the repertory of the Comédiens Italiens.
Falconet owed his greatest popularity to his small marble works, groups such as his Venus and Cupid, or figures such as his seated or crouching female Bathers, which were widely used for ornamenting clock cases. Initially these were produced in a number of versions in his studio, then imitated by commercial copyists during his lifetime and into the 19th and 20th centuries. He also provided models for some of the most famous goldsmiths of his time, including Thomas Germain, Robert-Joseph Auguste and the Roettier family. Furniture signed falconet is, however, the work of the ébéniste Louis Falconet.
(iii) Exhibits at the Paris Salon.
During the same period of 1757 to 1765, Falconet exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon, where he showed a series of light-hearted works of which the best-known are the Threatening Cupid (see fig.) and the famous Standing Bather (both marble, exh. Salon 1757; Paris, Louvre), both of which gave rise to an extraordinary number of copies. At the Salon of 1763 Falconet showed the marble group of Pygmalion at the Feet of his Statue (Paris, Louvre), of which there are many marble replicas, as well as reduced versions in Sèvres biscuit. His 1765 exhibit, a relief of Alexander Offering One of his Concubines to the Painter Apelles (priv. col.) is, by contrast, a unique work.
(iv) Monumental and ecclesiastical works.
Falconet executed a number of monumental works before leaving Paris for St Petersburg, including four tombs, although only that of Mme La Live de Jully (1754) is known, both from a drawing of the whole monument (Paris, Carnavalet) and from the dull marble portrait medallion that is all that survives in situ in St Roch, Paris. He also carved seven statues for the same church, but only Christ in Agony, the terracotta model for which was shown at the Salon of 1757, survives; its pose recalls that of Bernini's St Teresa (Rome, S Maria della Vittoria). Falconet was in the process of completing a model for a statue of St Ambrose for the Dôme des Invalides, Paris, when he left for Russia in 1766. Through Denis Diderot he was introduced to the Empress Catherine the Great, who commissioned from him a bronze equestrian statue in Honour of Peter the Great in St Petersburg (Pl. Dekabristov; for illustration see Equestrian monument), an opportunity at last to give full scope to his talent. Initially much in favor with Catherine, Falconet saw his position gradually deteriorate, and he had to leave Russia before his work was unveiled in 1782. The originality of his conception-which combines a horse rearing on the summit of a steep rock with a hero represented as legislator rather than conqueror, eliminates any allegorical figure apart from the serpent of envy crushed beneath the horse's hoofs, and has an inscription of only four words-makes the statue striking in its grandeur and simplicity. His pupil Marie Anne Collot modeled the head of the statue. Beside this masterly success the other works Falconet executed in St Petersburg seem of little importance. These were copies of his early works, the completion of roughed-out marbles, and the making of models for goldsmiths and the Imperial porcelain factory. His output came to an abrupt end after the statue of Peter the Great. He was completely taken up with the revision of his writings during a visit to The Hague, when a stroke deprived him of the use of his right side, and he was unable to take up his chisel again.
L. Réau: Etienne-Maurice Falconet, 2 vols (Paris, 1922)
G. Levitine: The Sculpture of Falconet (New York, 1972) [with an Eng. trans. of Falconet's 'Réflexions sur la sculpture']
All of Falconet's essays and some of his correspondence were published in his Oeuvres complètes in 1781. The earliest item, the 'Réflexions sur la sculpture' (1760), was written at the request of Diderot for the Encyclopédie. It espouses traditionally accepted academic standards. Falconet's most persistent ideas are set forth in essays such as the 'Observations sur la statue de Marc-Aurèle' and 'Quelques idées sur le beau dans l'art'. Volumes iii and iv of his Oeuvres are devoted to his translation of and commentary on the books of Pliny's Natural History that deal with painting and sculpture. Falconet claimed that Pliny was incompetent to discuss the visual arts, and he directed the same charge repeatedly throughout his writings against other critics and commentators on art, including Pausanias, Cicero, Shaftesbury, Winckelmann and Voltaire. He consistently expressed enmity towards any attempt to infringe on artists' autonomy and authority.
The polemical tone and haphazard organization of Falconet's ideas make many portions of the Oeuvres complètes difficult for the reader. Their contents were in fact largely inspired by a controversy between Falconet and Diderot. The latter claimed that even vanished works of art could achieve enduring glory if a writer had praised them. Falconet resentfully denied that a desire for the admiration of posterity motivates artists' production. This debate furnished the primary content for the Falconet-Diderot correspondence (1765-73), which contains some of the most important ideas of both men. Falconet also maintained an extensive correspondence (1767-78) with Catherine the Great. It deals with artistic, literary, philosophic, religious and political questions.
Oeuvres complètes, 6 vols (Lausanne, 1781)
L. Réau, ed.: Correspondance de Falconet avec Catherine II (Paris, 1921)
Y. Benot, ed.: Diderot et Falconet: Le Pour et le contre (Paris, 1958) [corr. dealing with the dispute on posterity]
H. Dieckmann and J. Seznec: 'The Horse of Marcus Aurelius', J. Warb. & Court. Inst., xv (1952), pp. 198-228
A. B. Weinshenker: Falconet: His Writings and his Friend Diderot (Geneva, 1966)
Diderot et l'art de Boucher à David (exh. cat., ed. M.-C. Sahut and N. Volle; Paris, Hôtel de la Monnaie, 1984-5), pp. 448-54