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» » Small Bronzes in France in the 19th Century

Small Bronzes in France in the 19th Century

September 03, 2019 | Galerie Atena

Jeune pêcheur napolitain de François Rude

Neapolitan Fisherboy Playing With a Turtle after François Rude, Cast by Barbedienne, circa 1850



The Small Bronze Industry


The French bronze casting industry started in the 1830s-1840s and its success was spectacular. Its rise to success is marked by the variety of technological and commercial means used in production, and these pieces are still highly sought after on the international art market. According to Bernard Metman, the “small bronze” included not only small statues created by an artist, but also life-sized and monumental works that were subsequently reduced in order to become decorative objects in homes" (Metman, p. 219).



A New Art Economy


To start the process, editors would buy models from sculptors with the right to reproduce them, and then afterwards request their execution in bronze to a foundry. Later, the founders themselves became editors, guiding the artist, informing him about the public taste, and publishing catalogs with bronzes edited in several versions and sizes.


Popular works signed by artists such as Barye, Pigalle, and Pierre-Jules Mène were easily multiplied for a lower price by renowned founders such as Ferdinand Barbedienne, Susse Frères, and Thiébaut, specialists in unlimited edition bronze sculptures.



Bronze Group Léda and the Swan
Bronze Groupe Leda and the Swan signed Rogue, 1817


The absence of the author’s intervention in the reproduction process explains the high number of small bronze statues produced during the 19th century. Artists had no control over the number of editions of their works or of their quality. For the most part, the high volume of production of these small bronzes was primarily motivated by commercial interests.



Bronze Statue Bellum by Picault

Bronze Sculpture Bellum by Emile-Louis Picault, circa 1880


In fact, a sculptor could control each edition of his work only when it was limited. This notion of limitation and numbering started out gradually, appearing only at the end of the 19th century. As a result, on each limited-edition bronze, the order number and the total number of editions establishes and guarantees the authenticity or quality of an art work.



Antiques and Mythological Figures


Copies of ancient and antique small works were amongst the founders’ favorite subjects, as their authorship had fallen into the public domain. Founders took the liberty of reducing and multiplying them, and in consequence allowing for their extensive diffusion.


Bronze Discobolus after the antique

Small Bronze Discobolus After the Antique, circa 1890


The Barbedienne foundry reproduced bronze sculptures of many styles and periods: antique statues like Apollo Belvedere, Venus de Milo, Myron Discobolus, Renaissance works such as Moses by Michelangelo, Marly’s Horses by Guillaume Coustou and Mercury by Jean Bologne. These accurate copies of classic sculptures decorated fireplaces, shelves, showcases and other pieces of furniture.


Mythological Bronze Mercury

Mythological Bronze Mercury After Jean de Bologne, circa 1930


Early 19th century Neo-classic works were widely reproduced during the Second Empire and the Third Republic. One can find numerous examples of Satyrs, bacchantes in the taste of Clodion (1738-1814), young musicians and Cupids after Lemire (1741-1828). James Pradier made of the Classical female figure the central theme of his work.



Seated Woman by Moreau After Pradier

Seated Woman by Moreau After James Pradier, circa 1870


In addition, foundries commercialized small bronze sculptures inspired by classic art with Greek heroes and gods such as Sarpédon Bending his Bow by Henri Peinte edited in bronze by Sion-Decauville, or The Warrior by Auguste de Wever (1836-1910).


Individual portraits, military feats, national heroes symbolized by gods or heroes from antique mythology or Roman emperors’ effigies all were met with great success. These decorative figures pleased their cultivated clientele, who wanted to find works of art they had admired in museums in their own homes.



Animal Sculpture


Some sculptors during this period executed many reductions of their statues and monumental groups, whereas others created small works destined to be sold in large numbers.


Alexandre Falguière, Le combat de coqs

Alexandre Falguière, The Cock Fight Winner, Cast by Thiébaut frères, circa 1890


The most famous among the latter is Antoine-Louis Barye: his lions, deer and hunting dogs decorated nearly of all the bourgeois interiors of the period. Animal sculptures continued to be popular during the first decades of the 20th century with François Pompon and Nerid.


Animal Sculpture by Pierre-Jules Mène

Dog on a Terrace by Pierre-Jules Mène, circa 1860


The Small Bronze, a Decorative Object


Small bronzes were also used as ornamentation on inkwells, vases, clocks, and ewers, and their decorative vocabulary varied widely. They were often inspired by natural elements such as plants, animals, and the feminine body, or by fantastic motifs such as lions, Cupids, dolphins, and sphinx.


Art Nouveau Vase in Bronze

Small Bronze Vase by Jean-Paul Aubé and Thiebaut Frères, Circa 1900



Empire Candelabras in Bronze

Pair of Empire Bronze Candelabra Decorated With Victories


When they decorated candelabras, the women holding the lights featured flowing fabrics which covers yet exposes thighs and arms.




  • DEVAUX, Yves, L’Univers des bronzes et des fontes ornementales (Chefs-d’œuvre et curiosités 1850-1920), Paris, Pygmalion, 1978.
  • KJELLBERG, Pierre, Les bronzes du XIX° siècle. Dictionnaire des sculpteurs, Paris, Les Editions de l’Amateur, [1989].
  • LEBON, Elisabeth, Dictionnaire des fondeurs de bronze d’art, France 1890-1950, Perth, Marjon, 2003.
  • METMAN, Bernard, « La petite sculpture au XIXe siècle. Les éditeurs », dans Documents sur la sculpture française. Répertoire des fondeurs du XIX° siècle. Archives de l’art français, t. XXX, Nogent-le-Roi, Libr. des Arts et Métiers, 1989, pp. 175-218.