In Colour: Polychrome Sculpture in France 1850-1910
Relatively unknown, 19th century polychrome sculpture is one of the key facets of the history of the discipline. Until the beginning of this century, the only colours permitted in statuary were the white of marble and the monochrome patina of bronzes. But the discovery of the use of polychromy in ancient architecture and sculpture changed people’s perspective, as well as generating heated debate.
The question of applying colour to contemporary sculpture superseded archaeological debates, and pioneering sculptors like Charles Cordier began to specialise in this technique from the 1850s. Once the controversy had died down, colour began to establish its legitimacy of the Second Empire thanks to its decorative character, prevailing under the influence of Symbolism and Art Nouveau as of the 1880s.
The diversity of materials used testifies to the often sophisticated experimentation carried out, which sometimes produced surprising aesthetic results. Painted waxes and marbles, assembled coloured marbles, gold and silver bronzes, pâte de verre and enamelled stoneware became the new language of a new style of French sculpture, illustrating artists’ flair for experimentation at the end of the century. The major challenge in applying colour to sculpture lay in the illusionism of the representation, as demonstrated by the scandal caused by Degas’ Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. Coloured sculpture would became the preferred medium of Henry Cros, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Louis-Ernest Barrias, Jean-Désiré Ringel d'Illzach, Jean Carriès and Paul Gauguin.