Project
"Modeling the Eighteenth Century: Clodion in the Ancien Régime and After"

ABSTRACT: In the eighteenth century, connoisseurs, financiers, aristocrats, and artists avidly collected the small, unglazed terracotta sculptures of satyrs, bacchantes, and vases produced by the French sculptor Claude Michel, called Clodion (1738-1814). Adorning consoles and cabinets, these terracottas have long been sidelined in histories of sculpture by the privileging of marble statuary. This dissertation argues, however, that Clodion’s terracottas embodied eighteenth-century theories of sensuous and imaginative perception, what would later come to be termed aesthetics. In eighteenth-century France, an artwork’s significance was understood through the relational engagement of the beholder with the work of art, the ways in which it appealed to viewers’ senses, imaginations, and emotions. Clay sculpture—in its intimate scale, flexibility of subject matter, material malleability, and primordial materiality—was particularly suited to this subjective responsiveness, and few eighteenth-century artists were as dedicated to terracotta as a finished medium of sculpture (as opposed to its use for making models of compositions to be enlarged in marble or bronze) than Clodion.The chapters of this dissertation consider Clodion’s works in relation to the period’s discourses on the picturesque, taste, sensibility, and on what it meant to be modern. Combining eighteenth-century philosophies of artistic engagement with detailed object analyses, the chapters progress outward from the surface of Clodion’s terracottas to address their mythological subject matter, their gendered and political significance, and their reproduction in the nineteenth century. Together, the chapters evince the role of ceramic sculpture in stimulating reflection for the viewer on artistic processes and pleasure, taste and technology, and on the individuated experience of art. By revealing terracotta’s engagement with such epistemes, this dissertation counters conventional eighteenth-century narratives of “serious” sculpture as that which publically perpetuates the heroic actions and virtues of great men, and argues instead that it might be found in materials and places—such as in terracotta figures and vases gracing one’s mantle—where art historians least expect it.