In the later half of the 19th century, the decline of the Neoclassical academic tradition led to a renewed interested in 18th-century subjects and styles. The increasing affluence of the bourgeoisie created a demand for small sculpture, and technological improvements in serialization made the supply possible, blurring the distinction between “fine” and “decorative” or “industrial” art. The French sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse is prime example of a new breed of sculptor; trained in the decorative arts and saddled with the stigma of being a “craftsman,” “decorator,” or mere laborer, he became nonetheless a respected fine artist, and was one of the first sculptors to bring the Rococo revival from the decorative into the fine arts. The work under consideration is emblematic of Carrier-Belleuse's tendency to use eclecticism of historical modes developed by his training as a decorator to exploited traditional subjects for the purposes of creative exploration.
The Drunkenness of Bacchus, by Carrier-Belleuse, (Fig. 1) is a terracotta statue group sculpted in the round, approximately fourteen inches wide by twenty inches high. To my knowledge no scholarly work has been dedicated to it, nor is it featured in any of the principal writings about Carrier-Belleuse. The central figure, identified as “Bacchus” by the museum label, is depicted as obese, crowned with laurels, seated on a donkey, and flanked by putti and nude women. The god smiles and looks over the shoulder of the reveler on his right, who raises a tambourine and grabs the donkey's left ear. The woman on his left has one arm around the corpulent god while she tilts back her head and extends the other limb. Two putti stand on Bacchus' left; one is looking down while the other tilts her head, opens her mouth, extends one leg, and raises an empty goblet (Fig. 3). The putto on the right appears younger; it is seated and munching on grapes that spill from a woven basket under the donkey. Bacchus is seated on the skin of a large cat, probably a leopard (Fig. 4). The base is square; a semicircular protrusion in the front indicates the direction from which the group should be viewed, but the forms are sculpted in the round and highly detailed on all sides (Fig. 2).
The group was probably modeled in clay with scrapers and wire loops, then fired as an original sculpture. Carrier-Belleuse often serialized his sculpture, creating many versions of a group or theme in different sizes and materials, but this piece is probably an original due to the complexity of its forms, which would require more than fifty separate plaster molds to recreate. The central section is probably hollow, as solid clay has a tendency to crack in the firing process. It is unlikely that this work was intended for production on a larger scale. Carrier-Belleuse's monumental Salon pieces were usually produced in marble, and this group, with its numerous unsupported limbs, would be difficult to realize in that medium. Carrier-Belleuse also did not submit many monumental works to the Salon in the 1870s, having already established a reputation and won prestigious awards in the fine arts. Terracotta was probably the intended medium; as middle-class wealth increased, small works in terracotta became increasingly popular in France during the middle of the nineteenth century.
The identification of the central figure as Bacchus is questionable. Female devotees, ivy, wine, grapes, the tambourine, the large cat, and the devouring of grapes are symbols of Bacchus with origins in antiquity, but the fat man on a donkey is a more traditional representation of Silenus, Bacchus' teacher, traditionally depicted as short, bald, fat, drunk, unstable, riding on a donkey, and supported by two attendants; the central figure in The Drunkenness has every one of these attributes. Bacchus is a fertility deity with roots older than Ancient Greece, but in the 19th century was understood to be the Greco-Roman god of wine and drunken revelry; Silenus is associated with Bacchus (he leads the triumphal procession), so it is possible Carrier-Belleuse or an earlier artist conflated the two figures. The fat Bacchus stems from post-Renaissance interpretations of the deity as a symbol of indulgence, and therefore gluttony, and is not in keeping with the classical tradition. If this is Bacchus, it resembles that of Rubens (Fig. 5), but Rubens also treated the Silenus theme earlier in his career (Fig. 6), and it is often hard to tell the two characters apart. Carrier-Belleuse was compared with Rubens after the debut of his Angelica (Fig. 7) in the Salon of 1866 because of the “neo-Baroque” movement in his works. As early as 1857 Paul Mantz described him as a “colorist.” In 1747 the Rococo painter Charles-André Van Loo painted a Drunken Silenus (Fig. 8) that was considered Rubensian by his contemporaries; Carrier-Belleuse's supposed Bacchus has the same lascivious, toothy grin, and is similarly attired with laurel and a leopard skin. A conspicuous similarity also exists between this figural group and Jules Dalou's Triumph of Silenus (Fig. 9) in the Luxembourg Gardens; again nude women around found with Silenus, who rides on a donkey, and a putto is seen below eating grapes. In the Carrier-Belleuse employed Dalou as an assistant in making decorative sculpture for wealthy patrons like the Russian courtesan La Païva.
The Bacchantes flanking the central figure in The Drunkenness are perhaps the reason for the identification as Bacchus, though they may accompany Silenus in images of the triumphal procession. Bacchantes were a favorite Rococo subject; this work's most apparent precedent in the work of the 18th-century French sculptor Claude Michael, or Clodion, who specialized in small terracotta groups and often depicted Bacchantes in the Rococo style (Fig. 10). Carrier-Belleuse described some of his own works as “genre de Clodion,” and Auguste Rodin, who worked as an assistant for Carrier-Belleuse, said his employer “had something of the beautiful blood of the eighteenth century in him; something of Clodion.” The Goncourts accused him of being a “copier of Clodion,” but the resemblance is more in technique than presentation. Carrier-Belleuse followed Clodion's tradition of creating original statuettes in terracotta, but with stronger erotic tendencies. Inclusion of the tambourine may have even been a conscious reference to the Rococo sculptor. The elongated bodies of the women in the Drunkenness reflect the influence of the Fontainebleau school; Carrier-Belleuse increasingly employed Mannerist proportions beginning in the 1860s. The Drunkenness reflects a Baroque influence in its unstable figures and lively, asymmetrical composition; the influence of Rubens has already been mentioned. Predecessors to Carrier-Belleuse were Pradier and Clésinger. The former was the butt of Baudelaire's scorn in “Why Sculpture is Boring” in 1846, but in reality worked as a Romantic from the 1830s on; his Satyr and Bacchante (Fig. 11) of 1834-35 prefigures the mid-century Rococo revival, and in fact Carrier-Belleuse later treated the exact theme, mimicking Pradier's composition (Fig. 12). Clésinger also worked in a pseudo-classical style that was inherited from Clodion but more overtly erotic, and facilitated the transition from Pradier's Romantic tendencies to a full-scale Rocco revival. He submitted a Bacchante and Faun (Fig. 13) to the Salon of 1863, but was outdone by the “colorism” and “realism” of Carrier-Belleuse's Bacchante with a Herm of Dionysus (Fig. 14), the younger sculptor's first critical success (it was purchased by the Emperor). The Drunkenness exhibits the de-classicizing treatment of mythology seen in Pradier, and a sinuous eroticism more alive than in Clésinger. The diversity of influences exemplifies Carrier-Belleuse's eclectic style; through his training in the decorative arts he learned how to adopt whatever historical devices were necessary to realize his artistic vision and please his patrons.
Carrier-Belleuse was popular and successful in the fine and decorative arts because his personal style perfectly conformed to the tastes of the Second Empire. The Drunkenness is in keeping with Second Empire tastes in that it is a celebration of sensual pleasure masked by a frivolous Classical subject. “Bacchus” and his entourage represent abandonment to amorous desires; the image of a woman flinging back her head has symbolized ecstasy since antiquity, and the eating of grapes, corpulence of the god, and empty wine goblet further the visual metaphor. The group was probably received well in the 1870s, as interest in the 18th century was particularly strong after the Franco-Prussian War. Carrier-Belleuse may have sold this piece himself, as he held 17 auctions of his own art between 1868 and his death at Sèvres in 1887. The democratization of France began to level the socio-economic strata, and with the renewed popularity of inexpensive materials like terracotta the bourgeoisie could afford to purchase sculpture. The nouveaux riche was not interested in the academic Neoclassical style, which had been eroded during the middle of the century with the help of artists like Carrier-Belleuse; they wanted imitation 18th-century art because it carried with it the lingering prestige of the ancien régime, imagined by the upper class to have been a cultural and artistic paradise. Aspiring bourgeoisie could affect nobility by collecting art of the sort that they imagined might have decorated the homes of aristocrats under Louis XV. Carrier-Belleuse irked aristocrats like the de Goncourts, who called him a “pacotilleur,” precisely because his eclectic style catered to nouveaux riche patrons like La Païva, and because he himself had risen from humble origins to claim a place in high society.
Carrier-Belleuse was the son of a poor single mother, and thus he studied decorative arts at the Ecole Gratuite de Dessin, where he met Carpeaux and where Dalou later studied. Carpeaux and Carrier-Belleuse became friends, worked together for Michel Aaron, and in the Second Empire helped instigate a new period style in sculpture. Though Carpeaux is better remembered and was esteemed by Empress Eugénie, he as never as financially solvent as Carrier-Belleuse, and inherited his terracotta technique from the older sculptor. In his notorious The Dance (Fig. 15) are the unstable, libidinous Rococo tendencies, echoed in the tumbling and stretched Bacchantes in The Drunkenness.
The group is, in the end, an amalgam of historical modes that was not unconventional in the 1870s. It is designed to please, hence the traditional, “historical” subject presented in a manner different enough to make it interesting without becoming unpalatable. Carrier-Belleuse's work can be seen as analogous with the growing prosperity and democratization of France, and so in the wake of the wars that followed—and his pupil Rodin—he was nearly forgotten.