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Pierre Corneille

Jean-Jacques Caffieri

(1725 - 1792) | D.819.9

Date : Circa 1779 | Medium : Terracotta

‘Let us honour great men, and great men shall be born in vast numbers’: this exhortation by the Academician Antoine Léonard Thomas in 1759 inspired the Comte d’Angiviller, Superintendant of the King's Buildings, to commission a series of France's great men for the Great Gallery of the Louvre in 1775. Caffieri's marble statue of Corneille was one of this series, which called on the greatest sculptors of the period. It was exhibited at the Salon du Louvre in 1779. In the same concern for enlightenment, this Corneille in terracotta was brought to Rouen in 1819 for the museum's main gallery. The mayor of the city had been asking for it since 1817, after the closure of the Musée des Monuments Français, where it had been housed since 1799.

This terracotta is considered to be based on the marble model exhibited at the Salon du Louvre. It could be a reproduction, though, and if so is the only instance in the ‘great men’ series. Here Caffieri shows a sturdy figure sitting in a chair above a tumbled pile of books, reflecting on the phrase he is about to write, quill in hand with furrowed brow and lowered eyes. The convincing psychological portrait is matched by the accuracy of the costume.
The work was much admired in the 19th century, as witness an enthusiastic notice that appeared in 1856 in Les Statues de Corneille à Rouen by Gustave Morin: ‘The colour of the terracotta is felicitous: the execution is full of feeling, and the life imbuing the whole figure gives it considerable appeal. It has a picturesque aspect that decidedly takes the viewer back to the period in which the subject lived. The whole figure, while full of dignity, has a distinctly approachable spirit that calls to mind the character of the poet, who was churchwarden of his parish in Rouen.’