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The Amazon of Sculpture: Musée d'Orsay opens exhibition dedicated to work of Félicie de Fauveau
Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886), Autoportrait à la levrette, 1846. Marbre, h. 67 cm. Postdam, Stiftung Preussische Schlösser und Gärten© Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg/Fotograf: Daniel Lindner.

PARIS.- This first retrospective devoted to Félicie de Fauveau (1801-1886) reveals the unique world of an artist who was celebrated in her time and who then fell into oblivion at the end of the 19th century. The exhibition throws fresh light on the woman and her art, thanks to a new transcription of numerous letters written by Fauveau and her entourage, and to the rediscovery of many of her works.

The first female sculptor to make a living from her art, she was considered a pioneer. Born in Livorno at the beginning of the 19th century into a family of French financiers, Félicie de Fauveau was still young when she turned to an artistic career, a decision precipitated by the death of her father in 1826: the young woman had to help support the family. Throughout her life she maintained the myth that she was a self-taught sculptor, learning her art by studying books and making numerous copies rather than with some ordinary masters. Close to the court circles of Charles X, she achieved fame at the age of 26 with a relief exhibited at the Salon de Peinture et de Sculpture, Christine de Suède refusant de faire grâce à son grand écuyer Monaldeschi [Christine of Sweden Refusing to Spare Monaldeschi, her Master of the Horse]. The work was admired by Stendhal and Dumas, and was praised for its originality, its high reliefs already heralding Romanticism. Fauveau subsequently received several major commissions from the king and from rich private clients such as the Comte de Pourtalès, for whom she produced two masterpieces: the Monument à Dante [Monument to Dante] and the Lampe de saint Michel [Lamp of Saint Michael], which is on display in this exhibition.

Passionately loyal to the elder branch of the Bourbon dynasty, she compromised herself in 1831, together with her friend Félicie de La Rochejaquelein, in an uprising against Louis-Philippe. Combining medieval chivalry and religious faith, Félicie produced some highly symbolic works for her faction, like the gorgets and the banner for La Rochejacquelein’s division. While under arrest, she designed a monument to her deceased companion Charles de Bonnechose on the prison wall, which although never executed can be found as a lithograph. On her release, in 1832, she rejoined the uprising in the Vendée.

Found guilty in her absence, she was obliged to leave France and she went into exile, settling in the Italian city of Florence for the rest of her life. The fact that she was so far from Paris explains why Fauveau is so little known in France and why she was gradually forgotten in spite of having achieved considerable fame during her lifetime: her studio in Florence had once been an essential stop for cultured tourists. Her clients included wealthy European aristocrats like Prince Anatole Demidoff, the Tsar and his daughter Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia, as well as the Lindsay Crawford families.

Her work was highly original and remained outside the artistic trends of the time, although certain elements fell within the Romantic style. Passionate about the Middles Ages and the Renaissance, Fauveau devoted herself to studying in the library and to copying, keeping all her drawings in albums, two of which are on display here in the exhibition. As part of her thorough, historical approach, she would insert Gothic style inscriptions in medieval French and Latin into her works, enhancing them with polychromy; and took a keen interest in heraldry. Her ambition was to rediscover the art of a bygone age, the time of the Divine Right of Kings. Her moralising Christian faith pervades her art, with the divine justice of Saint Michael a recurrent theme in her work. Often precious in style, her compositions fitted easily into the Neo-Gothic architecture designed her brother Hippolyte.

The career of this unusual woman can be traced through over 70 sculptures, objets d’art, paintings and a variety of documents. Coming from private and public collections, both in France and abroad, the great majority of these are on public display for the first time. Taking the most significant works of her career, the exhibition traces the journey from Paris to Florence, interrupted by the events in the Vendée. One room is devoted to the Legitimist circles, the next reveals her most beautiful decorative works. The last section develops several of the recurring themes in Fauveau’s work – religious themes, funerary monuments and decorative works – focusing on two major works, the fountain at the Peterhof Palace and the base of the Henri IV statue for Anatole Demidoff.

As endearing as she was intransigent, uncompromising, single and independent, Félicie de Fauveau truly deserves this somewhat belated but necessary rehabilitation.

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