The French sculptor Clodion (1738-1814) is best known for small terra-cotta groups in the rococo style, depicting nymphs and fauns in an erotic and playful manner.

Clodion, whose real name was Claude Michel, was born in Nancy on Dec. 20, 1738, into a family of sculptors. He studied with his uncle, Lambert Sigisbert Adam, a prominent sculptor whose work was significant in transforming the vigorous and dynamic baroque style into the more delicate rococo. Clodion also worked with the famous rococo sculptor Jean Baptiste Pigalle. In 1759 the Royal Academy awarded Clodion the Grand Prize for Sculpture, and he was in Rome between 1762 and 1771. In 1773 he became a member of the academy. He created his most important works during the 1770s and 1780s.

Clodion possessed great technical virtuosity and executed many types of sculpture in a variety of media. During the 1770s he completed two important commissions for the Cathedral of Rouen: the marble St. Cecilia and the bronze Crucified Christ. In 1779 the royal government commissioned him to produce a monumental statue of the Baron de Montesquieu, one of the leading philosophers of the Enlightenment. This marble statue shows the subject seated in a chair and wearing an impressive judge's robe. It is in no way formal or solemn, however, but is a sprightly and vibrant image of one of the most clever intellectuals of the time.

Clodion is most noted for small, intimate terra-cotta sculptures or statuettes of nymphs, fauns, satyrs, and bacchantes, mythological creatures symbolic of erotic pleasure. Such works as the Intoxication of Wine (Nymph and Satyr) and Seated Bacchante Playing with a Child are typical examples and are wholly within the decorative rococo traditions of 18th-century art. These graceful productions convey a mood of exuberant gaiety and depend for their effect upon a delicate play of highly refined textures; the soft medium of terra-cotta allowed Clodion to exploit fully and sensually the contrasting textural values of flesh, hair, fabric, fur, and foliage.

As early as the 1760s, the rococo style was under attack as frivolous and trivial, and during the last half of the century it was gradually replaced by a return to the relative severity of the art of antiquity. Clodion, however, was unaffected by the encroaching neoclassicism, and his statuettes remained popular until the French Revolution. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods neoclassicism triumphed in the arts, and in his later works, such as the reliefs (1806) for the Arc du Carrousel in Paris, Clodion finally accepted the new style. He died in Paris on March 28, 1814.


Further Reading on Clodion

The most important works on Clodion are in French. General background studies in English include Lady Emilia Francis Dilke, French Architects and Sculptors of the 18th Century (1900); Chandler R. Post, A History of European and American Sculpture, vol. 2 (1921); Germain Bazin, History of Western Sculpture (trans. 1968); and Herbert Keutner, Sculpture: Renaissance to Rococo (trans. 1969).