The French sculptor Jean Goujon (ca. 1510-ca. 1568) designed sculpture for architectural settings. His work in low relief is comparable to some of the finest examples of ancient architectural sculpture.
Nothing is known of the birth or early years of Jean Goujon. He is presumed to have been born about 1510 on the basis of the competence and maturity shown in the tomb of Louis Brézé in Rouen Cathedral (after 1531), much of which is believed to be his work, and from a documented reference (1540) to a column he made for the organ loft of St-Maclou, Rouen.
By 1544 Goujon was in Paris, working on the rood screen for St-Germain-l' Auxerrois, and he may have executed prior to this date reliefs of the Four Evangelists for the Écouen Chapel (now in Chantilly). The Deposition, the most impressive of the reliefs from St-Germain (now in the Louvre, Paris), presents the dead Christ surrounded by a group of mourning figures as a classic tragedy interpreted by an artist of the French Renaissance. The relief reveals the terms of such an artist: trained by sculptors working in the lingering late Gothic tradition, Goujon and his generation swiftly adopted the attenuated figures, complex linear patterns, and extreme technical sophistication of their Italian contemporaries, expressing ideas in the late Renaissance or mannerist style. Goujon's personal translation of this idiom is distinguished by the incisiveness and assurance of his sharply defined figures tightly pressed into a shallow layer of space; the smooth surfaces of their forms are relieved and balanced by the curvilinear patterns indicating drapery and landscape. A crisply carved, rich ornamental border enframes the relief.
The sharp edges, flat planes, and hard carving of the Deposition are softened, relaxed, and varied in the programs of sculpture Goujon completed in mid-century: the Fountain of the Innocents (1547-1549) and the relief sculpture executed in collaboration with the architect Pierre Lescot for the courtyard facade of the west wing of the Louvre (ca. 1549-1553).
Originally a corner rectangular structure, the Fountain of the Innocents was reconstructed in the late 18th century as a freestanding block. Most of its sculpture is now in the Louvre: six tall, narrow reliefs of nymphs and six long reliefs with nymphs, tritons, putti, and victory figures. In the reliefs of the nymphs each of the slim, fashionable figures stands with an effortless grace; complex positions seem easy and natural as infinitely subtle gradations of carving suggest forms revealed, concealed, and unified by gossamer-thin drapery dextrously manipulated and skillfully arranged.
Despite 19th-century restorations, the Louvre facade still reveals the fine balance achieved by the coordination of Goujon's controlled and disciplined sculpture with Lescot's architecture. In one instance their roles were reversed: Goujon is known to have carved the caryatid figures supporting a gallery in the interior of the Louvre from a plaster model by Lescot. Goujon's concern with architecture and with the problems of optical effects of reliefs is found in an appendix he wrote for a French edition of Vitruvius (1547), which he illustrated with woodcuts.
The one freestanding group traditionally attributed to Goujon, Diana and the Stag from the château of Anet (Louvre, Paris; first mentioned in 1554), is now rejected by most scholars and believed the work of a still-unidentified French sculptor.
Goujon's later life is as mysterious as his birth. There are no references to him in the royal accounts after 1562. One theory that he left France as a Protestant in this period of religious conflict is interesting but not proved. The evidence for Goujon's life is, in brief, sparse and his remaining works few in number, but they demonstrate his ability to master the essentials of a new vocabulary of formal ideas imported from Italy and then produce work sufficiently original and accomplished to exert a lasting influence.
Most of the literature on Goujon is in French. In English, a clear, able summary is in Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1953).