By Gerhard Bissell

On the Tercentenary of the Death of Pierre Le Gros

Pierre Le Gros died 300 years ago on 3 May 1719 in Rome where he had been a pre-eminent sculptor. No blockbuster exhibition will mark this event because he is now all but forgotten outside specialist circles, a fate he shares with nearly all artists of the late baroque period. The most virtuoso marble worker of his time, he excelled in convincing the eye to see the depicted materials rather than stone. His surfaces are so nuanced they nearly appear as different colours. And yet, he achieved that very rare feat of integrating these fine details into monumental sculptures without appearing grotesque.

Born in Paris in 1666 as the son of the eponymous sculptor serving Louis XIV, Le Gros won a Rome scholarship and went there in 1690. He duly studied at the French Academy until the occasion arose in 1695 to be part of the greatest artistic enterprise of the day: the monumental altarpiece of St. Ignatius in the Gesù, where Le Gros was given the over life-size group on the right hand side.

Recognising his extraordinary talent and speed, the Jesuits used him in the run-up to the Holy Year 1700 for the silver statue of St. Ignatiusas the altar’s centrepiece, and for the gigantic marble relief of St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Gloryfor the church of Sant’Ignazio – all delivered in time for the holy celebrations.

More Jesuit commissions soon followed like the statue of St. Francis Xavier (1702), a marvel of delicate marble work, and the vividly coloured St. Stanislas Kostka on his Death Bed(1702-03) whose aura still strikes even today’s sceptic visitors with pious awe; Kostkais nowadays Le Gros’ best known work if not his most typical.

So there you have it, Pierre Le Gros, the sculptor of the Jesuits. And that’s what he had been reduced to by much of art history well into the 20thcentury. But you’d be wrong.

There’s also Pierre Le Gros, the sculptor of the Dominicans. The order’s general, père Cloche, had big ambitions to boost the status of the Blackfriars, and found the sculptor to help him deliver. This started in 1697 with an upgrade for the tomb of the soon-to-be-saint Pope Pius V featuring an exquisitly modelled sarcophagus lid of gilded bronze echoing the recumbent holy body in bas-relief. Quickly followed a tomb and some years later a statue for Cloche’s friend Cardinal Casanate.

The new century also brought a new pope. Clement XI – very keen on art but short of cash – astutely offered the religious orders to honour their founders with a statue in St. Peter’s. Cloche immediately picked up on it and had the monumental St. Dominiccarved by Le Gros from 1702-06. Since nobody else saw the need for urgency, this was the only founder statue in St. Peter’s for decades until eventually the floodgates opened.

Le Gros was not content with just being successful, he wanted to be theleading sculptor in Rome, and he had high hopes for this pontiff to whom he dedicated his reception piece for the Accademia di San Luca in 1702.

The pope’s project to fill Borromini’s huge empty niches in S. Giovanni in Laterano with statues of the apostles was his chance. Around 1703, Le Gros submitted an exquisitely crafted terracotta model for St. Thomas reminiscent of Bernini’s Longinusin an exuberant baroque style – knowing full well that stylistic unity was paramount and that all sculptors were held to follow classicising models by Carlo Maratti, the pope’s favourite artist. This was a clear attempt to establish the Le Gros style as official guideline for all to follow, but late baroque classicism prevailed. He had to back down and finished his figur by 1711 in a fundamentally different, much more rigid fashion.

It was instead Camillo Rusconi, an admirer of Maratti’s style, who emerged a rising star from the Lateran campaign and was showered with papal praise while Le Gros was slowly sidelined.

Cardinal de Bouillon commissioned a dynastic tomb for the La Tour d’Auvergne family which arrived at Cluny abbey in France in 1709 but had the misfortune of not even being unpacked for nearly a century because Bouillon was by then declared an enemy of the state for grossly disobeying Louis XIV (the sculptures are today displayed in the Hôtel-Dieu in Cluny).

Le Gros’ S. Filippo Neri in Gloria, who appears as a dematerialised silhouette against the golden glow of the window behind, resulted from the cooperation with his close friend Filippo Juvarra on the architectural-sculptural ensemble of the Cappella Antamori in S. Girolamo della Carità (1708-10).

His last important work was the highly theatrical Tomb ofPope Gregory XV and Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi(c. 1709-14) in Sant’Ignazio.

The remainder of Le Gros’ life is the tragic story of a downfall furthering a premature death. In 1713 he managed to alienate the Jesuits by being annoyingly stubborn, and in 1714 he found himself at death’s door, suffering from gall stones. The need for an operation prompted him to travel to Paris in 1715, lodging with his faithful friend, the banker and great patron of the arts Pierre Crozat. While he might have considered to settle back in his native city, he was rebuffed by the French academy and decided instead to return to Rome in 1716 where he promptly had a run-in with the local Accademia di San Luca.

Siding with protestors against new statutes which subjected non-academicians to unjust fee payments, Le Gros was unceremoniously expelled, and his professional career in Rome thereby de facto finished. His only new commission thereafter was for two statues for Turin, without doubt due to the intervention of Juvarra who was by then architect to the Duke of Savoy.  

Filled with bitterness, Le Gros died from pneumonia in 1719. He was posthumously rehabilitated and reinstated as a member of the Accademia di San Luca under the directorship of the Giuseppe Chiari in 1725.

Religion Overthrowing Heresy, 1695-99, Rome, Il Gesù, Altar of S. Ignatius

St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Glory, 1697-99, Rome, Sant’Ignazio

St. Stanislas Kostka on his Death Bed, 1702-03, Rome, Jesuit Novitiate at S. Andrea al Quirinale

The Arts Paying Homage to Pope Clement XI, 1702, Rome, Accademia di San Luca

St. Dominic, 1702-06, Rome, St. Peter’s

Apostle Thomas, Terracotta model, 1703, Los Angeles, LACMA

Further reading:

Gerhard Bissell, “Pierre Le Gros 1666-1719”, Reading (Si Vede) 1997.

Id., “A ‘Dialogue’ between Sculptor and Architect: the Statue of S. Filippo Neri in the Cappella Antamori”, in: Stuart Currie, Peta Motture (ed.), “The Sculpted Object 1400-1700”, Aldershot 1997, 221-237.

Robert Enggass, “Early Eighteenth-Century Sculpture in Rome”, University Park and London (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1976.

Pascal Julien, “Pierre Legros, sculpteur romain”, in: Gazette des Beaux-Arts 135:2000(1574), pp. 189-214.

François Souchal, “French Sculptors of the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Reign of Louis XIV”, vol. II, Oxford (Cassirer) 1981, vol. IV, London (Faber) 1993.

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