Musée d'Orsay: David d'Angers Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

David d'Angers
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
David d'Angers (1788-1856)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Between 1829 and 1831
Colossal plaster head
H. 83; W. 58; D. 51 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

With Rude and Préault, David was part of a triad which dominated Romantic sculpture throughout the first half of the 19th century. He was above all the great theorist of the moral import of sculpture and the high priest of the cult of great men. He was a reserved sculptor, staying away from the social whirl, but he had more international connections than most artists: he visited Goethe in Weimar and made a bust of him in 1829.

The idea of commemorating great men, seeing the materialisation of their memory as the divine role of sculpture and the holy vocation of the artist, underpins David's entire oeuvre. This fascination for portraits and the "inner man" was an obsession for him, which he himself described as fanatical. By concentrating on the face of the great German philosopher, he reduced all expression to the essential elements of his personality; he left aside gesture and costume to focus on the head which "alone, shines like a star", and contrasted the deep furrows of the brow with the immense, exaggerated skull. Like all the portraitists of his time, David was keenly interested in phrenology, a 19th- century science which claimed to be able to determine an individual's character from the shape of his skull. So he tried to reach "the light in the man's brain... the eternal flame which illuminates the darkest ages; it is this idea made palpable by form that I want the artist to express in his work. That is the writing of immortality".

In this spirit, he produced a veritable panorama of the great thinkers of his day in the shape of medallions and busts. Over 500 medallions have survived to this day.

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