The work of the French sculptor François Girardon (1628-1715) reflected the French taste for a restrained, classical version of the dominant baroque style.
François Girardon was born at Troyes on March 17, 1628. He studied in Rome for an undetermined period of time between 1645 and 1650. He then studied at the Royal Academy in Paris and was admitted to the academy as a member in 1657. Much of Girardon's most important work was executed for King Louis XIV and consisted of major commissions for the palace and gardens of Versailles. One of Girardon's most famous productions is Apollo and the Nymphs of Thetis in Versailles (1666-1672), originally designed for a grotto there. This elaborate project of seven separate marble statues depicts the god Apollo surrounded by nymphs, and it exemplifies with exceptional clarity the French interpretation of the baroque style in sculpture, an interpretation that rejected the fluid, dramatic, and emotional Italian baroque in favor of a cooler, more sober approach based upon the sculpture of antiquity. The Apollo group is filled with references to Hellenistic and Roman sculpture, and while Girardon was working on the commission he made a second trip to Rome for inspiration from antique sources. The ancient world, however, had never attempted to assemble several large pieces of free-standing sculpture into one unified composition, and in solving this problem Girardon had recourse to the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, the great French baroque classicist.
The classicism of the Apollo group conformed fully to the official style of the French Academy and the personal taste of Louis XIV, but the composition has many baroque elements. The vigor and variety in the movement of the figures, the rich textural contrasts, the grand scale of the project, and the dramatic use of space are all stylistic qualities that firmly link the work to the international baroque style.
One of Girardon's most important works is the tomb of Cardinal Richelieu in the church of the Sorbonne, Paris (1675-1677). This monument shows the dying prelate in a semireclining position, his vestments falling in broad curves that are echoed in the draperies of the allegorical figures at the head and foot of the tomb. As originally placed in the church, the monument was freestanding so that the spectator was compelled to enter into the action of the work—a typical baroque compositional device.
Girardon's most significant late work was a majestic bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV (1683-1692) executed for the Place Vendôme in Paris and based upon the famous Roman equestrian monument of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Girardon's work was destroyed during the French Revolution, but several small-scale copies of it exist.
During the 1690s French taste shifted from Girardon's classicism to the more expressive baroque manner of Antoine Coysevox. Girardon died in Paris on Sept. 1, 1715.
The most important work on Girardon, Pierre Francastel, Girardon (1928), is in French. For a brief but thorough and excellent analysis of Girardon's place in 17th-century French art see Sir Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France, 1500-1700 (1954; 2d ed. 1970). □