French Sculpture Census

CHARLES DESPIAU IN THE US

Text by Élisabeth LEBON, author of: Charles Despiau (1874-1946) : Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre sculpté, unpublished Ph.D., Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne, 1995, and of Dictionnaire des fondeurs de bronze d'art. France 1890-1950, Perth, Marjon éditions, 2003 (Elisabethlebon@wanadoo.fr).
(Graciously translated by Gina GRANGER, Detroit)

Charles Despiau

Charles Despiau (1875-1946) (ill. 1) experienced his first official success in France with his exhibit of a large stone sculpture of a faun (Faunesse) at the International Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. After this event, Despiau’s career took off at a remarkable rate, however not in France, where he continued to be ignored, with the exception of an entire generation of young sculptors who recognized Despiau as a new Master of an “independent” art, but abroad: in Germany, in the Nordic countries, in Japan (where his renown never declined and continues to this day), and primarily in the United States.

Despiau, Mrs. Stone, New York, Metropolitan Museum
As early as 1926, Miss Keller, fiancée of the New York investment banker, Maurice L. Stone, commissioned a portrait bust of herself. The bust, titled Madame Stone (ill. 2) and one of the artist’s masterpieces, inaugurated a long series of commissions that would henceforth come to the artist from the international high bourgeoisie. Thusly, in 1929, Despiau produced a portrait bust of Mrs. Edward Bruce, wife of the future director of the Public Works Art Project, a program that created work for artists during the Great Depression. During the same year, the artist created a portrait bust of the former Agnes Ernst (Madame Meyer), wife of Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post newspaper (at the same time Mrs. Meyer was also being portrayed by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi). Refusing to produce works more quickly, or in greater numbers (editions of his work were strictly limited), Despiau continued to contribute to the fulfillment of the craze for his work; his prices increased significantly, and the demand for the artist’s creations exploded. Those who cared for the most prestigious contemporary art collections, public or private, watched anxiously for one of Despiau’s rare editions to become available on the market.

Frank Crowninshield
Among Despiau’s great admirers was Frank Crowninshield (ill . 3), wealthy editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, who developed a veritable passion for the work of the artist and aspired to become his principal patron. Crowninshield acquired at least one example of all of the artist’s works that had been made available and obtained new editions of older works. He also undertook the systematic acquisition of an edition of each of the artist’s future works. The Crowninshield collection contributed to the expansion of the sculptor’s reputation in the United States, as his patron repeatedly put his works on exhibition (in 1929 in New York and in 1932 in Chicago), and his loans were made with pleasure. Despiau was thusly assured of a comfortable regular income, which allowed him to have true artistic freedom.

Douanier Rousseau, Joseph Brummer, Londres, National Gallery
Joseph Brummer (ill. 4), a New York gallery owner of Hungarian ethnicity and well-known in Parisian artistic circles, contributed in his own fashion to the meteoric rise of Despiau’s reputation. Brummer organized the first solo exhibition of the artist’s work, which took place in New York from November 21 to December 31, 1927. Twenty-two bronzes were collected and placed on view. Despiau’s work, which had only been exhibited with one piece or a grouping of, at the most, four pieces at the Salons or in various group exhibitions, had never before profited from such favorable conditions. Launched without great publicity, the exhibition became widely known in just a few days by word of mouth, which unfurled a burst of increasingly numerous and enthusiastic visitors. Buyers rushed to the Brummer Gallery, the exhibition was sold out, and additional copies were made of the artist’s work. The great English sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose work was on display at the same time as Despiau’s and at only a few paces from the Brummer Gallery, paid the price of comparisons with his own work, often to his disadvantage. This concert of unanimous praise in the American press launched Despiau’s lasting triumph, a veritable phenomenon. The following sentence is from the June 1928 issue of Vanity Fair: “Not since the days of August Rodin has a foreign sculptor created so profound [an] impression in this country.”

Despiau, plaster bust sold to John D. Rockefeller, NY, Metropolitan Museum, Brummer Records     Despiau, Eve, Washington, Hirshhorn
This burst of enthusiasm for the work of Despiau (ill. 5) also brought to the fore an old commonplace comparison. Young America rejoiced in having been able to be a lesson to the venerable homeland of the arts by recognizing in a brilliant fashion an artist whom France had not known to reward according to his true value. The tone of the press left no doubt in this area. Every commentator made note of this aberration: Despiau, currently 51 years old, had not yet made an impression in his country, whereas the Americans were so clear-sighted as to be able to distinguish in the space of a few days the artist’s obvious and exceptional talent. By bringing to the fore an artist who had been unappreciated in his own country America was able to accord onto itself a testimonial of complete satisfaction in an area it had found itself almost entirely excluded, that of the fine arts. If a more explicit gesture were required in this respect, Brummer himself purchased a large bronze of Eve (ill. 6), a major wok by the artist, in order to donate it to the Luxembourg Museum, the Parisian temple where France allowed only its greatest living artists to enter. (It was well known that Despiau’s work had yet to be included in the Luxembourg collection.)

Despiau, Peasant Girl, Buffalo, Albright Knox     Despiau, Assia, New York, Museum of Modern Art     Despiau, Les Heures claires, New York, Metropolitan Museum
Rapidly, a majority of the most important American and European cities took up the baton: solo exhibitions of Despiau’s work were presented in 1928 in Buffalo (ill. 7), in 1929 in New York, in 1930 in Brussels and Rochester, New York, in 1932 in Chicago, Denver, Basel, and Berne, and in 1937 and 1938 in London. It was not until 1938 that Rouen, a middle-sized provincial city in France, hosted Despiau’s first solo French exhibition, which had been organized by George Wildenstein and his magazine Beaux-Arts (and one would have to wait until 1974 for such an event to be repeated one last time in France). Despiau’s work was again exhibited in New York (ill. 8) in 1939 (ill. 9), 1942 and 1948, while France continued to ignore it, with the exception of an enlightened elite, who henceforth placed Despiau at the forefront of contemporary creative activity, alongside the sculptors Aristide Maillol, Ossip Zadkine, Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, Pablo Gargallo, Henri Laurens, and Constantin Brancusi.

Charles Despiau's place in the history of art rests alongside these major players in the creation of modern sculpture during the first half of the twentieth century.

Élisabeth Lebon
(Graciously translated by Gina Granger)

Illustrations:
1. Charles Despiau (ph. Wikimedia)
2. Charles Despiau, Mrs. Stone, 1926-1927, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Chester Dale, 1963 (ph. www.metmuseum.org)
3. Frank Crowninshield (Paris 1872 – New York 1947) (ph. Wikimedia, Library of Congress, Bain News Service,publisher)
4. Henri Rousseau, called Le Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910), Joseph Brummer (1883-1947), 1909, London, National Gallery (ph. Wikimedia)
5. Plaster bust by Despiau sold to John. D. Rockefeller, 1930, Brummer Gallery Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries & The Cloisters Library (ph. metmuseum.org)
6. Charles Despiau, Eve, c. 1925, Washington, DC, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1966 (ph. 2012 Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)
7. Charles Despiau, Young Girl from Les Landes (Jeune fille des Landes), 1909, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Charles W. Goodyear Fund, 1930 (ph. Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY)
8. Charles Despiau, Les Heures claires, c. 1921, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Martin Birnbaum, 1966 (ph. www.metmuseum.org)
9. Charles Despiau, Assia, 1938, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, 1939 (ph. http://www.moma.org)