Friday, December 3, 2010

Portrait sitter

The bust above isn't bad work, considering it was done not from life, but from death. Georges Danton (1759-1794) returned from a mission in Belgium to find that his wife, Antoinette Gabrielle, had died in childbirth a week earlier. Danton (2nd image) was grief-stricken and presumably filled with guilt. He engaged profoundly deaf French sculptor Claude-André Deseine (1740–1823) to help him exhume his wife and take a death mask to prepare a sculpture. The bronze-coated plaster bust is still on display at the Château de Vizille. Danton's biographer writes, "The only letter of Gabrielle's in existence reveals her to be uneasy, full of terrors, without him. She pined away. A premature confinement seems to have brought the end. Whether Danton's own conduct had been loose or not, the poor soul's death lay at his door. Thus the poor man's grief may well have been poisoned by remorse. He loved his wife still, with a fierce affection that the site of his desolate home transformed into a wild beast's fury. He had not seen her again: he was resolved to look upon her face once more. He had her grave opened, and her coffin too, he had her shroud taken off her, and when he had kissed her face, he made a sculptor friend of his...take a cast of the poor woman's features. The bust is still in existence: it was exhibited in the Salon of 1793, and thus described: 'Portrait of the Citoyenne Danton, exhumed, and the cast taken 7 days after her death. When all this was done, Danton laid his wife back in her grave." Danton, a major proponent of the French Revolution, fell to the guillotine himself a year after he dug up his dead wife.

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