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Charles Despiau: The Sculptor of Calm Classicism


Sculpting nude figures and portrait busts in such a sensitive and classical style that exemplifies a calm classicism, the French sculptor and illustrator, Charles Despiau, is celebrated as one of the leading lights of French early 20th-century sculpture, who sought a new route for sculpture and developed a distinctive classicising style.

Famous for repeating the same model with only slight variations, Despiau was born on November 4, 1874, at Mont-de-Marsan, Landes. At the age of seventeen, he settled in Paris to study at the École des Arts Décoratifs and took a stone-cutting apprenticeship. Three years later, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts. During this time, he admired Rodin's work, however, he was not influenced by it.

From 1898, Despiau was a regular participant in the Salon des Artistes Français, where he exhibited figures and busts, but after some time he quit it to join the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, which he found younger in spirit. The works he showed in the exhibition drew the attention of Claude Roger-Marx, an art critic, and of Georges Werner, a friend of Rodin who was also an important member of the Beaux-Arts ministry.

In 1901, Despiau joined the group of independent sculptors and became a member of the “bande à Schnegg.” In 1907, Auguste Rodin, who had seen many of Despiau’s works and was confident with his talent, invited him to work as his assistant. Under Rodin, Despiau honed his technical skills but came to reject his mentor's intense Romanticism in favor of a return to the simplicity of Archaic Classical sculpture. His style is often compared to that of Aristide Maillol because of their common interest in a dignified Classical aesthetic. However, his work is distinguished by the more highly detailed rendering of his subjects' individual characteristics.

From 1914 to 1919, Despiau was drafted into the army. In the years that followed the war, he endured severe financial problems but managed to regain a steady income through his work. During this time, he worked under contract for the Barbazanges Gallery. Modeling principally in plaster but sometimes working in stone, he usually created portrait busts, but he also executed life-size figures Andrew book illustrations.

“Paulette’s Bust” (1907), “The Faun” (1912), the Mont-de-Marsan war memorial (1920-1922) were the major works he achieved throughout his career. Among his bronzes are “Faunesse” (1924), “Eve” (1925), and “Dominique” (1926). “Assia” (1938) is one of his efforts in terracotta. His book illustrations include a 1933 edition of the French poet Charles Baudelaire's “Les Fleurs du mal” (“The Flowers of Evil”). Despiau's growing fame earned him several commissions including the portraits of Mrs. Boisdeffre (1920), Mrs. Zunz (1921), Miss. Marie-Zéline Faure, also called Zizou (1924), etc.

In 1923, Despiau took part in the founding of the Salon des Tuileries, along with Bourdelle, Maillol and some of the members of the “bande à Schnegg”. He also joined in the Salon d'Automne exhibition, and started teaching at the Grande Chaumière. In 1927, the Brummer Gallery in New York hosted his first personal exhibition abroad, and he was appointed teacher at the Scandinavian Academy. In 1937, the Petit Palais held an exhibition entitled Masters of Independent Art, which included fifty-two sculptures by Despiau. A Despiau-Wlérick Museum was founded in Mont-de-Masan in 1968.

At the age of 72, Despiau died on October 30, 1946, in Paris.


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