French Terracotta Portraits

Terracotta is a coarse, porous clay used in as a sculpture medium, popular for its low cost, durability and versatility. Terracotta has been used widely in different locations and eras, including ancient China, Greece and Mesopotamia. In 18th – 19th century France, terracotta was widely used for figurative sculpture. Many examples remain with us today, some in museums and others in private art collections and galleries.

“Bust of a Man” from the Getty Museum is an example of the technical mastery of these French terracotta artisans. As the Getty states, “Made to adorn a French interior, this type of bust was very popular in the 1700s. Because terracotta was relatively inexpensive, both middle class and wealthy consumers could purchase artworks made of this material for their homes.”

Here are some close-up photographs of the Bust of a Man sculpture, showing detailing of the eye, the smooth texture of the skin, and the rougher, more gestural handling of the fabric.

In another example from the Getty Museum, the sculptor Augustin Pajou created two “Ideal Female Heads” in terracotta clay. Again, look at the amazing detailing of the form and texture of the figure.

Some of these French terracotta portrait busts were made with molds (see below). Other examples appear to be original sculptures or a combination of mold casts with added, unique embellishments, such as this example from the Met by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse. As noted in a description on the Met’s website, “Carrier-Belleuse regarded the creation of sculpture and the decorative arts as a commercial enterprise… To reach the widest audience through the mass manufacture of his designs, he transformed traditional processes and exploited new technologies.”

Fine detailing and severe undercuts would be difficult to achieve with a mold.

One example I found (also in the Met collection) was this quick terracotta sketch of a Parisian woman (the artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s fiancee). I love the spontaneity of the piece, the gesture, the essence so quickly captured. So the works are not always highly detailed and overly refined.

Browsing online I found numerous examples, of varied quality, of terracotta busts. I can’t vouch for authenticity or quality, obviously, but there are many examples, which suggests to me that this type of sculpture was widespread. The portrait bust to the right looks to be made from a mold. (The artist would sculpt the bust, then create a mold from the sculpture, and create multiple terracotta busts from the original mold.)

This “French Style Terracotta Bust” sold at auction in 2020 for $950.00. The detailing on the piece is impressive.

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