Lion and Serpent Sculpture After Antoine-Louis Barye (French 1795-1825)
An impressively cast figure of a wild, roaring lion pinning a serpent to the ground; his head thrown back, jaws wide open as the reptile hisses back defiantly. Owing to the extremely naturalistic rendering of both animals and the violence of the struggle depicted, the original sculpture caused a huge controversy even though the public and the Romantics acclaimed it.
Into the epic fight, tension is at its peak. The snake, whose coiled head is thrown back with jaws wide open, is ready to strike at the lion's face. The lion's concentrated energy is set to respond with a ferocious muzzle and furious eyes, his paw forcefully pinning the reptile to the ground. The lion's body is pure muscle. Both animals possess the power of life and death, which could not fail to fascinate the Romantics.
Barye sculpted animals in an unprecedented manner by making them the actual subject of his sculpture and not simply accessories. His interpretations were based on an exact analysis and he sought to convey lifelike movements depicting the untamed character of the animals which symbolized human emotions.
Alongside the painter Delacroix, Barye spent hours on end studying, drawing and even dissecting animals though he was not a slave to scientific knowledge; he recreated nature through his art. He was free to exaggerate muscles or highlight modeling to emphasize a true impression of life.
The lion is the supreme example of a monarchic animal, a symbol of force and courage. This sculpture is also a tribute to the July Monarchy and King Louis-Philippe, at a time when there was widespread discontent with the regime established after the July Revolution (1830). The king's accession to the throne had taken place under the constellations of Leo (the lion) and Hydra (the sea serpent). The sculpture therefore symbolized celestial approval of this political change. The political symbolism of the lion of monarchy crushing the evil serpent was applauded by Louis Philippe, who made Barye a knight of the Legion of Honor in 1833.
Barye was one of the greatest French sculptors of the 19th century. From the age of thirteen he had to make a living and became an apprentice steel engraver for the military. This education, in spite of its strictness, was very profitable for him because he was taught all the metal-craft arts from casting to engraving. In 1818 he entered the School of Beaux-Arts of Paris where he received a classical education though he continued working as a goldsmith. Through this period Barye improved his knowledge of anatomy by going to the menagerie of the national museum of natural history. He became famous in 1831 when he exhibited at the Salon with his work entitled "Tiger eating a gavial" which was a resounding success and made him the very first romantic sculptor.
Barye then opened his own foundry. Later he became the quasi-official sculptor of Napoleon III and manufactured monumental works for the new museum of the Louvre. Later Barye was appointed professor of zoological drawing at the Museum of Natural History, where Auguste Rodin studied with him.
Barye had a great talent for depicting animals, portraying their feelings and gave his sculptures, no matter their dimensions, this monumental feature which is the mark of true genius.
Barye's works of art can be found among the collections of The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Louvre, The Tuileries Gardens, Museum of Fine Arts of Lyons, etc.
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