Hello Helaine and Joe: I am guessing my grandpa’s lion is a cheap copy, but I truly am curious about it. “He” is about 10 inches long and rests on a 15-by-4-inch base. I believe you can see from the chipped ear that he is made of a plaster or plaster-like material. You can see the word “Barye” impressed on the base. Thank you for any insights you might have.
Sincerely, N. M.,
Dear N. M.:Antoine-Louis Barye was born in Paris on Sept. 24, 1796, and began his adult career working as a goldsmith under his father.
But around 1810, he began working under Napoleon’s goldsmith, Guillaume-Martin Biennais, with some saying he was actually studying sculpture.
In this period of his young life, Barye also studied under a painter and a sculptor before being admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1818, but it was not until 1823 when Barye heard his true calling. In that year, he began sketching animals in the Jardin des Plantes and turned out some very vigorous studies.
Essentially, Barye is known as an “animalier”– an artist who executes images of animals — sometimes involved with other animals, sometimes with people. He is most commonly remembered for his small-scale work, but he was also a maker of statuary (images in a larger scale).
Barye’s work was (and is) beautiful, but he was a terrible businessman and was always in debt.
He had to declare bankruptcy in 1848 and all his plaster models were sold off to a bronze factory, which made inferior copies of his artworks.
It was not until 1872 — just a few years before his death on June 25, 1875 — that his remaining 125 models were sold to the Ferdinand Barbedienne foundry, which in their 1877 catalog offered Barye’s work cast in bronze in various sizes.
Barbedienne’s work was superb, and it is upon these pieces and Barye’s body of original work that his reputation rests.
Barye is considered to be one of the great French animalier sculptors, and there is a square in Paris off the tip of the Ile St.-Louis that is named for him.
When the models went from Barye’s studio to the foundries, they were plaster, not completely unlike the lion in today’s question.
But this particular example is not an original example of Barye’s art.
Instead, it is exactly as N. M. feared — a cheap copy made for home decoration.
The material from which this piece was made is often said to be “chalk,” but it is really plaster of Paris, or more specifically gypsum (generally speaking).
The piece’s manufacturer probably started with a mold made from an original piece into which the plaster was poured and allowed to harden.
The resulting figure of a lion was retailed inexpensively.
Such pieces are not uncommon, and the softened, somewhat blurry signature “Barye” is a sure sign of this after-casting process.
N. M.’s example was probably manufactured in the early 20th century — maybe 1920s — and sells at auction for only a few dollars. For insurance purposes, $50 to $75 is probably about right taking the usual damage into consideration.
This article was originally published in the New Jersey Herald