WORKMANLIKE – a Regola d’Arte
Edouard Dantan was a French painter of great talent that until the past year has remained in the shadows for me. My interest andpassion is for a beautiful series of paintings depicting the sculptor’s studio and workshop in the process of moulding both models of sculptures than from life.
Dantan Edouard was born in Saint-Cloud in Paris in 1848 and died only at the age of 49 in Villerville in 1897. His father, AntoineLaurent Dantan was a famous sculptor in marble, who won the Prix de Rome in 1828; his uncle Jean Pierre Dantan sculptor in clayand bronze, while his grandfather, Joseph Antoine Laurent Dantan was a well-known wood sculptor. From this is easy to imagine howthe workshop environment was so familiar to Edouard since his youth. But rather than studying the historical and biographical aspectof this artist I am interested in finding out about these paintings, so precious to me, the similarities and the atmosphere in the workshops that still exist today, that myself have lived and live, and with the which I have become familiar since I was a child.
In 1874 Dantan won a medal at the Salon for his painting ‘Moine Sculptant a Christ en Bois‘, what emerged was a tradition of genre painting, very close to the artist, The Sculptor at Work.
In 1880 he won again a medal for his painting ‘Un coin d’atelier‘ dedicated to his father. Here the Atelier is adorned with paintings andplaster casts, one of the figures that the sculptor carves shows the position of the legs as the famous Anatomy of Man by J. E.Caudron, which he uses as a reference model.
On his famous painting ‘A moulage sur Nature’, 1887 Edouard Dantan makes and describes the perfect moment of the opening of a mould from a life model. My eyes go upto a few things that I feel so interesting. The environment is often a place of small size, sometimes dimly lit (not so fitting as for an artist’s studio), as shown by the wet stains on the ceiling near the beam of wood, the cantilever of the shelvesis curved by the weight of the materials that contains. Apacking woodbox is reused as a base (under the plaster sculpture at left). This is a very experienced situation just likethe workshop where you work every day and the casts, materials and dust produced from the work itself is layered, giving rise to a unique place where everything has its placein a strange order of the confusion . The represented herealmost seems a pottery workshop and the plaster casts(perhaps too few for a workshop of molding) seem deliberately placed on display to distribute the pictorial scene spaces. On the left is depicted a reduction, perhaps by a bronze of edition, ‘The Dying Slave’ by Michelangelo in 1513 and to the right a plaster cast of ‘Portrait of a Woman’ by Francesco Laurana from 1472 or so. The clothing of the two men is different because their role is different. The model is supported in her weariness by a banquet placed on the work surface to which she can lean during the work. During the cast from life to ensure a comfortable position to the model is of great importancefor successful results.
Her foot comes out from the base probably because the sculpture, which served as a model, will have the same final position on its base.
The accidental leakage of plaster on the wooden stand and the shoes are entirely plausible, the bowls for plaster in those days were made in glazed ceramic to facilitate the detachment of the plaster hardened after use. The mortar on the right and the sieves hanging on the wall show the practice in preparation for the craftsman from the raw material. After cooking, the plaster was crushed and sieved directly in the workshop.
There are two other versions of this painting that seem the sketches of the final painting. Although the one on the right shows a more advanced stageof the process of work. The front portion of the mould has been removedand it is leaning to the right while the two men proceed to complete the work on the model. The master on the left is now seated and the modelseems covered by a thin drapery that does not appear in the final paintingbut seems more likely.
Another painting ‘A moulage sur l’Atelier de Sculpture in Nature Saint-Cloud ‘of 1887 (80×65 cm.) proposes the same scene with three figureseven in the same pose. The two men at work seem the same, dressed in the same way and immortalized in the same action in which they open the mold and free the model due to immobility and suffering from the heat of the plaster during the setting. This step is also to release the molder that have successful in his work. Although the model could be the same person by the similarity.
The position of the man on the right shows the gently of his gesture during the removing of the plaster from the girl’s skin and at the same time shows the care in handling trying to not break it because is still fresh.
The environment is different. Perhaps here we are in a real sculptor studio with many casts of sculpture and basreliefs on the walls.
Some are patinated and others are not. A molding and casting workshop, in my opinion, would have showed the casts arranged in a more random and chaotic way as exactly happens in the work area of this workshop, but it can not be a deciding factor. A red cloth cover a bust which in that position would suffer by drips of plaster that they would accidentally hit during the molding process. On the right a fundamental and symbolic object in the molding workshop is represented: the case of the plaster. A wooden box built specially to keep the plaster clean from the dust and keep it dry and ready for the use. The same box appears in other paintings that we’ll see later. Every workshop I visited had its plaster wood box. In the lost-wax casting foundry the box, usually very large, have two compartments, one for the plaster and the other for the fireclay.
In the painting ‘A moulage Dans La Serre‘ of 1897 (54×72 cm.), The two mold makers are in the foreground intent to destroy the waste mold on a plaster model of a dog. One of them uses a chisel and a mallet to remove the reinforcement irons and the plaster of the mold. The other one in a less dynamic posture shows the delicate task of removing the residual layer of colored plaster closer to the original model using a more minute tool and a dusting brush.
The context is quite different from previous paintings. Here it makes a better idea of plaster casting workshop (albeit unusually bright, the construction of this place was painted by Dantan in the painting ‘Building of a Glass House’), otherwise it is a sculptor studiowhere the molding was practiced quite often. The floor is heavily soiled with plaster as actually happens in a workshop in which you are working hard. The plaster casts, more numerous, are arranged without a logical order, and some just left on the shelf, such as theantelope bucranium perhaps used as a model for a mold. The first two casts on the upper left and the torso on the right show thechromatic signs attributable to the treatment whit release agents as shellac, which usually occur on intermediate models used to makemolds. It is easy to recognize a bust of the Laocoon and the Venus of Milo. Casts rarely missing in a plaster casting workshop. On the right back is visible the plaster wood box and on the table there are the necessary tools just at hand distance. Under the table between bulk materials (very realistically depicted) is clearly visible the hemp or manilla, which is still used today to reinforce both the moulds that the plaster models during the processing.
Under the plaster casts there are some sculptor tools simply stuck upright by a wooden rod fixed to the wall, the most used method I’ve ever seen in the workshops till today.
The random arrangement of the materials and tools on the table in the foreground makes perfectly the idea of the dynamism and speed that it is often necessary in cases of this type of work. The bottles contain shellac for the plaster insulation and olive oil as release agent for the mold. The working table raised above the wooden boxes shows how necessary it is to organized the work in the best way, using whatever you have available at that time at hand.
Even in this scene as in the previous the craftman is taking the plaster model from the waste mould. The color pink is the layer of plaster (the first laid out in the execution of the mold) closer to the model, is colored to be recognized when you are approaching the original model during the destruction of the mould itself.
From the titled ‘Moulage de Rio’ we can infere that the dog is the model that was a trusted companion of the woman who attends the scene. In her attitude of resignation seems to wait to see his beloved pet revive in sculptural appearance. I think this is a cast from life, looking at the position of the animal which is portrayed, the measures and the absence of a base or subbase. The blue drapery used as a soft surface to protect the delicate forms confirms this.
In the beautiful painting ‘An Atelier de moulage’ 1884 (97×130 cm) we can breathe the atmosphere of the quiet daily job in a real casting and molding workshop.
The painting ‘Moulage de Rio’ of the same year shows a corner of the same studio recognizable by the window. By the side of the cast iron stove there is the same plaster wood box as in the previous painting. Some plaster bas-reliefs hung from the wall. Rather unusual is the presence of the palm on the right but it goes back to the idea of the glass house. Behind the plant you can see a shelf with numerous plaster casts prepared and best among them there is also the cast of a left leg that by the proportions would seem of a woman and certainly it is one of the life cast of the two paintings ‘Moulage sur Nature’ of the previous years.
The two masters have spent their years in the workshop, everyone in his place seems to carry on his work with immense experience and confidence. Learned gestures, spontaneous poses, all responding to a code understandable and clear only to those who have learned and assimilated it to perfection over the years. The plaster casts arranged on the right have no heads and are missing partsbecause they are obtained from the moulds divided in pieces for technical reasons. The man on the right is concentrated into retouching a reduction of Moses by Michelangelo with a launches spatula on the lines (seam) produced by the pieces of the mold. The sculpture was placed on a soft surface for protection as it is customary to do. The man on the left, quietly and attentively is working on retouching the plaster model of a dog.
The working bench, consisting of a table on the wooden trestles, is typical in a small workshop where when necessary to make a large size mold can be removed easily to obtain all the available space. On it you see a glazed ceramic bowl with a spatula resting inside. On the other hand, a plaster mold (called piece mould) of a bust with the bust inside. The yellowing is due to the so called durcissement du plâtre: it is the hardening and waterproofing process of the plaster made with of linseed oil heated. In this way, a better separation of the model was guaranteed, as well as long life and easy cleaning of the mold. The pot could be used to dissolve the glue that was used to make a jelly mold. The other tools are randomly distributed, the spatula in the center is a typical molder tool called Spatolone. I always heard from my Masters that a good moulder should be able to complete an entire mold with the masterly use of this unique tool.
It’s very useful for me to explore the fascinating details of these pictures of job daily life and a technique that has never known an end, regardless of the use of new materials, I’m going to keep this technique faithfully. I think it’s very interesting to see through some recent pictures of the workshop, where I was born and I learned, how many similarities there are between the both scenes of the work today and yesterday.