A ravishing show of these creations has been mounted by the Metropolitan Museum and has turned out to be the sleeper show of the season in popularity with the public. It is the first major museum exhibition devoted to Neoclassic terracotta sculptures and unites 135 examples of work by French, Italian, English, Belgian, Danish, Swedish, German and Russian artists from collections throughout Europe and the United States.
The ancient Greeks and Romans turned out admirable terracotta figurines, the finest being the gracefully draped ladies from the workshops of Tanagra in Greece. Since the sculptors of the 18th and 19th centuries were enamored with classic sculpture, it is not surprising that they turned to terracotta for the earliest expression of a sculptural idea.
As Pierre-Jean Mariette, a famous French collector of terracottas, said in 1750, "In them, a sharp and enlightened eye will discover all the master's spirit, that creative spark, that shining and utterly divine fire that emanates from the soul."
Mariette might have added that the smaller, subtler terracottas were often more successful as works of art than the heavy marbles for which they were preliminary works, judging by photographs of the marbles included in the show. Facial expressions could be captured more easily in clay than in stone and draperies in clay seemed lighter and more natural.
This made terracottas popular with collectors in France by the first part of the 18th century and by 1740 they were being exhibited at Royal Academy salons patronized by a wide cross-section of society. No artist was more popular with the public than Claude Michel, known as Clodion, who had studied at the French Academy in Rome and worked clay with a light touch that brought satyrs, bacchantes, and other mythological figures to delightful life.
Clodion (1738-1814) was one of several sculptors who created terracottas as independent works, not models, and three of his finest studies from the antique that illustrate the boldness of his style -- "Minerva," "Cato of Utica," and "Warrior Carrying a Youth" -- are among the highlights of the show. His closest rival in terracotta artistry, Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822), is also well represented.
Canova may be better known for his large works in marble ("The Three Graces." "Cupid and Psyche," "Pauline Bonaparte as Venus") but even some of the not-quite- finished terra cottas in the show demonstrate his mastery of the medium. The terracotta model of "The Three Graces" is interesting that the women's harmoniously proportioned figures are more elongated than in the finished marble in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Also in the show is Canova's terracotta model of his bust of Letizia Bonaparte, mother of the clan, seated and garbed as a Roman matron, leading to charges that he had plagiarized the work from a Roman statue of Empress Agrippina.
Not to be missed are a terracotta of Shakespeare commissioned from Louis-Francois Roubiliac by English actor David Garrick, displayed next to Andrien Carpentiers' painting of Roubiliac modeling the statue, and two statuettes of women feeling winter's chill by Jean-Antoine Houdon, who sculpted George Washington and other American founding fathers in marble.
There are examples of the small terracottas submitted to the Royal Academy for approval leading to membership, including Joseph Chinard's romantic "Perseus Rescuing Andromeda" that was a prizewinner at the 1800 salon, and deeply sculpted relief panels in terracotta including a detailed Old Testament scene by English sculptor Richard Westmacott.
Another section of the show is devoted to terracotta models of memorial monuments including Jean-Baptiste Stouf's wonderfully complex monument showing philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau being crowned by a winged genius. There is also a gallery devoted to depictions of heroes, heroines, and great men including Jean-Baptiste Pigalle's curious study of the elderly philosopher Voltaire, nude and emaciated.
Religious and funerary sculpture round out the show, which is accompanied by a handsome catalog ("Playing with Fire, Yale University Press, 348 pages, $65).