(Paris, 1838 – Paris, 1902)
Large preliminary version in terra cotta
Height: 42.8 cm; width at base: 30 cm; depth at base: 18 cm.
“A charming and original thing is The Embroideress by M. Jules Dalou, a student of Carpeaux: this is a young woman in modern dress, seated in a chair, and doing needlework. The pose absolutely accurate, and the feeling of the whole of the figure is exquisite; the breast breathes, the skirt drapes itself elegantly. ‘But is this sculpture, is it not rather painting!” exclaimed Jules Castagnary when he saw the original, life-size plaster model of The Embroideress, exhibited successfully by Dalou as no. 4401 at the Salon of 1870 and awarded a third prize medal.
In the first monograph dedicated to Dalou, published in 1903, a contemporary and friend of the sculptor, Maurice Dreyfous, wrote at length about the emblematic work, a work that coincided with the beginning of the artist’s mature period, when he enjoyed numerous official successes: “The Embroideress caused a great sensation. It was no longer only the artists and the connoisseurs who paused in front of the life-size statue, but also the wider public, a rare success for a sculptor. People stood around it in a circle to see it from all sides; people bent over to read the name of the artist, written on the base. Its success was such that the State purchased it, and commissioned it in marble.
All of the art critics, few though they were, dedicated at least part of their articles to it. Obliged to be careful with space in his articles, which always had more material than he might have wished, Théophile Gautier spoke of him in these terms, on 8 August 1870: “The Embroideress by Mr Dalou is a charming statue, of a most graceful realism, it is no more than a poor girl embroidering, her head sweetly inclined toward her handiwork, but in the naivety of her pose, the candor of her features and the chastity of her forms, there is a penetrating charm.”
With the unanimous vote of connoisseurs, and of that great “everyone”, celebrity began. Its purchase by the State allowed a glimpse of what would happen next, the moment when commissions would furnish Dalou the ability to make a living from his art. The statue was not taken back to the Rue de Vaugirard, but directly to the artist, who was to make the roughhew it in the block of marble, which had already been delivered by the administration of the Beaux-Arts. Dalou was hopeful of producing it again, enlightened by the beauty of the marble. He was especially happy to be able to correct its imperfections, which he found numerous already.
“Fate decided otherwise. The war had just broken out. On the 10th of August, was Reischoffen, on the 4th of September, the fall of the Empire, then defeat, then the invasion and from then on new duties became the lot of everyone (…) The model in marble was thus temporarily abandoned, waiting for better days. The temporary stretched to more than ten years. It was in 1880, when Dalou returned from England, that the execution in marble of The Embroideress began again. But in the course of the ten years that had gone by in constant work, Dalou had progressed so much that he could only look with impatience on a work where his youthful inexperience seemed to have produced unforgivable errors. As long as he believed he could ‘correct’ them in the marble, he was patient, but one day, he lost all hope and, in three blows of his mallet, knocked off the head and the two arms; without further ado, he rained blows on the plaster model and in no time at all, all that was left was rubble on the floor.”
Of the emblematic sculpture, as important for the rest of his work as it was in the eye of the public, aside from an old photo of the life-size plaster version, only the small draft version in patinated plaster, done after the fired terracotta in the Dreyfous collection (H 29 x 24 x 17 cm. Paris, Musée du Petit-Palais, inv.: PPS01271) for which Hébrard made several bronze versions by contract to Dalou’s heirs, 31 January 1907, a terracotta (H. 31.5 cm. London, Victoria & Albert Museum, inv. : A 37-1934) as well as several smaller bronze versions like that in the Musée de Mont-de-Marsan (H : 67.5 cm. Inv. : MM 82.12.1) exist.
Fully within the “Realist” movement, which intended to build a picture of “social reality” taking everyday life as its point of departure but using all the means of history painting, Dalou’s modernity all comes from the fact that he was the first French sculptor to present a life-size, contemporary Embroideress at the Salon of 1870. Profoundly impressed by The Reader that the Italian Pietro Magni (1817-1877) presented at the Exposition Universelle of 1867 (Milan, Galleria d’Arte Moderna), which had great success, Dalou used it for inspiration, taking his seamstress wife a model for his Embroideress. During his London exile, Dalou took pleasure in making a whole series of intimist subjects, establishing his fame across the Chanel; certain of these became known to the French press and were published in it even before the return of the artist in 1880.
Of a very much smaller size, the two first drafts—the one in the collections of the V&A Museum and that of the Petit Palais—suffer by comparison with the one that we are presenting. By their dimensions, the former appear to be stouter, of a more cautious composition, and rather removed from the lightness and the pure moment of grace that Dalou allows us to see here in this never before published masterpiece.