Rodin dominates the little that is said anymore about 19th-century French sculpture, but behind the Gates of Hell lurk other sculptors, some as successful and more admired in their time, and who participated in the creation of the major public monuments of Paris.
After seeing the young Antoine Étex’s figure of the Death of Hyacinthe at the Salon of 1833, Adolphe Theirs, at the time the minister of public works, chose Étex to sculpt two of the monumental high-relief groups for the façades of the Arc de Triomphe, the colossal victory arch left unfinished by Napoléon, upon which work had resumed after a 20 year hiatus.
A student of Joseph Pradier, Étex learned his trade during the late, sentimental phase of Neo-classicism. He was not a prodigy and failed to win the Rome Prize. His early reputation was based on his facility for carving single figures and small groups in marble, often arranged in languid to limp poses and composed of soft curves. The scepter held by Blanche de Castile serves as an index of the degree to which the curves of the figure and drapery deviate from a straight line.
Étex’s soft, flowing style was well-suited to the lugubrious and tragic subjects in vogue at the time, like the Hyacinthe, its pendant, the Damalis, and the leaden (in both senses) Cain and His Cursed Race. His memorial and funerary monuments are equally fluid and flaccid. The recumbent bronze tomb effigy of Géricault appears to have been poured on to the sarcophagus and pooled there, while the melodramatic, nevertheless impressive, veiled mourner of the Raspail tomb flows from the grate above like a glacier.
The Arc de Triomphe, however, called for semi-allegorical, political subject matter, narrated in multi-figure scenes of gigantic proportions, assembling figures from pre-carved pieces and working with limestone which, unlike marble, was not suited to fine details and surface effects. Apart from adapting to these material constraints, Étex was obliged to harmonize his work with the two completed façades, one of which was the highly-praised Départ de 1792 by François Rude. To put it simply, the commission drew on none of Étex’s strengths and required him to change his entire approach to sculpture.
To his credit, he succeeded in doing so. The resultant summary, planar, and angular style manipulated light and shadow to improve legibility from a distance and from the ground. He wisely did not attempt to match the histrionics of Rude, favoring a more stalwart mood. An army of assistants were entrusted with the carving the simplified forms from a forgiving stone that required no finishing by the master. Building the group from multiple blocks allowed for the simultaneous carving of multiple parts, which accelerated the project’s pace.
The Arc de Triomphe was as high profile a commission as one could imagine and the style of its sculptural reliefs was widely disseminated through prints and photographs, and Étex’s effective and economical approach to official public monuments was taken up across Europe and America and practiced through the 1930s, whereas Rodin’s influence was mainly visible inside museums.