This past summer, the Duke University Museum of Art acquired its first major nineteenth-century French bronze, the heroic Large Peasant by Aimé-Jules Dalou (1838-1902), one of the most important representatives of nineteenth-century naturalistic sculpture.
A student of Carpeaux and Duret, Dalou debuted at the Salon of 1867, but within a few years became active in the leftist politics of the French Commune, which greatly influenced his career and subject matter. He joined the Federation of Artists, directed by Gustave Courbet, and was named a curator at the Louvre in the new administration. With the fall of the Commune, he was forced to flee to England, where he became a professor at the Royal College of Art in London, but under the amnesty of 1879, he was allowed to return to France. He then won important commissions for Triumph of the Republic for the city of Paris and Monument to Victor Hugo in the Pantheon.
DUMA's bronze is a reduction of a figure that Dalou had originally planned for his great Monument to Labor, begun in 1889 and still unfinished at his death in 1902. He made a number of clay sketches of industrial and agricultural workers, based on first-hand studies of laborers at sites such as Grenouvilliers, outside Paris, in 1894. The sympathetic and heroic portrayal of a peasant rolling up his sleeves recalls the work of other nineteenth-century French painters such as Courbet, Millet, and Pissarro.
Dalou's original 1897 terracotta sketch for Large Peasant is today at the Musée du Petit Palais in Paris, as is a plaster model made in 1898-99. In 1899, he signed a contract with the Susse Foundry in Paris, granting exclusive rights to cast bronzes after his work. A full-size bronze of Large Peasant, approximately 78 inches tall, was exhibited at the Salon of 1902, the year of Dalou's death. (It was acquired by the Louvre in 1905 and is now at the Musée d'Orsay.) Dalou considered the subject his own memorial.
DUMA's bronze is a lost-wax cast reduction of the full-scale work, produced by Susse in the early decades of the twentieth century, as authorized by a 1903 contract with Dalou's heirs. It is an excellent example of the high quality of French bronze-casting technique with its refined chasing of surface details and warm tones of the patina.