Caffieri, one of Houdon’s rivals, had his first contact with the Théâtre Français when Piron died in 1772. The artist made an offer to the actors of a bust of the dramatist in exchange for which he negotiated a lifetime subscription to the Academy. This curious arrangement bore fruit. Repeated about ten times by the sculptor in the course of his career, it would be also attempted by other artists. Houdon tried it in 1778 and Pajou the following year.
In a letter which accompanied the Bust of Pierre Corneille which he presented to the Theater in November 1777, Caffieri wrote, “From now on, your lobby will be the depository of the portraits of those who have performed on stage.” René Delorme, who wrote the first history of the Museum of the Comédie Française in 1878, thus attributed the origins of the museum to Caffieri.
From the archives of the Théâtre Français, we learn that the first exchanges between the Comédie and the artist concerning a bust of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau go back to the beginning of 1782. A note which apparently remained unanswered indicates that “M. Caffieri would like to propose an exchange with the Honorable Royal Actors, that is to say, he will make a marble bust of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau in return for tickets for his friend. “ On December 12th of the same year, Caffieri expressed his intention to “do marble portraits of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau and René le Sage in exchange for tickets for my niece and a friend whom I would like to please.” The request would be reiterated on many occasions and was plainly rejected; maybe the actors didn’t see any interest in a bust of Rousseau, who was more known for his vindictive epigrams or for the acerbic pamphlet published against him by Voltaire than for the quality of his theatre.
Nonetheless, according to a letter of mid-1783, Caffieri was actually working on the marble. In January 1786 in the presence of a notary, the actors accepted lifetime entrance for the lawyer Pierre-François Boyer in exchange for the bust. Presented at the Salon of 1787, the work was installed by the sculptor in the theatre lobby on October 15th of the same year. A letter from Caffieri which accompanied this posthumous homage states that it was based on a painting by Joseph Aved which had been exhibited at the Salon of 1738 (Château de Versailles).
Caffieri presents Rosseau in the fashion of his time. The writer is wearing «cadenettes» or «moustaches,» long tresses of hair held by a ribbon which hang down over the shoulder. Very fashionable under Louis XIII, hair «à la cadenette» came back into style during the Regency. Our terracotta is handled with a lively touch, and Caffieri left traces of tool marks visible. The facial modeling captures the poet’s expression with acuity. The quality of execution is also evident in the handling of the curls in the wig and the folds of the jabot. These observations make us think that
our work could be a modello.
Other versions preceded the Comédie Française marble which was replicated many times. A second terracotta, neither signed nor dated, is conserved in Versailles (Gift of M. Souffrice, entered collections in 1960). Examination of the object in person confirms that it is a 19th century work. (We would like to thank Mr. Alexandre Maral, Curator of Sculpture at the Château of Versailles, to have allowes us to examine this work.) The château also conserves a plaster bust signed and dated 1786, probably by
the artist’s studio, and which entered the collections in 1839. It is often cited in old sources as a terracotta on account of its patina.
These references make it possible to distinguish the existence of two terracottas.
One of them was sent by Caffieri to the Academy in 1784, along with sixteen other busts reproduced or created by his hand. In the letter by Caffieri which accompanied this gift is stated, “Jean-Baptiste Rousseau was made after the portrait painted by Aved. I must execute it in marble for the lobby of the Comédie Française” (cited by Guiffrey, pp. 359-360). This version is probably distinct from the modello, from which Caffieri would not have been separated while his marble was still unfinished. After
the Revolution, the Academy’s bust entered Lenoir’s Museum of French Monuments: terracotta of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau by Caffieri figures in the 1810 catalogue under number 392. According to the museum’s archives, the bust was placed in the Prefecture of the Seine in 1819. Perhaps it is the same one which showed up in the sale of Alexandre Lenoir’s collection in 1837 as number 275.
• France, Private collection
• C. NAVARRA-LE BIHAN, Jean-Jacques Caffieri (1725 – 1792), Doctoral thesis, University of Bordeaux III, 2005
• S. HOOG, Musée National du Château de Versailles. Les sculptures, Paris :