The Statue of Liberty is the most famous French statue in the United States, but almost 20,000 other French creations also dot the country in places as diverse as Philadelphia, Honolulu, and Duluth in Minnesota. This collection piqued the curiosity of Laure de Margerie, a former documentarist from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and inspired her to create an online catalogue. The Massachusetts-based researcher told us about her “public service” mission, which she hopes to finish by 2027.
France-Amérique: How do you carry out your research?
Laure de Margerie: Searching for a French sculpture in a country as vast as the United States is a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack! I started listing French statues in 2001. I began by looking through American museum catalogues and picking them out one by one. The curators are a huge help, but discovering a statue is also largely down to luck. I was researching at the Brooklyn Museum a few days ago, and I came across a statue that the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, had been trying to find for more than 20 years. The piece in question was Jean Gautherin’s L’inspiration, a marble statue from 1887 depicting a woman playing the harp. It used to belong to Henry Marquand, a major American philanthropist and art collector, who donated many of his pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Why are there so many French statues in the United States?
France contributed to the birth of the United States, and French sculptors of the time were immediately associated with American history. The Statue of Liberty by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi is now the most representative example of Franco-American friendship. The excellence of French smelters during the second half of the 19th century also helped to spread the reputation of French art. American collectors acquired many of these pieces — especially by Rodin. Today, French statues are displayed in more than 400 places across the United States. A bronze statue by Pierre-Marie Poisson is exhibited in Medora, North Dakota, in homage to French explorer Marquis de Morès, who founded the city in 1883. The former Maison Française on New York’s Fifth Avenue features bas-reliefs that were sculpted and gold-leafed by Frenchman Alfred Janniot. And the White House boasts five busts by Jean-Antoine Houdon, including one of Benjamin Franklin in bronze and another of Thomas Jefferson in porcelain.
You counted 900 statues by Rodin in the United States. How do you explain such a success?
There are 200 more left to find! Auguste Rodin was enormously successful in the United States during the 20th century, partly thanks to his popularity with rich American collectors such as New York financier Bernard Gerald Cantor and his wife Iris. Together they accumulated the biggest private collection of works by Rodin. Their sculptures, as well as their drawings, photographs and various objects, can be admired all over the United States, from the Stanford University Museum in California to Raleigh in North Carolina. The Musée Rodin in Paris [which reopened in November 2015] has shown a lot of interest in my research, and we are currently negotiating a partnership. As well as Rodin, the 19th-century French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye is also renowned for his animal-themed sculptures. I already catalogued 872 of his works on my website, which are displayed in places such as Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, the Tweed Museum of Arts in Duluth, Minnesota, and the Denver Art Museum in Colorado.