Clodion’s Balloon Monument (Metropolitan Museum Favorites, 19)

Even in an era when scientific discoveries were being made with astonishing rapidity, man’s first piloted flight in 1783 ranked as an awe-inspiring event. The Montgolfier brothers began experimenting with balloon flight in southeast France during the summer of 1782. After trials with a sheep named “Montauciel” (“Rise to the Sky”), Etienne Montgolfier and Jean-Baptiste Réveillon constructed a taffeta balloon about 75 feet high and 50 feet in diameter. It was decorated with fleur-de-lis, signs of the zodiac, and suns bearing images of Louis XVI’s face. The first untethered flight with a human took off from Paris in November 1783, and landed all of five miles away.

Depiction of the Montgolfier balloon, 1786. For more on the words included in the image, see the Wikipedia page.

To commemorate the ascension, Louis XVI invited the most gifted French sculptors to submit designs for a monument in the Tuileries Gardens. But ascensions soon became common, and Louis soon became broke. The monument was never erected. One of my favorite 18th-century sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum is the 43-inch tall terracotta model that Clodion submitted for the monument.
At the top is the hot-air balloon. On one side, Fame blows her trumpet; on the other, Aeolus, Greek keeper of the winds, helps move the balloon along. The base is covered with absurdly energetic putti (cupids) who gather fuel and feed the flames to keep the balloon aloft. This exuberantly ornate work is one of the few sculptures in the Metropolitan that makes me giggle with glee.

Clodion, Model for the Balloon Monument, ca. 1784. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Rogers Fund and Anonymous Gift, 1944. Image: MetMuseum.org

Clodion, Model for the Balloon Monument, ca. 1784. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Rogers Fund and Anonymous Gift, 1944. Image: MetMuseum.org

Clodion, Model for the Balloon Monument, ca. 1784. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Rogers Fund and Anonymous Gift, 1944. Image: MetMuseum.org

More

  • This and other French terracottas from the 17th through late 19th century are illustrated in James David Draper, “French Terracottas,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 49:3, Winter 1991/92 (download as PDF).
  • In the John Adams miniseries on HBO (2008), Thomas Jefferson and the Adamses watched the balloon ascension in Paris in November 1783. The balloon looks very similar to the illustration at the beginning of this post: kudos to the producers for doing their research! Incidentally, I was worried that the John Adams series would be yet another made-for-TV smear job, diminishing the Founding Fathers – but there are enough substantial quotes from Adams, Jefferson, Washington and others to bring the series up to a thought-provoking level, and overall it was well produced and well acted.
  • Clodion’s Balloon Monument is mentioned in my book Innovators in Sculpture as an example of the level of skill artists had reached by the late 18th century. For more works by Clodion (Claude Michel), see this Wikimedia page.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.

About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and two videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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