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Running Bacchant

c. 1790–1799

Dallas Museum of Art

Dallas Museum of Art

Among the outstanding eighteenth-century French works of art acquired by Michael L. Rosenberg are two exuberant terracotta sculptures by Claude Michel, called Clodion, which are titled “Running Bacchant” and “Running Bacchante.” While the figures are not dated, they are likely part of a group of terracotta sculptures that the artist created in the 1790s and they reflect Clodion’s remarkable visual memory and his ability to blend stylistic characteristics of the antique with those of the Roman and French Baroque—not to mention those of his contemporaries. Both of the terracottas exhibit sensitively modeled anatomy and detailed textures of human and animal skin, hair, and fruit.

The Rosenberg sculptures represent followers of Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek), the god of the grape harvest, winemaking, fertility, and the theatre. Their bacchanals were feasts or celebrations of uncontrolled revelry. These wild rites—which often took place in wooded or landscape settings and involved inebriation, ecstatic dancing, and the playing of musical instruments—are vividly described in Euripides’s play “The Bacchae.”

The male followers, called bacchants or satyrs, were represented partially nude, wearing only animal skins, and sometimes with the ears, tail, and legs of a goat. They were often accompanied by animals meant for sacrifice. The Rosenberg “Running Bacchant” is nude except for a pelt loosely wrapped around his left thigh and falling between his legs. The animal skin is held in place by a rope of ivy strapped diagonally across his chest. Like his companion (“Running Bacchante”), he holds two thyrsi. These large fennel sticks wound with ivy and topped with a pinecone are crossed over his shoulders behind his head and from them a large bunch of grapes and a dead goat are suspended. A pair of cymbals is attached to the tree trunk supporting the “Running Bacchant.”
Circumstances made it so that Clodion had very few large-scale commissions. He drew and modeled in clay with such dexterity and invented bacchanalian figures of such charm that he found a ready audience for them in spite of the changing times. What he tried initially in reliefs, he eventually developed into sculptures in the round; however, these sculptures always have a preferred view or orientation. The small scale of his works made them ideal for neoclassical interiors, while also conveying a sense of grandeur. As is evident in the Rosenberg statuettes, the figures are sensual, joyous, and free, but they are not lewd. Their iconography is firmly rooted in a profound knowledge of antique sculpture, literature, and history.

Adapted from
Anne L. Poulet, "On the Run: Clodion's Bacchanalian Figures," in “French Art of the Eighteenth Century: The Michael L. Rosenberg Lecture Series at the Dallas Museum of Art,” ed. Heather MacDonald (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art and the Michael L. Rosenberg Foundation, 2016), 171–79.

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