The sculptures of Barye at the Corcoran Gallery of Art are both gruesome and romantic. Barye, in his small bronzes, first unleashed, then choreographed the ferocities of nature. His birds and beasts are never still, they fight and eat and die.
The animals he left us are as carefully observed as those of John James Audubon, yet as humanized as Disney's. They are neither sentimental nor scientific. Something writhers within them, and they play roles in an opera savage and sublime.
Antonie Louis Barye spent his life in Paris. He was born in 1976 and died in 1875. Though his work seems a prediction of sculpture as diverse as that of Remington and Boehm, his art is of his time.
Even when displayed against white museum walls, his tautly muscled scenes of gore seem to conjure up the plush salons of 19th-century France.
Elephants squash tigers, deerhounds down a stag, muscles ripple, tails whip, a jaguar gnaws a hare - yet these scenes of bloody mayhem were made to be displayed on polished fruitwood tables among porcelains and plants.
Bayre was a romantic, a contemporary of Delacroix and Darwin. Other artists of his age, Gericault, for instance, of Caspar David Friedrich, were similarly obsessed with unconquerable nature, her wind-whipped seas and mountain storms. Barye shared their preference for the fierce and the exotic. But the animals he carved and cast have in their precision something neo-classical, balanced and highly ordered. Barye gave his animals a dignity, a grandeur hitherto found only in works that portrayed man.
Unlike Audubon and Darwin, Bayre was not an explorer.Delacroix, his friend, traveled to North Africa to see the lions and the Arabs. But Barye stayed at home.
He saw his animals in Paris, either dead in the museums of natural history, or in cages at zoo, the Jardin dePlantes.
Stubbs, the English painter, could see the world in horses. Barye was attracted to more exotic animals. His human beings are dry and stiff, but there is awesome energy in his beagles, snakes and bears.
His father was a silversmith, and Barye was apprenticed twice, first to an engraver, later to a goldsmith.His table-sized sculptures suggest the jeweler's art.
Because he cast his bronze with sand, rather than wax, the casts he took were rough. He finished them by hand.
Barye often struggled. Despite, perhaps because of, his aristocratic patrons, he lived, one should remember, in a time of revolution. He never won the Prix de Rome, and his works were frequently rejected by the Paris salons.
In 1873, shortly before he died, he was visited in Paris by W.T. Walters, a founder of the Walters Gallery in Baltimore and a Corcoran trustee. Walters commissioned more than 100 Barye casts for the new Corcoran in Washington. Of these, some 40 of the finest have been taken from the store-rooms for the present show.
Barye's art is sometimes humorous - a bear plays with its toes, an ape rides ona gnu - but more often it is ferocious. Barye, it is apparent, studied the antique, the horses of the Greeks, the bronzes of the Renaissance, but still his sculptures seem prophetic. Though all fo them were made more than a century ago, they still shock the viewer. His animals aren't noble pets, they suffer, struggle, kill. To look at them is painful. In their energy, their violence, in the pride they take in cruelty, they seem to predict much that was to come. The exhibition closes Sept. 10.