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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Martin Desjardins

The Four Defeated Nations, 1682-85, Martin Desjardins
Can you imagine putting in some forty years of your life as an artist and in the end, have your entire reputation rest upon only one single, surviving work? It's not at all uncommon for an artist's best piece, out of perhaps hundreds of others, to be recalled and elevated above all the rest. Rembrandt had his Night Watch; Picasso his Guernica; Grant Wood his American Gothic; Rockwell his Four Freedoms, Leonardo his Mona Lisa. These guys were not "one hit wonders." They each had dozens of memorable masterpieces, but in each case their names have become synonymous with a single work, often to the point that all their others are somehow seen as slightly inferior. Although he was not a famous artist in his day (the 17th-century), and is not famous today, the French sculptor, Martin Desjardins, shares the same fate as his more illustrious painting counterparts.

The two were good friends, both having the same
wealthy client, Louis XIV.
Martin Desjardins, was born Martin van den Bogaert in 1637. Though he is considered today to have been a French sculptor, he was actually Dutch by birth, born at Breda, (central) Netherlands, the son of a milliner. His early training was in Antwerp. Desjardins left his homeland as a teenager, moving to Paris sometime in the 1650s where he remained the rest of his life. Unlike the painters mentioned before, being a sculptor, Desjardin's work was bound to be more limited. His early work in Paris was mostly cemetery sculpture (a popular, if rather morose, fad at the time). After some twenty years paying his dues, so to speak, carving funerary monuments, Desjardins was admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1871 on the basis of a high relief work titled Hercules Crowned (below).

Hercules Crowned, 1671,  Martin Desjardins
Around 1667, Louis XIV started a nasty little dustup with the Spanish, who at the time ruled the Netherlands. One little war led to another and for the next eleven years much of Europe was embroiled in what we might call World War Zero. It's a long, messy story but in general France won with the signing of the Treaty of Nijmegen by France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Prussia, Sweden, Denmark, the Holy Roman Empire, and for some odd reason, the Bishopric of Munster.

During the French Revolution Desjardin's figures were moved to the Invalides for safe keeping. The king? He got melted down.
The whole grandiose monument
remained in place for less
than a hundred years.
What has all that to do with Martin Desjardins? Well, Louis XIV had an ego the size of Versailles, and he liked to gloat. He commissioned a giant standing sculpture of himself in the Place des Victoires, in Paris. Ornamenting the base of Desjardins' monument to Louis XIV was a group of four of gilded bronze figures, known as the Four Captive Nations (below) each of which France had defeated in the early years of the war (top). Spain was portrayed by a hand-some, semi-nude youthful figure repre-senting hope. Holland was seen by Desjardins as a struggling warrior repre-senting rebellion. Brandenburg (Prussia) was depicted as an aging figure lost in grief, while the Holy Roman Empire was seen as an old man representing resign-ation. Not only did the figures represent nations and their perceived state of mind, but also the four ages of man.

Regardless of medium and mode, Martin Desjardins was
an adept master of his crafter from free-standing marble (bottom) to bronze bas-relief.
Mounted on the base of the king's gilded image were two bronze plates, also by Desjardins, depicting The Treaty of Nijmegen and the Passage of the Rhine (above). The monument did not survive the French Revolution. Louis XIV was melted down by one side or the other to be fired at the other side. Desjardins' sculptural grouping had long been something of an embarrassing insult to the nations depicted as new alliances were forged. During the fighting in the streets of Paris, The Four Defeated Nations was removed to the Invalides for safekeeping and in 1961 to the grounds of the Château de Sceaux on the outskirts of Paris. Since 1992, the bronze figures, now minus their gold leaf, have been residence of the Louvre (though I don't recall seeing them there).

Diana the Huntress, 1680, Martin
Desjardins, from the Fontaine
de Diane, Versailles


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