Berlioz by Dantan jeune, 1833. Photo courtesy of  Talabardon & Gautier.
© Talabardon & Gautier / Art Digital Studio

The best portraits are perhaps those in which there is a slight mixture of caricature. . . . Something is lost in accuracy; but much is gained in effect.

—Lord Macaulay, Machiavelli (1828)

One of the more unusual items in the Bibliothèque Nationale’s manuscript collection is an autograph album containing a number of songs, tiny piano pieces, or musical themes, all dedicated to the album’s owner.

Its first few pages have autographs from several famous composers, Rossini, Berlioz, and Donizetti among them. The remaining ninety-some items were contributed by violinists like Paganini and Vieuxtemps, pianists like Chopin and Liszt, and singers like Pauline Viardot and Maria Malibran. While some of the dedications are friendly and personal, others are more formal, suggesting that their authors took a little care with what they wrote. Given the formidable personality of their recipient, this was perhaps unsurprising. “Make no mistake,” warned the dandy Roger de Beauvoir, “this is a man not to be treated lightly.”

The owner of the album, Jean-Pierre Dantan, better known as Dantan jeune (“the younger”), invented the statuette charge—the “caricature sculpture”—and created dozens and dozens of them parodying some of the most famous figures of the day. One could buy them in a few galleries, but it was much more fun to shop in Dantan’s sunlit studio-shop in the Cité d’Orléans, right by Chopin’s apartment, where they and his more serious sculptures were displayed in macabre fashion under stuffed crocodiles, snakes, predatory birds, and death masks suspended from the skylight.

Dantan’s charges never fail to make us smile.

Though Dantan sculpted his famous personalities from all walks of life—medicine, literature, the stage, industrialists and savants, and prominent English—his musical charges are the most delightful of his work. These days we may not often recognize the names of many of Dantan’s subjects; nonetheless their charges never fail to make us smile—and even laugh out loud.

His early career was aimless but lively. At nine, he was apprenticed to his father, who earned his living by wood carving for churches; he also played the violin to accompany dance classes. By sixteen he was restoring stonework in the basilica of Saint-Denis, the ancient burial-place of French kings. In his early twenties he was helping ornament various churches and public buildings in northern France, absorbing their baroque detail and intricacies. By 1825 he was working under the direction of Pierre-Luc Ciceri, the chief set designer for the Paris Opéra and Peintre du Roi. In carrying out his duties as a supervisor of Charles X’s coronation ceremonies, Ciceri had the young Dantan help ornament the royal carriage.

While these projects helped build his technique and reputation, they were a bit more artisanal than artiste for Dantan’s liking. “For a long time,” he wrote, “I worked in marble, leaving me a little time each day to do some figure modeling.” These models got him admitted to the École des Beaux Arts, where he briefly studied with Baron Bosio, a famous public sculptor. While studying at the Beaux Arts, Dantan and his more seriously inclined older brother lived at La Childebert, a decrepit old dump in Saint-Germain-des-Prés that had housed generations of art students and which was as much of a hothouse for Romantic art as the Bateau-Lavoir would be for Picasso and Braque seventy years later. An amusing and gregarious student, Dantan was quite the viveur. He belonged to a famous drinking club whose initiation rites, for starters, included a three-day qualifying binge, and he was one of the students—maybe the student—who created the nez de Bouginier, a caricature of a fellow student’s enormous nose that Dantan and his friends drew on buildings all over Paris and on roads and buildings every few miles down to southern France and the Pyramids. (Until quite recently, an example of the nez could still be seen in the Passage du Caire in the second arrondissement.)

Though he had received a certain amount of official recognition (he exhibited at the 1826 Salon and won a medal for sculpture at the Beaux Arts), Dantan found it hard to make a living. The market for public commemorative sculpture, though lucrative, was hard to break into, particularly for one without political connections and lacking favorable press reviews. Disappointed with his lack of success, Dantan decided in 1828 to accompany his brother to Italy (tracing the nez on roadside buildings all the way) when the latter won the Prix de Rome, the annual prize given by the French Academy to its most promising artists, sculptors, architects, and musicians. The brothers stayed at the Villa Medici, whose patron was the popular portraitist and landscape painter, Horace Vernet. Horace’s father, Carle, himself a famous painter, also lived in the Villa. (Amusingly, Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” claimed to be a grandson of one of the Vernet daughters.)

This was all red meat for Dantan. Not the least intimidated by the fact that he wasn’t the laureate, or by the reputation of the Vernets and the Villa’s other pensionnaires (among them Antoine Etex, the sculptor of bas reliefs on the Arc de Triomphe, and Hector Berlioz), he charmed them all with his witty and punning conversation. He so delighted the Vernets that they introduced him to Pius VIII, who agreed to sit for a full-length sculpture. In his time at the Villa, he also created a clever charge of Carle Vernet (whose painting specialty was horses and racetrack scenes), with a long horsey neck and mane.

Even before arriving in Rome, however, Dantan had been working on a handful of charges, though several of these have disappeared. A surviving statuette was of the remarkable armless painter Louis Ducornet, showing him as a stumpy, snub-nosed figure wearing an empty-sleeved robe and a huge toothy grin. Though the gargoyle-like charge certainly displays Dantan’s caricatural gifts, its static quality has little in common with the grace and flow of his later efforts. His time in Rome changed that by showing him how to animate his figures with life and movement.

Dantan began receiving invitations to Ciceri’s Sunday evening receptions.

Returning to Paris in 1830, he was no richer or more successful than when he left. Nevertheless, the Vernets had been busy writing to their well-connected friends back home about the clever and amusing Dantan jeune. He made a charge of the tiny painter François Lépaulle showing him with frizzy hair and a huge mustache on a rat’s body. He began receiving invitations to Ciceri’s Sunday evening receptions and did his reputation no harm by keeping his fellow guests laughing with his running chatter and witty impromptu caricatures. One evening, as a host-gift, Dantan brought Ciceri a charge caricaturing his curly hair and prominent chin on a jovially scrunched-up face—which brought howls of laughter, not least (fortunately) from his host. A few days later Ciceri proudly carried his new gift over to the even more elevated salon of Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso (she with the skull-and-crossbone ornamented chapel, the torch-lit bedroom catafalque, and—allegedly—the mummified former lover upstairs in her fabulous hôtel particulier) on the rue d’Anjou. Over the next few years, Countess Belgiojoso would indulge in a little light exercise with a number of Paris’s most famous intellectuals, several of whom were present when Ciceri unwrapped his charge. There and then, they decided that life could not go on without being caricatured, and Dantan was soon besieged with fifty commissions. Increasingly (as Chopin’s correspondence shows) Dantan was asked for copies, the better to distribute to family, friends, and miscellaneous devotees. After that, things pretty much took off. Before long, his caricatures of Luigi Lablache, a famous bass, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas were selling at Susse Frères, a stationer and gift shop in the Passage des Panoramas near the old Paris Opéra. This was something new—before the 1830s, sculpture never had much popular appeal because of its expense, but Dantan’s beautifully rendered and irreverent celebrity parodies changed all that.

Dantan knew that if he were to make a living from his charges, they would have to be cheap and plentiful, so he mass-produced terracotta versions finished with a marble or bronze patina. Priced from five to ten francs on average, they sold well. And he soon realized that he had other ways to popularize his work. Through his connections with Charles Philipon, publisher of the ribald and often-raided political magazines Charivari and La Caricature, he began to advertise for subscriptions to the Musée Dantanorama, a lithographed version of his charges. Delivered in monthly installments, the lithographs were done by Philipon’s caricaturists, including the imaginative J. J. Grandville and Honoré Daumier. These were so popular that, in 1839, Louis Huart successfully published a collection of these with a texte explicative et biographique for each lithographed celebrity. Within a few years of his triumph chez Belgiojoso, Dantan could move from his dingy attic rooms in the rue Saint Martin to the rue Saint-Lazare (paying his rent in busts) and eventually to the Cité d’Orléans, where Hugo, George Sand, and all number of the musical beau monde were his neighbors.

During the cholera epidemic of 1832, depressed Parisians cheered themselves up by strolling past Susse’s shop in the Passage des Panoramas to chuckle at Dantan’s charges in the window. As Prosper Viro (a pseudonym, possibly for one of Dantan’s friends) put it in his book Charges et Bustes de Dantan Jeune: Esquisse Biographique (1869):

He was a friend, so clearly told by God

When France was struck so hard by plague and mob

To make us laugh, throughout those dreary days

When our future seemed to hold just grief and haze . . .

His truly was a gift of health and life

His heartbalm touch of glee and pure delight . . .

You must recall those stormy moments past

That often bent the strongest of our wills

But it was him who tried to make us laugh

When seeing there, behind the veil of glass

Of Susse’s shop in the Panoramas:

Ligier, on stage as devious Louis Onze,

So stern, but with that silly coat and hat

And clever Charlet, sideburns all shaved off

And Habeneck, enthroned on his bass drum

Musard with fiddle and his rousing brass

Perrot so thin; Nourrit so tall and wide

Cash-swoll’n Véron, clutching his enema

“Thanks, Dantan,” you wrote, and in doing tempted fate

By causing us to smile, despite the cholera’s cruel weight.

Lizst by Dantan jeune, 1836. Photo courtesy of  Talabardon & Gautier.
© Talabardon & Gautier / Art Digital Studio

England, too, was amused by Dantan’s charges, and it appears that some dealers (perhaps Agnew or Tilt) talked Dantan into coming to London to try his hand. He must have also sensed a post-Waterloo market in Paris for English caricatures, as he spent much of 1833 and 1834 creating charges of a number of notables, including a rather dim-looking King William IV, a haughty Lord Somerville, a surprisingly benevolent Duke of Wellington, two Irish politicians much the worse for drink, a bewigged Lord Brougham, an impossibly long-legged Earl Grey, an unflattering group of toffs at the opera (La loge anglais), and a contorted, lamprey-mouthed Nathan Rothschild clutching at an enormous pile of coins and banknotes. As a rule, Dantan’s caricatures were pointed but amusing to most of his victims (with the notable exception of the soprano, Maria Malibran, who burst into tears when she saw herself in terracotta). But he may have somehow stepped over the line in England as he had to make a hasty exit. He would not make that mistake again.

Dantan’s caricatures were pointed but amusing to most of his victims.

Adding to the charges’ whimsy was how Dantan identified their subjects. On his formal busts, Dantan placed the subject’s surname in traditional fashion on the base. But for his charges he invented an ingenious rebus-language (remember that he was a great punner). Some are complex and obscure and remain undeciphered. Others, though, are relatively straightforward. On the base of a charge of the pianist Franz Liszt, we see a bed (un lit) and the letters “t” and “z” (thus: li + TZ)—the French could never pronounce Liszt’s name. On Berlioz’s we see the letters ber, then a bed, this one high (haut) up the base (thus: ber +li + oh). Adolphe Jaime’s (j’aime, “I like”) charge bears the Latin “Amo.”

Halévy by Dantan jeune, 1832. Photo courtesy of  Talabardon & Gautier.
© Talabardon & Gautier / Art Digital Studio

Others were more complex. On Dantan’s own self-charge we see a tooth (dent) and a figure of a young (jeune) Father Time (temps) (thus: dahn + tahn + jeune). The rebus on the charge of François Castil-Blaze (the Parisian music critic whom Dantan shows straddling Rossini’s shoulders, picking through his hair as if searching for ideas) is xxx (as he signed his anonymous reviews). One of the neatest was created for the composer Fromenthal Halévy, who bet Dantan that his name was un-rebus-able. Dantan used a seesaw with an “a” at one end raising up (lever) an “i” at the other (thus: ah + lève + ee). Or the charge of Louis Véron, the director of the Paris Opéra, with its rounded V, two crossed bones (deux os), a P, and a rat (thus: vay rond + des Os + pay + ra).

Some of his best charges are from the 1830s. His 1833 charge of Berlioz is a psychological study of the tortured Romantic with an enormous beak of a nose and hooded eyes in a brooding, pensive face, almost hidden under the weight of an enormous head of hair seething with snakes. Dantan captured the Zen-like style of the pianist Sigismond Thalberg by showing his impassive, upright posture at the keyboard, the only suggestion of Thalberg’s prodigious sound production being his twenty blurred fingers. Seeing the popularity of the Thalberg piece, a lesser pianist asked Dantan to create his own charge. Dantan smilingly agreed, but the order was withdrawn when the pianist discovered that Dantan’s take was to have him play with only one finger per hand.

Liszt, Thalberg’s great rival, was a favorite Dantan victime, being the subject of no less than five charges. One, a real beauty, shows Liszt in the ecstasy of performance; another shows him striking a chord at the top of a run, chin jutting away from his hands but with the corner of his eyes remaining on you, coolly observing your reaction. A third shows him swaying at the piano, skinny and bug-like, with his face hidden by his shoulder-length hair. A fourth is almost identical, but has Liszt wearing a sword bearing the word peste (“nuisance”? A reference to Liszt’s Hungarian birth?). After Liszt complained about the hair, Dantan produced a fifth charge, almost an order of magnitude hairier. At that point, Liszt declared victory and retreated; in the autograph album he thanks Dantan for his latest charge and encloses a recital ticket in gratitude. But he gave the offending statuettes to his concierge.

Dantan shows Fromenthal Halévy as a jowly little boy in skirts with a huge head, sideburns, and glasses, a reference to his musical precocity. The Herz brothers (Henri and Jacques) are shown playing four hands with slick Henri as primo, head flung back and tilted to the right, left hand finishing a glissando run underneath the massive head of his brother, Jacques, bowed forward in concentration. Their rebus of two hearts (Herz, heart in German) is on the base. The disembodied head of the music critic Edouard Fétis is shown atop a long pole (where many musicians must have imagined their critics’ heads belonged). The great cellist Auguste Franchomme, who performed with Chopin, is a diminutive figure astride the top of a huge cello, leaning down to bow while clinging to the fingerboard. The bodies of the violinists Jean-Baptiste Tolbecque and Théodore Haumann are the instruments themselves with their stark heads emerging from the violin’s neck. The singers Adolphe Nourrit and Nicolas Levasseur are shown in the final scene of Robert le Diable, with the devil (Levasseur) trying to persuade his son to come enjoy Hell with him, and the wide-eyed son (Nourrit) deliberating in anguish. Each charge is a psychological study of the role, and, together, the two statuettes makes the scene’s dramatic power quite potent.

Jacques & Henri Herz by Dantan jeune, 1836. Photo courtesy of  Talabardon & Gautier.
© Talabardon & Gautier / Art Digital Studio

He had an amazingly quick eye. The Paganini charge was done despite the violinist’s strenuous efforts to prevent it. The result, easily the most recognized of Dantan’s statuettes, shows the violinist’s characteristically sinuous form, rapt concentration, left hip bearing the weight of his upper body and his enormous spider-like left hand extending almost to the f-holes. It was achieved by Dantan hiding in the prompter’s box at the Paris Opéra when Paganini was playing there. He executed a number of commissions surreptitiously, posing as a delivery man, a passenger on a bus, and a fellow customer to get the few precious moments he needed to capture and caricature a likeness. Some of his charges were made weeks and months after observation, the subject’s details being perfectly remembered.

Dantan was as much a virtuoso as his subjects.

After his experiences with English political satire, Dantan largely avoided tickling the tails of French politicians. One reason could have been his wish to avoid the wrath visited by the French government on the likes of Philipon and Daumier for their political caricatures, but the more likely reason is he had little time for doctrinaire causes. His sense of the ridiculous extended to individuals in his milieu—and not to politics. Time and again he was called on to lend his talent to political ends, and time and again he remained silent. When he was awarded the Légion d’honneur, a magazine observed, “My dear, you weren’t decorated as much for the caricatures that you did as you were for the ones that you didn’t.”

By the mid-1840s, Dantan’s charges were appearing on curtains, napkins, lampshades, and on walking sticks and pipes. He was wealthy enough that he could afford to focus more on his formal sculpture which, his critics claimed, had not nearly the interest of his charges. He kept a studio-showroom in the Cité d’Orléans next to Chopin’s apartment that he populated with hundreds of his charges and busts. Dressed in a quilted robe and smoking hat, he entertained friends in extravagant parties and what he termed his fumeries au milieu de mes plâtres. He also began assembling a more private collection, that of curiosa for the amusement of his male friends. It was so large that, after Chopin died in 1849, Dantan took over his multi-roomed apartment for the express purpose of storing it there—a fact little mentioned in Chopin’s biographies.

Late in life, he married a proper young lady, and the devilish humor so characteristic of his early charges almost completely disappeared. Much of his more academically styled work dates from this time. And, inevitably, the tastes of the Second Empire moved away from Dantan’s grotesque view of his subjects. Gustave Flaubert brought the Goncourt brothers over to admire the musée, and they quickly dismissed it as “a Pantheon of the Ugly” and damned Dantan as a tired-out holdover from times past. The proper young lady he married may have taken a similarly dim view of his work as it appears that she destroyed all of the molds of his charges, his collection of curiosa, and other memorabilia, which partially explains the scarcity of material on Dantan.

But not everyone forgot how much hilarity he stirred, or how much new life he infused in an old art. His widow’s heirs donated the contents of the musée Dantan to the Carnavalet Museum, which has published a catalogue raisonée and where we can see them today. Averaging only about a foot or so high, they are loaded with character: funny, sly, occasionally malicious, and always clever. Viewed singly or in small groups, they give us a strong sense of their musician-subjects’ personalities and, at their best, vividly show the concentration and intensity of musical performance. Dantan was clearly as much a virtuoso in his medium as his subjects were in theirs.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 6, on page 14
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