Michel Lefftz, Jean Del Cour 1631-1707. Un émule du Bernin à Liège. [Cat. exh. Église Saint-Barthélemy, Liège, October 19, 2007 – February 3, 2008.] Brussels: Édition Racine, 2007. 192 pp, 249 illus. ISBN 978-2-87386-462-0.
Michel Lefftz, Traits baroques. Les dessins de sculpteurs baroques liègeois du Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins de la Ville de Liège [Cat. exh. Cabinet des Estampes, Liège, October 19, 2007 – February 3, 2008.] Liège: La Société royale Le Vieux Liège, 2007. 74 pp, 55 illus. No ISBN.
Michel Lefftz’s book on the Liège-based sculptor Jean Del Cour accompanied an exhibition of the same name at the church of St. Bartholomew (famous for its romanesque font) at Liège. The book is however an independent catalogue raisonné in the classic format of a discursive half that addresses (after a brief historiographic chapter) the life and career of Del Cour in a chronological way, with many refined and elaborate stylistic analyses, particularly of the draperies, of which the author gives a typological explanation to justify his attributions. This part ends with a short but informative chapter on the creative and production processes of Del Cour’s sculpture. The second part of the book consists of the catalogue raisonné proper, divided into the three sections of preserved, destroyed and rejected works. The bibliography of each entry is divided according to the type of attribution (authograph, workshop, etc.).
In the introduction, Michel Lefftz starts by affirming that Del Cour is not just the most studied sculptor, but the most studied artist from Liège, from the nineteenth century onwards. An exhibition and publication were organized in 1909 and René Lesuisse published his PhD thesis on Del Cour in 1953. This was followed by a series of articles and by the PhD thesis of Michel Lefftz in 1998 that encompassed the complete “baroque school of sculpture” at Liège, with thirteen sculptors’ monographs, including that of Del Cour, and a catalogue of 1,500 sculptures.
Nevertheless, the ravages of time have left many questions unanswered. For instance, despite the fact that Del Cour returned from Rome to Liège in 1661 and that he received a commission for an important work by the city authorities barely two years later (the bronze crucifix for the Pont des Arches over the Meuse river, today in the cathedral), he only entered the guild of the masons and stonecutters in 1668 and without paying the normal dues, his works for the city apparently giving him sufficient credit to be exempted. As for all thirty-two professions at Liège, Del Cour should have been registered as a master before being able to accept commissions independently and being able to operate as a merchant for materials such as stone and marble – which he would presumably do later on, when he became the tenant of a black marble quarry at Theux. It is surprising that Del Cour would have registered with the masons and stonecutters first, as he was in the first instance a sculptor in wood, particularly in the soft and regular limewood, that was then polychromed to increase the visual effect (and often to hide defective materials). Is he not more likely to have obtained the mastership first with the woodworkers (even though the earliest mention of him in that guild dates from 1678 concerning a conflict about the number of journeymen he was allowed to employ)? Subsequently receiving (for free!) the mastership in the other guild would have resolved the frequent difficulty sculptors faced between the sixteenth and the eighteenth century: that of having to choose between the two families of materials (stone vs. wood) despite the fact that sculptors typically worked in both in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the Low Countries, this conflict was only resolved in a small number of cities, of which Antwerp was the most prominent. There, in 1607 and after a long battle, sculptors were allowed to choose their guild, which meant that they could join the artists’ guild of St. Luke and abandon the guild of the masons and stonecutters, while continuing to work in all materials.
The fact that Del Cour went to Rome – still unusual for sculptors at that time – no doubt also changed his relations to the guilds in the first few years of his career. As there are no works preserved from before his Italian sojourn, it remains speculative as to where Del Cour got his inspiration for his so-called Berninesque style. It should be noted that relations to Algardi’s work (p. 25) do exist and that Del Cour merely understood and reflected on the use of wind in his draperies as a sign of divine presence (e.g., p. 66), but that there remain many differences in the conceptions of draperies between Bernini and Del Cour – as much as between their use of antique models and styles –, beautifully shown in the juxtaposition with the angel of Bernini’s Santa Teresa (p. 41). That Del Cour studied Bernini’s works at first hand is beyond doubt, but any collaboration remains unlikely in the competitive industry of art of seventeenthcentury Roman sculpture.
Back at Liège, Del Cour developed business practices that were dependent on the guild regulations (as seen above only up to a point!), the usual materials (polychromed limewood) and especially his own meticulous character. On the basis of a late copy of a summary account book (his “livre de raison”) and the works themselves, Michel Lefftz distinguishes the opposing practices of Del Cour and his main competitor Arnold Hontoire. Del Cour only had one faithful assistant, Jean Hans, a technically competent but unaccomplished artist, who subsequently inherited the studio and continued producing works after his master’s models. Hontoire, on the other hand, preferred increasing his capacity by attracting a series of able sculptors to collaborate with him (pp. 108-09). In so doing, Michel Lefftz usefully destroys the myth of a “school” of Del Cour, by reducing it to a single follower, Jean Hans, and to a lesser extent to Hans’s own main pupil, Jacques Vivroux. This also implies, that apart from a few important works in marble, Del Cour was able to keep his business running with minimal help. He was apparently sufficiently proficient and speedy to accomplish the wood carving alone.
Although extremely few drawings by Del Cour have survived – and this is of course not sufficient ground for inferring his use or not of the drawn medium in the creative and production processes, let us not forget that his drawings may simply not have survived, as is the case with Louis-François Roubiliac’s drawings that are recorded all to have gone up in flames – their function is clear enough to show that Del Cour realized the importance of drawings as a tool for gaining commissions. The drawings in the slim but complete catalogue of sculptors’ drawings in the Cabinet des Estampes of Liège also testify to his collaboration with the painter Englebert Fisen. Instead, Del Cour’s use of clay for modelling first thoughts as well as more properly finished models can fully be followed in the exceptionally rich legacy of his terracotta works, now nearly all in Liège public ownership. The chapter on the creative and production processes goes into detail to describe the use and function of these terracottas. Alas, not a single case survived whereby two stages in terracotta survived for the same sculpture, which would have allowed to plot the use of clay for both compositional (for the artist) and presentation (for the patron) purposes.
Further technical analyses of these terracottas, comparing them to those by Bernini (e.g., those of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard) and to those by Antwerp and Brussels sculptors could yield substantial further knowledge of the way Del Cour conceived his sculptures. Similarly, studying the relations between Liège and Antwerp, especially through patronage, for instance at the abbey of Herckenrode, where there were works both by Del Cour and Artus Quellinus the Younger should complete the picture of a highly innovative artist, who developed a remarkable personal style in an artistic milieu that is usually seen as quite separate from the rest of the Low Countries.
We should hope that this concise and precise book that fills a gap left for fifty years, will only be the first in a row, so that the other sculptors studied in Michel Lefftz’s PhD thesis get published in the near future (Michel Lefftz, La sculpture baroque liégeoise: Simon Cognoulle, Jean Del Cour, Guillaume Evrard, Antoine-Pierre Franck, Jean Hans, Arnold Hontoire, Jean-François Louis, Antoine-Marin Mélotte, Renier Rendeux, Gérard Vander Planck, Cornélis Vander Veken, Robert Verburg, Jacques Vivroux, unpublished PhD thesis, Université Catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1998). At the same time, this book should prove to be an important asset in the preservation of the vulnerable heritage that most of Del Cour’s sculpture forms – including from the disastrous wish of many parishes to systematically repaint his sculptures.
Low Countries Sculpture Society