Sculptor and draftsman, Johan Tobias Sergel, was a significant Northern European artist of the late eighteenth century. I like his work very much, little information exists about his life.
Self-portrait, with son Gustav and common-law wife, Anna-Rella Hellstrom, wash drawing, 1793.
Sergel was born on the 7th September 1740 and died in his native home of Stockholm, Sweden, in 1814. Johan was the court sculptor to King Gustaf III of Sweden and worked with the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. Sergel's work is regarded to have surpassed that of Thorvaldsen in the art of free-standing pieces.
Sergel was apprenticed in 1756 at age sixteen in Stockholm to court sculptor, Pierre Hubert L'Archeveque. Two years later, he traveled to Paris with Pierre where he studied at the French Academy of Art. Johan left for Rome on a state-sponsored scholarship at age 27, living and working there for eleven years, 1767- 1778. Upon arrival in Rome, he suffered from depression which lasted for four months. On entering the 'city of art, he was already an accomplished sculptor.
"Rome made him deeply aware that there were two avenues for a sculptor to follow; Antiquity or Nature itself."—Research attributed to; Anne- Marie Leander Touati, The Rediscovery of Antiquity: The Role of the Artist.
"A mon arrive a Rome, je vais qu'il n'y avait d'autre maître a suivre que l'Antique ou la Nature. J'etais assez avance pour voir que je me savais n'en. Et qu'il failloit recommencer a etudier comme on apront les premiers principa a un enfant."—from his diaries and letters
Johan spent his days studying at museums in Rome, as expected, and by night he studied models, drawing from life. After four years of intense academy study in Rome, Johan joined a group of international young artists who formed what they called a "special academy." The beginnings of Neoclassicism stirred within them.
Venus and Anchises, (Venus och Anchises), by Johan Tobias Sergel, n.d.
While in Rome he produced major groups of work in classical mythology and a hugely ambitious piece, History, which depicted the accomplishments of Gustavus Adolphus before the Chancellor Oxenstierna.
Woman Climbing out of Bath, by Johan Tobias Sergel, n.d.
Sergel left for Stockholm in 1779 when summoned by Gustaf III to return to court as court sculptor, replacing his master Pierre Hubert L'Archeveque who was fatally ill at the time. On his way home to Sweden, he spent almost a year in Paris. It was here that Sergel presented a plaster piece Othryades the Spartan for admission to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, January 1779. No known marble version exists.
Othryades the Spartan, Dying, by Johan Tobias Sergel, c. 1740-1814.
Much of the work produced by Sergel in Rome preceded his arrival in Paris. Madame du Barry (mistress of Louis XV) and the Baron de Breteuil were among his Parisian collectors.
Mars and Venus, by Johan Tobias Sergel, 1775, plaster, Nationalmuseum Stockholm.
Venus swooning in the lap of her rescuer Mars—of course, she is! Art critics note the juxtaposition of a strong male body and the languid female, to be an obsession of Sergel's. Lots of his work possesses a serious degree of bawdy sexual humor. Johan was also adept and prolific at caricatures. His characters move with bold emotion and a jaunty stride.
I don't know about you, my dear reader, but the pointer finger on the left hand, looks suspiciously too long, as though Sergel's afterthought. As though he first sculpted the hand entirely on the grip of her derriere then decorum crept, and he extended the last joint like the pinky finger rides the air holding a gold-rimmed cup of tea when all you want to do is devour the person opposite you, not Earl Gray. Then again, one might interpret the index finger as a reference for the arrow that will in a moments time find its way home.
Dancing Bacchante, by Johan Tobias Sergel, crayon on paper, n.d.
Caricature of Frantz Christopher Henrik Hohlenberg (1764-1804), Danish shipbuilder and naval officer, by Johan Tobias Sergel, 1797.
A late 18th c. plaster sculpture candelabra after the model by Johan Tobias Sergel. (courtesy Bukowskis Auction House of Sweden)
Sergel experienced what critics call his "Hypochondriac Cycle" in 1795. In a short period, he lost both his dear friend and patron Gustaf III and his wife Anna- Rella Hellstrom in 1796. He produced copious amounts of work during his melancholy, dwelling on his fears, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide. It was a period of "reason versus madness" for Sergel. In our frailty, we are our most loveable, as in our strength we give inspiration.
Johan Tobias Sergel; Scene of Despair
"The similarity to Fuseli and Goya emerges all the more clearly in Sergel's urge to lay bare his private world through his art." — Maget Antoinette Trainee and Michel Regis, Musee Louvre.
Fauno, by Johan Tobias Sergel, 1774.