Every time I go to the Harvard Art Museums — which make 20-minute drop-ins a pleasure to rank with evening martinis (innocent suggestion: why not combine the two?) — I make sure to pass by this sculpture. It’s called “Tiger Attacking a Peacock,” and it’s by Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875).
If you like animals, it’s all but guaranteed you’ll like Barye. Harvard owns almost 50 of his sculptures, as well as several paintings and studies. They depict bears, camels, elephants, horses, bunnies, antelope, wolves, eagles, and elk.
This piece is my favorite. I like to see it from every angle, including from above, where its surprisingly long and slender body reads as an elegant ogee-curve, with a menacing tightening at one end, like the final, corkscrewing twist in a locker-room bully’s wet towel.
As a boy and well into adulthood, I was obsessed with big cats. I displayed posters and smooth wooden sculptures of tigers and leopards in my bedroom; I read books by Joy Adamson and Arjan Singh; I watched nature documentaries with titles like “Lions and Hyenas: Eternal Enemies,” and I could recite in my sleep facts about ocelots, servals, and Sumatran tigers.
Barye was more obsessed still. Trained as a goldsmith (he was the son of a silversmith), he spent many hours as a young man in the zoo at Paris’s Jardin des Plantes, making lively studies of animals in motion.
The idea of “movement” was one of the great catch cries of Romanticism. So it’s appropriate that at Harvard Barye’s “Tiger Attacking a Peacock” is surrounded by paintings by heroes of 19th-century Romanticism, including Gericault, Bonington, and Delacroix.
Romanticism came to sculpture 10 years after its emergence, in the 1820s, in painting. The belated charge was led by Jehan Duseigneur, with his twisting, agonized, windswept bronze, “Orlando Furioso,” and by Barye, with his “Tiger Devouring a Gavial.” (A gavial is a small crocodile from India.) Both sculptures caused a sensation at the Salon of 1831.
There was an immediate backlash. Conservative forces squashed much of the life out of ambitious Romantic sculpture over the next two decades. Barye duly moderated his approach by working on small-scale animal models, easily reproduced in bronze by mechanical means. He sold them to a middle-class clientele, but was always in financial strife.
This work, made between 1830 and 1840, was adapted from another, vertically oriented sculpture of a tiger climbing a tree. It was modeled in clay and then cast in plaster. Barye re-worked the plaster cast with yet more plaster and with wax, in an effort to get as much naturalistic texture and detail into it as possible. The result was this so-called “chef modele,” which was later cast in bronze in a small edition (only two are extant).
Purchased from a sale just after the artist’s death, and eventually given to Harvard by its great benefactor Grenville L. Winthrop, the chef modele has suffered damage along the way. The bill of the poor peacock — already, it would seem, in a bit of a jam — was at some point broken off, giving it the doomed and startled look of a cocaine-addicted socialite under a collapsed chaise longue.
TIGER ATTACKING A PEACOCK
By Antoine-Louis Barye. At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.