Lorenzo Bartolini’s The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz

Holly Trusted, Senior Curator of Sculpture at the V&A, tells us about a recent acquisition by the museum. Holly is also a member of the steering panel for Art UK’s sculpture project, which will enable people to discover fascinating sculptures like this in public collections across the UK.

This remarkable sculpture by the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini (1777–1850) is an outstanding addition to the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland and the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was acquired jointly by Edinburgh and London in 2015, with the generous assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund. The sculpture is a lively visual evocation of music and dance, as well as a charming portrait of the two sisters: a full-length portrait in marble of these vivacious young women in an affectionate embrace. The gnarled tree trunk between them is inscribed with the sculptor’s name and a dedication to the British artist John Flaxman (1755–1826): ‘BARTOLINI / FECE / E DEDICÒ / FLAXMAN’. The whole is set on a circular white marble plinth adorned with garlands of flowers.

Bartolini image

The two dancing figures depict Emma and Julia Campbell, the youngest daughters of Lady Charlotte Campbell, who was herself the youngest daughter of the 5th Duke of Argyll. Lady Charlotte’s husband, John Campbell, had died in 1809, leaving his widow with eight children. In 1816, having served as lady-in-waiting to Caroline, Princess of Wales for several years, Lady Charlotte moved to Florence, partly evidently in order to save money. There in 1818 she married the Reverend Edward John Bury, formerly tutor to her eldest son. Emma and Julia Campbell still lived with their mother, but it seems unlikely that she alone ordered the group, since she enjoyed only a small income, and the cost, according to Bartolini’s accounts, was 500 luigi, about £500. The sculptor recorded that it was commissioned by the sitters’ brother. But the eldest son of Lady Charlotte, Walter Campbell (1798–1855), appears to be an unlikely patron. More plausibly the young women’s uncle, Lady Charlotte’s brother, the 6th Duke of Argyll, could have commissioned it.

After the death of Antonio Canova in 1822, Bartolini was arguably the greatest living Italian sculptor, although his contemporary reputation was ambivalent, mainly for political reasons. Nevertheless, once the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844) had left Rome for Copenhagen in 1838, the Florentine artist was virtually without a rival in the field of sculpture in his native land until his death in 1850. Specialising in portraiture, but also producing mythological and genre subjects in marble, Bartolini combined a pure classicist style with the naturalism which came from his training and working in France.

Born near Prato, Bartolini initially trained as an alabaster carver in Volterra, and then enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. In 1797 he settled in Paris, where he continued his training as both a painter and sculptor, and became a close friend of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). The two artists occupied a studio formerly used by the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), whose austere neo-classical style profoundly influenced the two younger artists.

Bartolini gained many influential patrons in Paris, not least Napoleon, whose portrait in bronze he executed in 1805. In 1806 he left France to become Director of Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Carrara, which had been newly founded by Napoleon’s sister, Eliza, Princess of Piombo and Grand Duchess of Tuscany. With the disintegration of Napoleon’s rule in 1813, Eliza was dethroned, and Bartolini, closely associated with the Napoleonic régime, fled to Livorno, his studio in Carrara having been looted. Eventually, after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, Bartolini returned to Florence, where he thrived as a society sculptor, though his past active support for Napoleon meant that he was unpopular amongst many of his compatriots. Meanwhile his leanings towards a more naturalistic French style were seen by some to be at odds with the prevailing neo-classical language then in vogue. Mary Berry noted in 1817, he ‘makes very good likenesses in his busts, but he works to sell, and not to immortalise his name.’ Among his eminent sitters were Byron, Liszt, Rossini, and Anatole Demidoff.

Bartolini was in fact an eclectic and complex artist, enamoured of the Florentine quattrocento, as well as neo-classical purity and naturalistic observation. Moreover he greatly admired the British sculptor John Flaxman (1755–1826) (as did Ingres), as can be seen from the inscribed dedication on the plinth of the present group. Flaxman’s drawings and engravings, notably his illustrations to Homer, were praised above all by his contemporaries. As this implies, the British artist was most often emulated by his Continental peers because of his command of draughtsmanship and the relief form. Perhaps here, in a figure group which was full of movement and emphatically three-dimensional, Bartolini felt nonetheless indebted to his older British contemporary because of the complex and controlled design of the whole. Possibly too Flaxman’s British nationality was seen to be in harmony with that of the sitters.

Bartolini had a life-long interest in music, and apparently sang to the accompaniment of Ingres playing the violin. The French painter was indeed in Florence at the time The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz was carved, since Bartolini had invited him to come to Tuscany from Paris. The present group could also be seen as a counterpoint to Canova’s celebrated Three Graces, (also co-owned by the National Galleries of Scotland and the V&A). But in reality Bartolini’s sculpture is unique, not only in comparison to the output of his predecessors and contemporaries, but even within his own oeuvre.

This sculpture is the only example of a major commission of a figure group from a British patron given to the artist, who was to become one of the leading European sculptors of his day. Because Bartolini devoted much of his career to the production of portrait busts, this superlative full-length piece stands out as an exceptional work: it is both animated and tender. It is of its time, in that it is an unmistakably early nineteenth-century work, but simultaneously breaks away from the conventional sculpted portrait, suggesting the youth and vibrancy of the two sisters. It is thus an admirable addition to the national collections of sculpture.

Dr Holly Trusted FSA, Senior Curator of Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum and member of the Art UK Sculpture Project steering panel

Image credit: the V&A.