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Christophe Fratin (French, 1801-1864)

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Christophe Fratin was one of the earliest sculptors to exclusively depict animals as the central theme of his work, a subject matter that would eventually become known as the Animalier school. His sculpture is perhaps best characterized as being technically and anatomically exact while his ability to work creatively in the surface defined his oeuvre and makes his work immediately recognizable. Where the eye of his patrons had been trained by academic models of the 18th and 19th century to expect crisp chiseling, perfect surfaces and sinuous lines, Fratin departed from the norm with an impressionistic surface that sought to convey movement in these static objects. Almost model put forth by Fratin starts with motion and the movement of the body.

Surprisingly little is known about the life of Christophe Fratin. Most modern references note his birth in 1801, while older reference documents record his birth year as 1800 in Metz, France. His father was a naturalist and a taxidermist, a profession Fratin apprenticed in under his father until 1821. The early influence of his father's profession would impact Fratin's art throughout his life. A criticism of his early work that perhaps arose from this influence is the rigid modeling in his poses, almost as if the animal were being stuffed on his father's work-bench. 

Initially studying under Charles Augustin Pioche (French, 1762-1839), a local sculptor who had returned to Metz after a successful career, Fratin was frustrated by the senility of his tutor and moved to Paris. Here he worked in the studio of celebrated painter and sculptor Théodore Géricault, an adventurous artist with vision from whom he gained his lifelong affinity for equestrian subjects as well as his loose surface touch, likened in many ways to the heavy handed impasto of a loose paint brush in the hands of his teacher.

He exhibited at the Paris Salon from 1831 to 1842, with numerous models being recorded by Lami as being rejected towards the end of this period. Taking a break from exhibiting at Salon until after the Revolution, he began submitting work again from 1850 through 1862. The citation with his awarded medal during London's Great Exhibition of 1851 noted him as being the greatest animal sculptor of his day.

Unlike his contemporaries, Antoine-Louise Barye and Pierre Jules Mene, Christophe Fratin had no foundry of his own and relied on the services of Parisian foundries to cast his work for him. These he executed both in terra-cotta and bronze, though much of his terra-cotta work has not survived to the present. He is recorded as having terra-cotta models cast by Susse Freres as early as the 1830s. He funded at his own expense and also largely supervised the casting of a larger portion of his models by Quesnel through 1847, these being almost without exception of exquisite quality. Models were also cast later in his life by the houses of Thiebaut Freres, Daubré, Richard, Eck and Durand as well as Debraux D'Anglure.

While Fratin had great success in his own country, his equestrian models were incredibly popular with patrons in England and he received commissions from Austria, Germany and America. One of his best known commissions was for New York City, a bronze group of two eagles standing guard over their prey, a fallen ram. It is the oldest sculpture in Central Park, completed by Fratin in 1850 and installed in 1863. Fratin died at Raincy in Seine-et-Oise in August of 1864.

His equestrian models are largely regarded as some of his best works, but the series of bears engaged in human-like activities are highly sought-after by collectors - these are notably anthropomorphic, perhaps poking fun at the excesses of such emotional expression in his Romantic contemporaries in their depictions of animal subjects.  

Literature & Further Reading:

  • E. Benezit Dictionary of Artists, Vol. V, Gründ, 2006, p. 1044
  • Bronzes of the Nineteenth Century: A Dictionary of Sculptors, Pierre Kjellberg, p. 322-27
  • The Animaliers, James Mackay, p. 61-65, p. 146-47
  • The Bronzes of "Les Animaliers", Jane Horswell, p. 81
  • Art Bronze, Michael Forrest, p. 475
  • Animals in Bronze, Christopher Payne, 2002, p. 404
  • Dictionnaire des Sculpteurs de L'École Française, Vol. II, Stanislas Lami, p. 403-405