Conceived in 1947, the towering form of La grande baigneuse captures the monumental, flowing contours and elegant poise that characterized Henri Laurens’s mature style. During the mid-1920s, the artist had turned away from the planar and angular aesthetic of his early cubist sculpture, adopting a more organic and biomorphic approach to form in his work. The result was a new lyrical approach to the female form, infused with a luxuriant sensuality and inherent grace that would dominate his art for decades.
When I begin a sculpture, I only have a vague idea of what I want to do… Before being a representation of whatever it may be, my sculpture is a plastic act and, more precisely, a series of plastic events, products of my imagination, answers to the demands of the making.”
Laurens’s return to carving in the round following the end of the First World War led him to draw upon and rethink the French modernist traditions of the female nude. In looking to the past for inspiration, Laurens was not alone—at this time, a “return to order” dominated the avant-garde. In contrast to the individualistic and radical styles of the pre-war period, artists increasingly sought to imbue their art with a sense of tradition, harmony and clarity. The revival of the aesthetics, themes and subjects of classicism emerged in the work of a wide range of artists: from Picasso’s monumental Neo-Classical nudes to Léger’s mechanically inspired women in classical poses. As a result, Laurens became interested in the form of the figure as a whole, instead of as a composite of different parts, and sought to “[open] up the volume and [create] a flowing interpenetration of torso and limbs” (quoted in W. Hofmann and D.-H. Kahnweiler, op. cit., New York, 1970, p. 42).
Laurens’ work is a living force that does not speak. What serenity of power!”
To achieve this end, Laurens moved to working in bronze during the 1930s, exploiting the tensile strength of the material in order to explore a new sense of space in his sculptures. When Brassaï visited Laurens’s atelier to take photographs for an article on sculptors’ studios for Minotaure, the artist explained “how bronze, a more supple and malleable medium than stone, had permitted him to be more daring, to move away from a static geometric Cubism consisting entirely of angles and toward a more dynamic and plastic lyricism created by rounded shapes and undulating lines” (Brassaï, quoted in The Great Curve. Henri Laurens 1885-1954: Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum Beelden aan Zee, The Hague, 2014,p. 51). As a direct result, sculptures such as La grande baigneuse center around a dynamic play between the full, rounded forms of the figure, and the voids which punctuate its expanse, generating an organic, rhythmic dynamism within the sculpture.
Laurens’s female figures would remain robustly voluptuous throughout his mature period and, in accordance with classical principles, he placed an increasing emphasis on large and fully integrated figures meant to be viewed from a variety of angles. In La grande baigneuse, the rounded volumes of the figure reflect Laurens’s desire to create a sculptural fullness which lends a sense of calm stability and monumentality to his work. As he proclaimed: “I aspire to ripeness of form. I should like to succeed in making it so full, so juicy, that nothing could be added” (“A Statement,” in Henri Laurens, exh. cat., The Hayward Gallery, London, 1971, p. 19). Here, the sinuous lines of the bather’s body flow into one another, down through the gentle sweep of her arm as it meets her torso, and on to the generous curves of her hips.
A cast of the present sculpture is on permanent loan to Städel Museum, Frankfurt.
Lot Essay Header Image: Henri Laurens in his studio, January 1950. Photograph by Robert Doisneau. Photo: Robert Doisneau / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images. Artwork: © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP,