Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Sleeping Boy

Philippe Laurent Roland (French, Pont-à-Marc 1746–1816 Paris)
ca. 1774
Italian, Rome
Terracotta, painted white
Overall (confirmed): 22 9/16 × 14 × 10 1/8 in., 53.9 lb. (57.3 × 35.6 × 25.7 cm, 24.4 kg)
Credit Line:
Wrightsman Fund, 1990
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 552
Given the sculptor Philippe-Laurent Roland’s reverence for his master, Augustin Pajou, it is no surprise the terracotta Sleeping Boy shares the vivacity of Pajou’s Head of a Bearded Elder (acc. no. 2003.25). A young boy of about ten years has fallen asleep in an upright position. His right hand cradles his lolling head, while the left arm hides in drapery which circles from that shoulder to the other side. The fingers sink into the fleshy cheek and displace the lips from their normal position beneath the nose. These irregularities, along with the taut sinews of the hand and slightly disheveled hair, stand out against the smooth skin of his exposed torso.

The sculptor’s brilliantly observed, relaxed naturalism is all the more astonishing because the work was executed in Rome, where he was applying himself to rigorous study of antique art; however, James Draper, who first identified Sleeping Boy as one of Roland’s three known Roman sculptures, noted that ancient sculptures of sleeping boys may have served the artist as a precedent. He also pointed out that it is, in fact, the genre studies of painters like Jean-Baptiste Greuze that lie behind Roland’s intentions here.[1] From an account by Roland’s star pupil, Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, we know that the master modeled this and another half-length study, Old Man Sleeping, in Rome between 1771 and 1776.[2] Comparison of the two is enough to convince us that the artist was interested in their complementary natures, even if he did not intend them as formal pendants. The old man also rests head on hand, and details of bulging veins and wrinkled knuckles underscore his age. The greater width of Old Man Sleeping and the sound placement of the two arms, both of which are visible, reveal the relative precariousness of the boy’s pose, accentuated by the tall, irregular self-base and the drapery slipping off one shoulder. One senses that he may tip to one side and jolt awake, unlike the old man, who is firmly anchored in place.

Sleeping Boy is painted white, probably to cover firing cracks that are obvious in the unpainted Old Man Sleeping and possibly to give a patron the idea of what the clay would look like if translated into marble. The direct modeling of the clay makes it apparent that the terracotta was a study for, rather than after, a finished work. One was, in fact, carved: it is apparently the "little sleeper, marble" listed under the date 1774 in a manuscript of Roland’s work prepared for his family after 1847.[ 3] This suggests a dating of the terracotta to the period after Roland arrived in Rome in 1771 but before the carving of the marble in 1774. An old photograph of the marble shows that the artist eliminated the high socle of our terracotta in favor of a short, circular one and reinforced the elbow with more drapery. That support stabilized the boy’s pose but removed some of its latent energy as well as the visual interest of the asymmetrical composition.[4] The making of a mold to cast a bronze version —  one is known in the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille —  may have caused portions of the socle to shear off.

The lifesize proportions of the terracotta and the keenly observed details add to the appeal of this vivacious portrait of the unknown child who posed for Roland. Several other works by the artist in the Museum’s collection, including decorative carvings, a relief portrait of King Louis XVI (1787), a self-portrait, and a terracotta statuette, Bacchante Riding a Goat (1796), testify to his range and accomplishment as a sculptor, one of the best of his generation. [5] This early work remains one of his most brilliant and inventive.

[Ian Wardropper, 2011]

[1] Draper 1992b, p. 130; James David Draper in Playing with Fire 2003, p. 59.

[2] David d’Angers 1847, pp. 46 – 47; quoted in Draper 1992b, p. 129.

[3] Quoted in Draper 1992b, p. 132.

[4] The photograph was published in Marcel 1901, p. 186. The marble was in the collection of Roland’s descendant Gabriel de Montigny until at least 1901 and apparently is still in the possession of the family in Aix-en-Provence (see Draper in Playing with Fire 2003, p. 59).

[5] See Draper 1992b, figs. 6 – 8 (acc. nos. 07.225.18, 07.225.17a, b), 14 (acc. no. 1990.234), 15 (acc. no. 1998.64), 18 (acc. no. 1975.312.8).
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