Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Lions of the New York Public Library Never Looked Like This

by Stephen J. Gertz

The Fox and the Grapes.

No, that's not a wolf whistling at the hubba-hubba behind him.

Patience and Fortitude, sculptor Edward Clark Potter's marble lions that majestically flank the entrance to the New York Public's Library's classic Beaux-Arts building at Fifth Avenue and 42d Street in Manhattan, will never be confused with Jean-Baptiste Oudry's figures flanking the fountain in his illustration to Jean de La Fontaine's Le Renard et les Raisins. They kept their clothes on.

A traditional tale from Aesop, The Fox and the Grapes tells the tale of a fox who desires what he cannot have, luscious grapes beyond his reach. In La Fontaine's hands it has become one of most popular of Aesop's fables, and the story gave rise to the English idiomatic expression, "sour grapes" - embitterment by what another has that you cannot have. As related in Phaedra, the point is, "The glorious despises what he cannot have."

Oudry's grand designs for the illustrations to La Fontaine's tales are the most popular and acclaimed. The designs began life as tapestry and were adapted to print by engraver Charles-Nicolas Cochin.

Patience and Fortitude™ were carved by the Piccirilli Brothers after Potter's models. Though they carried various nicknames since their debut in 1911, New York Mayor  Fiorello La Guardia gave the male lions the names that have stuck; he felt that those qualities were what New York needed the most to endure and survive the Great Depression.

Nude maidens as NYPL sentinels would certainly have caught attention but, no matter how dignified and proud as those in The Fox and the Grapes, the fable's message, however apt during severe economic distress, was not the positive, ennobling sentiment needed to get New Yorkers through the day. Through the night, perhaps, but not in broad daylight.

LA FONTAINE [Jean de]. Fables choisies, mises en vers. Paris (Desaint & Saillant/ Durand), 1755-1759. Four octavo volumes (421 x 285 mm). I: (2), xxx, xviii, 124pp. II: (2), ii, 135, (1)pp. III: (2), iv, 146pp. IV: (2), ii, 188 pp. Frontispiece and 275 full-page plates hors texte, after Jean-Baptiste Oudry by Charles-Nicolas Cochin, engraved by Cochin himself, and Aliamet, Aubert, Aveline, Baquoy, Beauvarlet, Cars, Choffard, Dupuis, Flipart, Galimard, Le Mire, Moitte, Radigues, Surugue, Tardieu, Teucher, and numerous others. Bound in the first volume, the portrait of Oudry by Tardieu after Largillière (“found in some copies but not integral” per Ray). 

Ray 5. Cohen-de Ricci 548-550, supplement 280. Portalis 483-489. Girardi (1913). Rochambeau 86. Tchemerzine VI.390f.. Sander 1065. Brunet III.753. Graesse IV.73. Guilmard p. 150. Cicognara 1125. Bland (1958) p. 209f.. Blumenthal, Joseph: Art of the Printed Book 1455-1955 (New York, 1973), p. 29. Regency to Empire 41. Opperman, Hal: J.B. Oudry (Fort Worth, 1983), p. 146f.

Image from La Fontaine courtesy of Ars Libri Ltd., with our thanks.

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