Louis Ernest Barrias was unquestionably one of the most successful and prolific sculptors of his generation. He started his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1858 and was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1864. His drew from a wide range of themes in his work, from religious subjects to scenes of stark violence. While Barrias produced many traditional figures, such as his sculpture of the young Mozart (see image) he had a strong interest in creating mythological works, influenced from ancient and Renaissance examples studied during his time at the Ecole.
After he finished his studies Barrias rapidly gained popularity at the Salon exhibitions in Paris, putting him in a key position to advance the use of allegorical subject in modern sculpture at the time. In his famous ‘Nature Unveiling Her Secrets To Science’, exhibited at the Salon of 1893 and later acquired for the School of Medicine in Bordeaux, a partially draped female reveals her body whilst emerging from the veiled cape she was hiding under. Here, Barrias uses the female nude to bear the heavy symbolism of nature, reflecting the revelations at the time of nature's power harnessed through science. As noted in the catalogue for the exhibition The Colour of Sculpture, held in 1996 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the sculpture itself is a symbol of technological advancement: “Breathtaking technical progress seemed to solve all the mysteries of the world, and it appeared only a matter of time before—to use Barrias’s visual language—nature revealed its last secrets. That such … academic female figures could still be employed at the beginning of the age of electricity is characteristic for the nineteenth-century.”
After the war and until his death, Barrias was in great demand. He received many honours, was made a member of the Institute, and was professor at the l'École des Beaux-arts from 1894 until his death. Barrias’ work continued to inspire sculptors in Europe and America at the turn of the century to use allegory as a way of giving tangibility to modern concepts, ideas and technology. Allegorical sculptures glorified modern marvels of industry, technology, and speed that defined the Art Deco movement.You can see his work today at the Musée d'Orsay, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, as well as examples on our website.