(b. 1738, Nancy, d. 1814, Paris)

The Invention of the Balloon

Terracotta, height 110 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 1783 there were a number of pioneering events in and around Paris to do with man's dream of flying. The Montgolfier brothers got their first hot-air balloon off the ground on July 5, after which came the first manned flight of a 'montgolfier' on November 21. In the same year, the French physicist Jacques Alexandre César Charles (1746-1823) undertook several experiments with hydrogen-filled balloons, which were therefore called 'charliers'. On December 1 Charles went up in a charlier, which induced the Directeur des Bâtiments de Roi to set up a competition for a memorial for the new technical achievement. Among other sculptors invited were Houdon, Pajou, and Clodion. However, the designs were never shown publicly because the project was abandoned in 1785.

Clodion designed a round, altar-like base with a fire burning on it, to maintain which a bevy of putti scattered straw. Above the fire hovers the balloon, likewise surrounded by putti, but also flanked by Fama and the wind of AEolus. The fussiness of the design makes it appear inappropriate for a monument and more suited to a drawing room. Even the imagery itself, which seeks to honour the invention with the traditional resources of allegory, scarcely convince. This is because the allegorical meaning of the renewal of cult and life at a higher level despite being inherent in fire, the image here is partially false. On the plinth is a montgolfier supported by fire and hot air. A charlier filled with hydrogen would explode under such circumstances.