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Léopold Chauveau (Lyon 1870- Sérigny 1940) trained as a medical doctor to satisfy his father, Auguste, a distinguished professor of veterinary science. From around 1905 to 1922, Chauveau sculpted sympathetic ‘monsters’ at night in a range of materials (plaster; bronze; wood) and drawing on a range of influences, from zoology to medieval gargoyles and East Asian art. He referred to these fantastical beasts as his ‘companions’, giving each a burlesque name. Throughout his life, Chauveau struggled with human interaction. He felt particular distaste for medical work and moulding the strange bodies of his monstrous friends served as catharsis for daytime encounters with the human body. 

In 1922, following Auguste’s death, Léopold Chauveau resigned as a doctor and also stopped sculpting. He devoted his last two decades to work as a writer, watercolourist and sketcher, best known for his illustrated children’s stories. Chauveau recreated his son, Renaud (1906-18), as a fictional co-storyteller, exploring themes both of grief and of children’s autonomy. In 1938, he delivered a lecture arguing against didacticism in children’s literature. Chauveau’s first book, a memoir on his experiences as an army surgeon, was published earlier, in 1917. Chauveau also wrote four novellas, an adaptation of the medieval beast epic Roman de Renart, and a book of prose poems, as well as personal writings like ‘Le Petit Monstre’ that were first published after his death. Besides illustrations for his own stories, Chauveau’s paintings and drawings include portraits of monsters, ‘monstrous landscapes’, and scenes from the Bible, La Fontaine’s Fables, and the Roman de Renart. At the link, it is possible to browse reproductions both of Chauveau’s sculptures and his works on paper. 

Chauveau enjoyed friendships with prestigious writers, including the Nobel laureates André Gide and Roger Martin du Gard, as well as with the Nabi group of visual artists. Despite their efforts to promote the work of their prolific but shy friend, Chauveau remained relatively neglected during his lifetime. Since the 1990s, there have been a number of new editions of his children’s books, and his memoir was republished in 2017. Many children’s stories are available in Japanese translation, and in 2005 Japanese animator Koji Yamamura adapted Chauveau’s story ‘Le vieux crocodile’ for The Old Crocodile, an award-winning short film using Chauveau’s original illustrations: In 2010, Chauveau was the subject of two small exhibitions, and ‘Le Petit Monstre’ was published in an associated portfolio, Créatures hypothétiques [Hypothetical creatures]. Marc Chauveau, Léopold’s grandson, made two large donations to the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, in 2017 and 2019, and in 2020 over 100000 visitors attended the exhibition ‘Au Pays des Monstres’ [In the land of monsters]. Interviewed for the exhibition catalogue, Marc told curator Ophélie Ferlier-Bouat that he found it difficult giving the sculptures up, but wanted to give Léopold Chauveau the recognition he longed for and avoid his sculptures facing the same fate as in ‘Le Petit Monstre’. A selection of sculptures can now be viewed at the Orsay, and on permanent loan at Roubaix’s Musée de la Piscine.

(Public domain author; bio © Nat Paterson)