Culture – François-Xavier Lalanne and His Parade of Woolly Sheep

When it comes to art and furniture (in this case a combination of the two) that makes us drool, only one comes in fluffy sheepskin. Today on The Journal, we look at why having sheep in your living room, as opposed to armchairs or a sofa, is not only pure fun – but also pricey, with a group of ten sheep fetching nearly $7.5 million at Christie’s a few years ago.

For the 1965 Salon de la Jeune Peinture in Paris, French artist François-Xavier Lalanne wanted to make a statement. “If you come with a snail as big as a thumb, nobody notices,” he said. “You have to go with something immodest and slightly embarrassing.” 

The result? Twenty-four sheep. Lalanne fashioned the faux livestock in the living room of the Paris apartment he shared with Claude, his wife and artistic partner. Four sculptures received impassive faces of patinated bronze while the others remained headless; all were swathed in fluffy sheepskins. The artistic duo then trotted the surrealistic herd off to the storied Palais de Tokyo exhibition hall, where the moutons – making their grand debut as art furniture, complete with casters in their hooves for easy mobility – were placed prominently at the salon’s entrance.

Le Tout-Paris was charmed and covetous. “Having a sheep in your living room, as opposed to an armchair or a wood bench, is just pure fun,” says garden designer Madison Cox, a longtime friend of the Lalannes. That fun was as instantaneous as it has been enduring (and pricey too; in 2011 a group of ten sheep fetched nearly $7.5 million at Christie’s).

But whatever the price, both François-Xavier and Claude believed that art should be part of the everyday, an idea that was initially swatted aside and judged harshly by critics in the art world. Yet Les Lalanne refused to conform, and soon their work was everywhere, from photo shoots in magazines to Paris’s most fashionable galleries. “I thought that it would be funny to invade that big living room with a flock of sheep,” François-Xavier once explained. “It is, after all, easier to have a sculpture in an apartment than to have a real sheep. And, it’s even better if you can sit on it.”

Several of the sheep were commissioned by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, who positioned them throughout their library in Paris and in their gardens, sometimes used to lounge upon. “They help me pretend I am on a farm in Normandy” the couturier wistfully observed. When Adelaide de Menil got wind of artist William Copley’s third divorce, in the 1970s, she sent her condolences: a rare black sheep to add to his collection.

There are quite obviously more fans than there are sheep, with François Catroux (the decorator of choice for aristocrats, moguls, fashion queens, royals, and oligarchs alike since 1968) recently gathering a trio in a Paris apartment, saying that he “always prefer them in a big mass”. 

Considering the price, we suggest you start with one.