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Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment.

The especially delicate state of Franco-American relations at the beginning of May this year supplied an extra historical dimension to the opening of this magnificent exhibition, for which the ground floor of the National Gallery of Art, at the heart of the nation's capital, has been given over to the work of an artist who was not only French but who created the definitive portraits of America's founding fathers--Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. What brought France and America so close together at the time was their mutual struggle against Great Britain. Nationalism of one kind or another has often infected Houdon scholarship; Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle's 1911 memoir of 'The sculptor of Voltaire and of Washington' is the most marked example of a tendency that caused Louis Reau, the tireless French interpreter of Houdon's work, to refer to the great Voltaire assis, which was commissioned front the sculptor by Voltaire's devoted student and correspondent, the Empress Catherine II, as 'exile' in St Petersburg.

The organisers of this exhibition, which will travel to Los Angeles and Versailles, have liberated the sculptor from such bias, for the most part overcoming at the same time the formidable technical difficulties involved in transporting sculpture, drawing freely on loans from Europe and the United States (with the majority in this first showing coming from Europe) to allow for the first time a balanced assessment of his work. The opening coup d'oeil, a truly dramatic set piece of the kind for which the Washington National Gallery is justly famous, presents the unique plaster St John the Baptist of 1766-67 from the Villa Borghese in Rome (no. 1) (Fig. 1) side by side with the preparatory Ecorche (no. 3) (Fig. 2), which has left the French Academy in Rome for the first time since it was made by the student sculptor in the operating theatre of the hospital of S Luigi dei Francesi. The Hermitage authorities have quite under standably taken a different view of the possible risk to the Seated Voltaire, which was moved thirty times during the last century, but the enforced unavailability even of the tiny gilt bronze reduction, made for Houdon by Thomire as a gift for the Empress Catherine in 1779, but stolen three years ago from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, must have been especially frustrating for the organisers. On the other hand, the inclusion of the full-length marble portrait of around 1806-12 (no. 65), prised from the crypt of the Pantheon, is an understandable but perhaps unjustified attempt to represent full-length portraiture in an exhibition otherwise dominated by busts; while the head is admirable, the remainder--and especially the gigantic hands--is surely a workmanlike production by studio assistants. Jean-Guillaume Moitte's statue of General Leclerc, commissioned for the Pantheon at the same time, was entirely sub-contracted.

To compare this exhibition with those held at Versailles and Paris in 1928 to mark the centenary of Houdon's death, or even with the far more scholarly exhibition curated by H.H. Arnason at the Worcester Art Museum in 1964, is to see at a glance how far the study of eighteenth-century French sculpture as a whole has developed in the intervening years, and most rapidly during the last decade. Exhibitions have provided the driving force for this development, and have done untold good for the wider appreciation and understanding of sculpture more generally. For this exhibition, Anne Poulet of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Director designate of the Frick Collection, has once again joined forces with Guilhem Scherf of the Louvre, with whom she collaborated on the highly successful 1992 Clodion exhibition. In the intervening decade, Scherf turned his attention to Houdon's rival Augustin Pajou: the result was a revelatory exhibition in Paris and New York in 1998, curated in partnership with James David Draper. For the Houdon enterprise, by its very nature a more international affair, Poulet and Scherf have been joined by the Enlightenment scholar Christoph Frank and by Ulrike Mathies, whose work in German archives has borne fruit in the catalogue. It is scarcely credible that Scherf could also have played so large a part in the exhibition devoted to Louis-Simon Boizot at the Musee Lambinet in Versailles in 2001-2002; still less that he has also just prepared, with James David Draper, an assembly of terracotta sculpture of the same period which is currently on show at the Louvre. We are all the beneficiaries of his astonishing productivity.

Houdon became a portraitist of great men, a bustier, partly because he was denied the right to exhibit his ideal subjects, especially his female nudes, at the Salon. But his portraits were so successful that in numerous cases they became definitive, much repeated and enduringly famous, as was the case with the bust of Benjamin Franklin of 1778 (no. 43), a work which is reproduced on banknotes and which Arnason found to be 'so much a part of the iconography of America that it is almost impossible to analyze it objectively'. The same problem arises with the busts of Washington and Jefferson, the latter the basis for the portrait on the reverse of nickel coins (nos. 47 and 48). Many of the busts included here belong to institutions unrelated to the arts: that of the eminent surgeon-lawyer Antoine Louis, inventor of the guillotine (no. 29), has come from the Musee de l'Histoire de la Medecine in Pints, and the clashing gilt-bronze relief of the Montgolfier brothers (no. 34)--two superimposed profiles united at the forehead by a flame like tuft of hair that brilliantly evokes their aerial exploits, from the Musee de l'Air et de l'Espace at Le Bourget. In music conservatories, students walk daily past versions of Houdon's bust of Gluck--here represented by an impeccably documented but unexciting painted plaster from Weimar (no. 10)--without so much as a second glance. The naval hero John Paul James (no. 44) has only latterly--since 1959--been institutionalised in the Naval Academy, Annapolis, having passed down through the Orleans family throughout the nineteenth century. It is in some sense a novel experience for these busts to be so closely regarded as works of art in a major museum, which is not to say that to regard them in such a way is not extremely rewarding.

A further challenge in installing the exhibition must have been the fact that Houdon's art does not progress from early to late in an obvious way. in the first room, a vestibule dominated by the Ecorche and St John the Baptist, other works from the sculptor's student years in Rome are gathered in niches, but for the rest, there is no discernible stylistic development. As a supremely capable portraitist, Houdon seems on the whole to have chosen the style and the format to suit the subject, although in some instances he was following official strictures, or--in the case of Washington--those of the sitter.

The baroque, draped busts of Catherine the Great (St Petersburg, Hermitage; not exhibited) of 1773, Louis XVI (no. 50, modelled in 1787) and Mine Adelaide (no. 51, 1777) evoke their richly-upholstered surroundings, whereas the incomparable bust of Diderot (nos. 19-22), first made in 1771 and revisited over the ensuing decade, is a pure psychological study with no interfering drapery. The exhibition presents almost all Houdon's variations on the bust format, which cover an astonishing range; only the Mirabeau, whose jutting, truncated arms came in for criticism at the Salon of 1791, is unrepresented. The opportunity to compare four versions of the Diderot, in terracotta, marble (Fig. 3), plaster and bronze offers perhaps the greatest fascination of the exhibition. As Guilhem Scherf points out, this is the only likeness that Houdon repeated without any variation of format over such a long period (1771-?1780s), and the juxtaposition of the four media, represented by wonderfully preserved examples, is mesmerising. In this portrait, Houdon arrived at the means to represent his sitter in a uniquely animated yet distant way. Much has been said of his ability to enliven a face by a particular means of indicating the iris of the eye, and of the sense, that comes from partly opened lips or--in this case--the stretched neck muscles, of latent action or speech. Louis Leopold Boilly's famous image of the sculptor at work in his studio, represented here by the version from Cherbourg (no. 66), shows Houdon modelling from the life, and since he left no drawings, it might seem reasonable to assume that this was always his practice. Such an assumption is startlingly undermined, however, by Dean Walker's revelation in the catalogue that Houdon met Benjamin Franklin for the first time four years after modelling the famous portrait. While the exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity to get to grips with the complexities of the sculptor's technique, full understanding is sometimes frustrated by problems of availability. The one life mask, of Lafayette (no. 46), an object of the greatest interest though already much exhibited, cannot be compared to a marble or terracotta, but only to a plaster (no. 45), which--though made by Houdon, and for Jefferson, no less--has been painted a brilliant white. A more didactic approach, such as has helpfully been taken in other recent exhibitions of sculpture, might have explored with examples the distinctions between modelled and cast terracotta, and between plasters of different states (made either under the artist's supervision or later, with re worked or painted surfaces). Some confusion over such matters has crept into the catalogue entry on the enchanting bust of Mine Houdon (no. 17), probably during translation; the Louvre bust is surely a plaster cast from a waste mould made from the original clay model, not from a terracotta.

The same entry chronicles the sad history of the treatment of the plaster bust following damage caused by further mould making, and questions of condition arise elsewhere: how cruel for Jean Le Rond d'Alembert to find himself represented alongside the great quartet of busts of his collaborator Diderot by the severely overcleaned marble from Yale (no. 27), on a wretched polished wooden socle. The marbles of Franklin and Washington seem too sharply white when placed in the company of those which have not been in the hands of museums or the trade, such as the Antoine Louis referred to above. The modern surface of the full-length bronze Apollo from Lisbon (no. 37), which was long kept outside, is disconcerting in comparison with that of his companion Diana (no. 35) from the Huntington (which formerly belonged, as did six other works by Houdon, to the Marquess of Hertford), but this sort of problem is encountered in any attempt at reuniting long-parted works of art, and should not detract from the organisers' achievement in putting them together again.

In representing such a prolific artist, there may have been a pressures on space, since the bronze Ecorche (no. 2) from the Ecole des Beaux Arts is somewhat inconsequentially placed at the foot of a staircase after the exhibition proper seems to have ended, but all the works ale beautifully lit in such a way as to permit maximum visibility, and displayed against a neutral painted background suggestive of pietra serena. This is a show of exceptional richness, prepared, selected and installed not only with the highest degree of scholarship, but also with a most discerning and loving eye; this rare combination of qualities makes it an altogether enriching experience.

The exhibition 'Jean-Antoine Houdon' was at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, from 1 May until 7 September 2003. It will be at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, from 4 November 2003 until 25 January 2004, and then at the Musee et Domaine National du Chateau de Versailles, Paris, from 1 March until 30 May 2004. The catalogue, by Anne L. Poulet et al., is published by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC in association with the University of Chicago Press, 2003, ISBN 0 226 67647 1, $85.00

Jonathan Marsden has been Deputy Surveyor of the Queen's Works of Art since 1996. He is preparing a catalogue raisonne of sculpture in the Royal Collection and recently co-founded (with Robert Wenley of the Wallace Collection) the French Bronze Study Group, devoted to research on bronzes of the period 1600-1825.
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Author:Marsden, Jonathan
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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