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Capturing Character

Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment

Catalog of the exhibition by Anne L. Poulet
an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., May 4–September 7, 2003; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, November 4, 2003–January 25, 2004; and theMusée et Domaine National du Château de Versailles, March 1–May 30, 2004.
National Gallery of Art/University of Chicago Press, 384 pp., $85.00

Ein Versuch über die Gesichter Houdons

by Willibald Sauerländer
Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 72 pp., 12E (paper)

During the last decades of the eighteenth century, Jean-Antoine Houdon was the most famous artist alive. Although based in Paris, he had clients throughout the Western Hemisphere, from Russia to the United States, a claim no other sculptor could make. He was, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “the first statuary of the world.” Above all he was celebrated as a maker of portraits, and the list of his subjects seemingly includes every noteworthy figure of his day. Napoleon, Catherine the Great, Gluck, Lafayette, John Paul Jones, Robert Fulton—the list goes on and on. Houdon was especially favored by leaders of the Enlightenment—Diderot, Voltaire, d’Alembert—and by leaders of the American Revolution—Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington.

The images he made of these men were intended to provide a permanent record of their features and character; and to a very great degree they have succeeded in doing so. If, for example, one calls Voltaire’s face to mind, it is exactly as Houdon portrayed him, with a wry grin and a penetrating gaze, suggestive of his irony and brilliance, ruthlessness and wit.

The first biography of Houdon appeared in 1829, only one year after his death, and he has been the subject of research ever since. Nevertheless, Houdon’s work has remained an exceedingly difficult subject. The problem has been one of connoisseurship. Houdon made countless copies of many of his sculptures; he often formed versions of the same statue in different media—marble, bronze, terra cotta, plaster; and he sometimes created variants of the same portrait, altering the sitter’s costume or hairstyle, for instance. In addition, because of the immense popularity of his sculptures, unauthorized copies were already being manufactured in the 1770s and his work has been faked without stop ever since. It has proved hard to untangle the connections between all the versions or to identify all the fakes; and consequently it has been all but impossible to develop a reliable picture of his work as a whole. So great are the problems that the last two scholars to attempt comprehensive studies of Houdon were never able to complete their research.

The show of Houdon’s sculpture now on view at the National Gallery of Art is the first international exhibition ever devoted to the artist. Organized by Anne Poulet with the aid of Guilhem Scherf and others, it brings together nearly seventy works of outstanding quality and impeccable provenance. For the first time it is possible to see in one room works from every phase of his career, to examine side by side versions of the same piece in different media, and to study both the subtle changes in execution and the range of quality among the sculptures of the artists. The catalog, moreover, contains important new documentary information, and the entries cast clear light on both the works exhibited as well as related versions throughout the world. The show is an extraordinary achievement; it makes a contribution of permanent value to the study of a very great artist.

The catalog, however, lacks a biographical essay, and the sculptures, both in the catalog and in the exhibition, are arranged by type rather than chronology. There may be good reasons for this arrangement, but viewers unfamiliar with Houdon will likely have trouble following the development of his career. For anyone who can read German, the best way to overcome this problem is to consult the brilliant overview that the German art historian Willibald Sauerländer has just published, Ein Versuch über die Gesichter Houdons, a book we may hope will soon be translated. Although discussing only a dozen or so sculptures by the artist, Sauerländer clarifies many of the major issues that arise in the study of the artist’s career.

Sauerländer’s major contribution is to insist that Houdon’s work be seen in relation to the profound transformation of the public sphere that occurred in eighteenth-century France. This insight is manifestly true, yet no one had said it before; it deserves to have a strong effect on future research.

Houdon was born in 1741, the son of a concierge. His low birth turned out to be fortunate, however, for in 1748 the hôtel particulier where his father served was made into the École Royale des Élèves Protégés. This was the school where the winners of the Prix de Rome received advanced instruction before leaving for the French Academy in Rome. Thus from an early age Houdon was surrounded by artists of major talent. He began his formal training at fifteen, won the Rome Prize for sculpture at twenty, and moved to the Eternal City in 1764 at the age of twenty-three. Thomas Jefferson later was to characterize Houdon as an artist “panting after glory,” and his ambition and brilliance must have been evident right from the start.

Soon after arriving in Rome, Houdon won the commission to make a pair of colossal statues for Santa Maria degli Angeli, the church that Michelangelo had built within the ruins of the ancient Baths of Diocletian. Undaunted by this challenge, Houdon decided furthermore to base the statues on exact knowledge of the human body. To this end, he studied with a professor of surgery who gave him “lessons in anatomy on cadavers.” The importance and novelty of this should not be underestimated. Despite the emphasis on nature in art theory, relatively few painters or sculptors since Michelangelo had actually observed (or performed) a dissection. That Hou- don chose to do so was a sign of both his independence of character and his scientific cast of mind, traits that later would win him favor with the philosophes.

On the basis of his anatomical studies, Houdon made a life-size statue of an écorché—a figure with its skin removed so as to reveal its musculature. According to one contemporary witness, other artists and connoisseurs judged this “to be the best anatomical statue ever to have been created,” and it made him famous. Almost immediately art academies around Europe bought plaster copies of the écorché from Houdon and began using it to teach students the rudiments of anatomy.

At the same time that he was learning about the substructures of the body, Houdon also taught himself about the depiction of surfaces. He soon became the most technically accomplished sculptor since Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose works he studied in Rome. Like Bernini, he could carve and polish marble to make it look like almost any material. Houdon was especially brilliant in the representation of hair, flesh, and fabric; he could even imitate the distinctive character of different textiles, such as lace, cotton, silk, satin, and velvet. In his greatest portraits, he always gave special attention to the hair. For example, in his portrait of Madame Vermenoux, a celebrated beauty, the hair cascades down in luscious masses of voluptuous locks. Houdon’s debt to Bernini is particularly clear in this work: the hair is carved in a manner extremely similar to that of the nymph in the Apollo and Daphne.

The depiction of eyes had always been a problem for sculptors; the monochromatic character of most sculpture media makes it difficult to represent the light that is naturally reflected by the vitreous surface of the eye. To overcome this problem, Houdon invented a technique all his own. He formed the iris from a series of extremely fine lines, made a deep hollow for the pupil, and created a tiny wedge on top that projected from the rim of the iris to the center of the pupil. This wedge catches more light than the surrounding areas and thus effectively simulates the sheen and glimmer radiating from the eye. Houdon’s innovation was greatly admired by the pub- lic. Typical are the comments of Frédéric Melchior Grimm, Diderot’s friend who edited the influential newsletter Correspondance littéraire. Speaking of Houdon’s bust of Molière, Grimm wrote,

That great man’s genius for observation is expressed with an energy, a nobility, that no painter has ever approached…. His gaze (M. Houdon may be the first sculptor able to do eyes) penetrates deep into the heart.

Similarly, Grimm reported of the bust of Voltaire,

The eyes have so much life, an effect of light so ingeniously handled, that M. Greuze himself [the painter], on seeing the bust for the first time, initially thought that the eyes were made of enamel or some other colored material.

Since antiquity it had been widely believed that portraits should be moralizing and exemplary in character. This idea was still very much alive in eighteenth-century France, where it was applied especially to sculpture. Thus, a review in the Mercure de France in 1773 stated, “If one examines sculpture in moral terms, certainly the most worthy goal of this art is to preserve the memory of illustrious men.”1 But Houdon saw an important limitation in this view of sculpture. By representing great men pri-marily as examples of moral excellence, portraits suppressed the particular nature of specific individuals; they depicted them as idealized and generalized figures of virtue, rather than as real persons in all their actual complexity. Like his predecessors, Houdon wanted to represent character. But he was particularly interested in the psychological makeup of his subjects, and he wanted to capture their essential gestures and typical expressions.

This more intimate ideal of portraiture had already begun to appear in some of the paintings of Greuze, Liotard, and Quentin de La Tour, but it was still considered inappropriate for the more permanent and august medium of sculpture. In the entry on “the portrait” in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, the Chevalier de Jaucourt wrote,

The principal merit of this genre of painting is the exact resemblance that consists principally in expressing the character and air of the physiognomy of the persons that it represents…. Each person has a distinctive character that it is necessary to capture.2

This was the ideal of the portrait that Houdon sought to pursue in sculpture.

Remarkably, this ideal is manifest in the very first portrait bust Houdon is known to have made. The subject of the work is Diderot, the philosopher, who was also the most influential art critic alive (see illustration on previous page). Exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1771, it is a startlingly original work. It shows Diderot with his head turned as if something had just caught his attention; he is staring alertly into the distance, and his lips are parted as if he were about to speak. That is to say, the sculpture shows him in the midst of his most characteristic activities: he is looking, thinking, and engaged in conversation. We can be certain that this is what the bust represents, for on at least two occasions Diderot wrote that he should be depicted in just this way.3 Moreover, the bust shows him bare-shouldered and without a wig; this lack of ornament forces the viewer to concentrate on the intensity of his expression. The bust brims with energy and life. This effect is also due to Houdon’s knowledge of anatomy, which allowed him to emphasize exactly those muscles of the face that give form to the expressions. Diderot praised the bust as “très ressemblant” and other reviewers said that it caught his “flame of genius.”

  1. 1

    Mercure de France, October 1773, p. 178.

  2. 2

    Le Chevalier de Jaucourt, “Portrait,” in Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, edited by D. Diderot and J.A. d’Alembert (Paris, 1765), Vol. 13, p. 153. It is worth noting that Houdon later sculpted both Jaucourt’s wife (the bust is now in the Louvre) and his daughter (the bust of the Comtesse du Cayla, now in the Frick Collection).

  3. 3

    In a letter to Sophie Volland, Diderot admiringly described a now lost painting of himself, writing that in it “I live, I breathe, I move,” and observing that it was clear from his expression that he was engaged in the process of thought. The letter, dated September 17, 1760, is quoted by Jeannette Geffriaud Rosso, Diderot et le portrait (Pisa: Editrice Libreria Goliardica, 1998), p. 16. Rosso quotes similar comments by Diderot on pages 47 and 126.

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