Munich: Hirmer, 300 pp., 34.90
The ideas of France’s philosophers, the refinement of its language, and the sumptuousness of its fashion defined the eighteenth century. French paintings from the Age of Enlightenment gleam from the walls of great museums from St. Petersburg to New York. What would the Wallace Collection be without Watteau, the Frick without Fragonard? Yet sculpture contributed as much to this era as France’s other arts. Certainly there are well-known examples around the world—Jean- Antoine Houdon’s statue of George Washington in Richmond, for example, or Étienne-Maurice Falconet’s equestrian monument to Peter the Great on the Neva. But the full richness of eighteenth-century French sculpture—as spirited as it was virtuoso—has been little noted outside its homeland.
All the more reason to celebrate the decision of the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, in collaboration with the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, to gather together a glittering selection of French sculpture from the days of Voltaire to the First Empire. The show includes both statues and smaller works—among them, above all, a remarkable ensemble of portrait busts. The Liebieghaus galleries are not large and do not always offer enough space for the works to achieve the full effect of their magic and wit. Nevertheless, what an experience! It feels like entering a Paris salon in the days of Madame du Deffand and eavesdropping on the philosophes in brilliant conversation.
The high point of this exhibition of about forty works is the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828), the last and probably greatest French sculptor of the eighteenth century. In his work, we can witness a full liberation from the panegyric rhetoric of the baroque. Between 1764 (the year Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art gave educated Europe a new perspective on the legacy of classical antiquity) and 1768, the young Houdon studied at the French Academy in Rome. The flounces and wigs of the rococo were fast disappearing. There is no other artist to whom Diderot’s famous remark applies so well: “To learn to see nature we must study antiquity.”
The long line of French artists who were shaped by a theorizing approach to their craft—a line that begins with Poussin and to which a sculptor like Falconet still belonged—ends with Houdon. His was a natural genius, combining an empirical intelligence with a sixth sense for materials and physiognomies. While often brilliant, his works possess an unadorned naturalism that avoids both fashionable flourishes and the lachrymose sentimentality of contemporaries like Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Samuel Richardson. One is tempted to call him the physiocrat among the sculptors.
For the library of a wealthy royal counselor’s town house in the fashionable Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Houdon created two statues personifying Summer and Winter. The seasons were still a popular motif for eighteenth-century painters, sculptors, writers, and composers—one that gained erotic charge in France during the …