According to Thomas Jefferson, writing from Paris in 1785, “There could be no question raised as to the sculptor who should be employed” for a statue of George Washington, “the reputation of Mons. Houdon, of this city, being unrivaled in Europe.” And although this judgment would not have passed unquestioned by the French artistic establishment of the day (Houdon was seldom employed on official commissions), it has been enthusiastically endorsed by posterity. With the possible exceptions of Falconet and Clodion, he is the only French eighteenth-century sculptor whose name and works are as familiar to the general public as those of half a dozen or more painters of the same period. Nor is this only because sculpture tends to be less popular than painting.
In one bust after another, Houdon brings us jowl to jowl, eye to illusionistically sculptured eye with the celebrities of his time. There are the Americans—Washington, dignified and slightly remote; Franklin, open, friendly, and warm; Jefferson all nerve and razor-sharp intellect; the dashingly handsome John Paul Jones; and Joel Barlow, who seems to personify the forceful spirit of nineteenth-century America, almost uncomfortably conscious of manifest destiny (to which he gave such vapid expression in The Columbiad). There are the giants of the French Enlightenment—Voltaire with his scraggy neck and inscrutable toothless smile; Diderot on the point of making a bon mot; d’Alembert, Rousseau, Condorcet, Buffon. With equal vividness he sets before us Gluck, the charlatan Cagliostro, Mirabeau, Lafayette, Belle de Zuylen (beloved of James Boswell and Benjamin Constant), the actress Sophie Arnould. He even modeled a medallion of the pioneer balloonists, Etienne and Joseph Montgolfier.
This choice of sitters was by no means casual. Houdon literally cashed in on the Enlightenment cult of the great man of modern times—the philosopher, writer, or scientist—and almost industrialized it. For having modeled one of them (usually on commission), he undertook to supply repetitions, large or small in various media—plaster, bronze, or marble—according to the size of his clients’ houses, the length of their purses, and their admiration for the subject. While Catherine the Great, for example, could be satisfied with nothing less than a life-size, full-length marble statue of Voltaire, others contented themselves with miniature reproductions of it or with busts. This practice secured Houdon wider and, as things turned out, more lasting fame than that enjoyed by sculptors who concentrated on unique original works, so many of which were to be destroyed during the French Revolution. It must also have helped him to attract commissions from richer but less distinguished patrons for busts of themselves.
A number of his portraits are, indeed, of sitters who are nowadays all but forgotten, ranging from the royal princesses Adélaide and Victoire, “Mesdames tantes du Roi,” to various court officials and their wives. Among them, however, are several unforgettable images of feminine beauty—the comtesse de Cayla, Mme de Sérilly, the comtesse de Sabran—delicate of feature, sharp of eye, and dressed with elegantly artful negligence. In a different style there is the amazingly intimate bust of Houdon’s young wife, the only completely convincing laughing face in the whole history of sculpture. Then there are the portraits of children, modeled at that happy moment when they had ceased to be regarded as miniature adults but had yet to acquire Romantic intimations of immortality. They have a directness and reveal a bond of sympathy which may perhaps provide the key to Houdon’s artistic personality.
Houdon combined unclouded innocence of vision with supreme dexterity of hand in a way that is much rarer among sculptors than painters. Technical accomplishment could hardly go further, birds and flowers being rendered with no less trompe l’oeil virtuosity than draperies, flesh, hair, and eyes. “Est-ce que l’on fait des plumes avec du marbre?” his son is said to have asked when looking at a still life of dead game. Desire for meticulous verisimilitude is evident in his most famous subject-pieces—La Frileuse and the Diana, which offended some contemporaries because it so frankly showed that the chaste goddess had a vulva (cocks had been permitted but cunts prohibited in Western sculpture since antiquity).
The Diana was, indeed, excluded from the official Paris Salon and first exhibited in the sculptor’s studio. And when the Louvre acquired a bronze version in 1829 a restorer was employed to hammer out “le bas du ventre que l’artiste avait représenté d’une façon indécente.” There is no reason to suppose that he intended either to excite or to shock by this unprecedented candor. His aim seems to have been quite simply to provide an accurate record of appearance, as in his portrait busts which neither idealize the beauty of the comtesse de Cayla nor mock the plainness of the Mesdames de France.
But, of course, more than a wax-worker’s skill is involved in the creation of such speaking likenesses: great subtlety in pose and expression is demanded. Significantly Houdon’s historical pieces are no less lifelike than his portraits of contemporaries. Pope Clement XIV remarked of the statue of St. Bruno: “He would speak if the rule of his Order did not forbid it.” The nineteenth-century art critic Théophile Thoré—a champion of Courbet and Millet—commended his bust of Molière for its “appearance of being done from life.” There can be little doubt that it was for his illusionism that Jefferson regarded Houdon as being “without rivalship.”
Although he is unquestionably the greatest European artist to have specialized in portraying Americans, Houdon has received surprisingly little attention from art historians in the United States. Articles about his American works have appeared in learned periodicals, but H. H. Arnason’s The Sculptures of Houdon is the first full-length account of him to be published in English for more than sixty years. It has been eagerly awaited since 1964 when Arnason organized an exhibiton of sculptures by Houdon, at the Worcester Art Museum, with a catalogue that revealed a sharper understanding than did Louis Réau’s massive monograph published in France in the same year. Well documented and fully illustrated, including many of the author’s own illusionistic photographs, Arnason’s new book provides a valuable general survey. But it hardly ventures beyond a sound establishment of Houdon’s oeuvre. To essential questions about his practice as a sculptor (what exactly went on in his studio) Arnason returns only vague and inconclusive answers. He pays little attention to the public for whom Houdon worked. Nor does he investigate very thoroughly the artistic theory of his time (Winckelmann’s name is mentioned only in an aside).
Presenting Houdon as an “eclectic” artist, Arnason is very anxious to distinguish between the “classicism” of some of his works and “neoclassicism” in general. For the latter is, in his view, a soulless style. “One of the characteristics of neo-classic sculpture was the insistence on pure, unflawed marble, something that exaggerates its mechanical appearance,” he claims. “With the rise of neo-classicism it became the custom of museums during the nineteenth century to cover their plasters with heavy white paint.” Clinging to a threadbare notion of neoclassicism as an “art deriving literally from ancient Rome”—in other words the last of the antique revivals—he writes as if Walter Friedlaender (1930), Frederick Antal (1937), Emil Kaufmann (1952), and Robert Rosenblum (1967) had never studied the period and explored its complexity, depth, and continuing relevance.
For as they and others have repeatedly pointed out, the great neoclassical artists went back not so much to classical art as to what they considered to be its source, nature. And their conception of nature was strongly colored by eighteenth-century primitivism. Thus their works are characterized not so much by classical subject matter—which had been conspicuous ever since the Renaissance, even in rococo art—nor, still less, by the use of antique costumes and decorative motifs, as by rational coherence and the austerity and moral earnestness they brought to the expression of it.
Of course, a monograph on an artist is not the place for detailed discussion of general stylistic problems. But Arnason’s misconception of neoclassicism limits his understanding of Houdon. By blinding him to the course of late eighteenth-century art, it obscures Houdon’s position and significance, so that, for instance, Arnason is unable to see the affinities between Houdon’s statue of George Washington and such portraits by Jacques-Louis David as that of the great scientist Lavoisier and his wife.
Houdon’s heroic-scale St. Bruno of 1766-1767, in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Rome, is a landmark in the development of eighteenth-century sculpture and was soon recognized as such by, among others, Leopoldo Cicognara, the friend and biographer of Canova who drew his attention to it. Almost personifying the “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” of Winckelmann’s famous phrase, it marks a decisive break with the tradition which stems from Bernini. Similarly, in his portraits of the philosophes, Houdon developed a new type of bust, inspired by Roman antiquity, which concentrated on facial features at the expense of all accessories. For although busts had previously been carved à l’antique they had rarely shown their subjects so effectively divested of all “period” airs and graces as well as their peruques and cravattes.
The busts also seem to answer Rousseau’s demand (echoed by Diderot, whom Houdon knew personally) for sculptures of great men “who have enriched their country by their virtues” to replace “images of all the perversions of heart and reason ingeniously extracted from ancient mythology.” Indeed, Houdon remarked in a letter (not quoted by Arnason) that he had been inspired by the thought that a sculptor could record the appearance and “render almost imperishable the image of men who have contributed to the glory or happiness of their country.” His portraits of women and children, his statues of Diana and La Frileuse, might seem to be products of less highminded notions, yet they reflect that same desire for a “return to nature” expressed by so many moralizing novelists as well as artistic theorists of the day. In his rejection of the supposedly “unnatural” affectations of the rococo he may have been less radical than his younger contemporaries, but he was nonetheless influenced by, and played a part in the development of, the great regenerative movement in the arts which found its purest expression in the neoclassicism of David, Canova, and such architects as Ledoux and Boullée.
The aims of the theorists of this movement were high, nothing less than the creation of an art of universal moral significance. Beginning with an assault on the frivolity and illogicality of the rococo, it became increasingly puritan and cerebral. Abhorrence of evasions and compromises of any kind, coupled with distrust of arts which appealed mainly to the senses, led to a demand for clarity of contour in sculpture, integrity of masses in architecture, and purity of line in painting. Similar ideas were applied to music, and Rousseau might as easily have been contrasting color and line or decoration and form when he wrote: “The pleasure of harmony is only a pleasure of pure sensation, and the enjoyment of the senses is always brief, satiety and boredom soon follow; but the pleasure of melody and of song is a pleasure of interest which appeals to the heart.”
Not all artists, let alone patrons, responded wholeheartedly to this program which drew so sharp a distinction, soon to widen into a rift, between the “serious” and merely fashionable—classics and commercials—just as the French Revolution was to open a chasm between the politically progressive and reactionary. The movement brought about a radical reappraisal of the significance and necessity of art, as moral exemplar rather than decorative embellishment. It is highly significant that in the 1790s aesthetics, previously regarded as a peripheral study by most philosophers, began to occupy a central position in European thought—with Kant as well as Goethe, Schiller, and the Schlegels.
The opening phase of this great revolutionary movement might seem to be the subject of Svend Eriksen’s Early Neo-Classicism in France, were it not for the more accurate subtitle: “The Creation of the Louis Seize Style in Architectural Decoration, Furniture and Ormolu, Gold and Silver, and Sèvres Porcelain in the Mid-Eighteenth Century.” This is an expensive, handsomely produced book with eight color plates and nearly 500 monochrome illustrations, which every collector of Sévres porcelain, French furniture, table silver, or gold boxes will wish to possess. It was presumably for the benefit of this millionaire public that the meanings of such terms as ébéniste, menuisier, and even veneer are laboriously explained, and every French word translated into simple English.
Based on considerable archival research, the book contains a great deal of information, much of it previously unpublished, about French furniture and furnishings dating from the last two decades of the reign of Louis XV but in a style popularly known as “Louis XVI.” Many are outstandingly fine examples of craftsmanship and among the most luxurious of all objets de luxe—elegant fragile little writing tables suitable only for penning billets doux, carved and gilt chairs upholstered in flowered tapestry, commodes embellished with exquisite marquetry, brittle brightly enameled porcelain vases, crisply modeled ormolu sconces and fire dogs. There are also the somewhat heavy pieces of furniture in the so-called goût grec which was fashionable in the early 1760s. A well-documented study of all these objects was much to be desired and Eriksen has certainly done a thorough job. His book will long remain the standard work on them. But when he attempts to go beyond an antiquarian level he is quickly out of his depth.
Eriksen takes as his starting point the various attacks on the rococo published in mid-eighteenth-century France, including two witty squibs by C.-N. Cochin which he prints in full (though not, as he claims, from the original text printed in the Mercure de France). But his reading of them is very simplistic. No distinction is made between original comments and topoi which had been repeated time and again. He thus uses the term rococo only for the most extravagant confections which incurred critical censure and neoclassical for practically anything slightly less waywardly exuberant. A famous writing table made for Louis XV (now at Versailles), covered with pictorial marquetry and garnished with scrolls and swags of ormolu—one of the richest and most expensive pieces of furniture ever made—is, for him, “a very important example of the moderate form of Neo-classicism.”
Although he pays lip service to the view that “Neo-Classicism was the upshot of far-reaching movements affecting the whole of Europe and all the Arts,” his interpretation of it is in fact limited almost exclusively to decorative details—the use of motifs derived from Roman architecture and a preference for straight rather than curved lines. Rather heavy swags “are an unmistakable Neo-Classical motif,” he declares. Louis XV “took up Neo-classicism wholeheartedly” but remained “curiously stubborn over one point! He could not bear chairs with straight legs.” On the other hand, “we know, at any rate, that the furniture in the Palais Bourbon was thoroughly Neo-Classical and that the chairs had straight legs.”
The decorative objects and most of the buildings with which Eriksen is concerned were products of little more than a mutation of taste, as some contemporaries pointed out. Writing of the “new fashion for ornaments” in the “Grecian taste,” J. P. Grosely remarked in 1764 that “the transition of the Parisians from the chantouré to the masculine and grave, may be accounted for by the sudden change of very large hats for very small.” Eriksen does not quote this, of course, nor does he mention Goethe’s outburst to the self-satisfied Frenchman whom he imagined scornfully toying with an à la Grecque snuffbox before Strasbourg Cathedral.
In the same essay, Goethe referred to “the caprice of the artist serving the egotism of the rich”—a notion as repugnant to him as it was to the artists he admired, but one wholly appropriate to sumptuous Louis XVI furnishings and gold boxes. These objects are, in fact, early specimens of what the Germans term the Zopfstil (the style of the queue or pig-tail worn in the last decades of the ancien régime), which was only superficially influenced by the ideas which inspired David and others who were concerned with rectitude as much as with rectangles—if not more. Thus Eriksen tends to trivialize the works of art and architecture to which the term neoclassical has come to be applied. In the context of the enlightened beliefs and aesthetic ideals of the late eighteenth century, his “early Neo-Classicism” is but a flowery by-path leading off what was called la bonne route.
Works by painters who marched along this road—“with a frankness, a resolution, and an esprit de corps worthy of true party men,” as Baudelaire put it—were included in the first sections of the memorable, extremely instructive, and illuminating exhibition “French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution” shown last year in Paris and then, in a truncated form, at the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Here they were displayed as they were first seen on the walls of the biennial Paris Salons, in company with pictures little, and sometimes not at all, influenced by the demand for a new art. In fact, they were far outnumbered by works in which the persistence of early eighteenth-century aesthetic attitudes, even after the fall of the Bastille, is still apparent: outnumbered but not outshone. For despite their immediate charm, these gay, sensuously painted evocations of the douceur de la vie paled beside David’s austere moral exemplars.
David’s achievement was to forge a style of truth, purity, nobility, and honesty to express corresponding moral qualities. Whether or not—or to what extent—revolutionary political ideals were also involved is a thorny question. Nothing is known of David’s political beliefs before the outbreak of the Revolution obliged him, like other Frenchmen, to take sides, and his Jacobinism of the early 1790s should not be projected back into his work of the previous decade. With the philosophes he may well have looked forward to a day when enlightened ideals of justice and reason would triumph, though neither he nor they can have foreseen the course which events were to take with such rapidity after the summer of 1789. But was it only because he had become a Jacobin that he was hailed in 1790 as “the French patriot whose genius anticipated the Revolution”? Although they had been commissioned by the Crown, his Oath of the Horatii and Brutus were clearly susceptible to revolutionary interpretations, like literary works by Voltaire, Rousseau, and (to his embarrassment) Schiller. When Rousseau was “Pantheonized” in 1794 an orator declared: “C’est en quelque sort la Révolution qui a expliqué le Contrat social.” And the same might be said of David’s pictures of the 1780s.
No artist came nearer to the goal of the regenerative movement than David; yet what might have been his and its crowning achievement, The Oath in the Tennis Court, remained almost symbolically unfinished. After the fall of Robespierre and his own imprisonment, a change of direction became evident in his work, perhaps as a result of weakened faith in rationally conceived ideals, both artistic and political.
As the exhibition very clearly demonstrated, several other artists began to develop new tendencies at about the same time. The neoclassicism of the 1780s was not rejected as the rococo had been; but its didactic, universalist, and rationalist aims were reinterpreted. Greater emphasis came to be laid on the sincerity of the artist than on the moral content of his work, on his individual perceptions than his generalized statements, and on his potentiality to break through the frontiers of human understanding by imaginative intuition, rather than his ability to body forth enlightened ideas. Thus paintings of the years around 1800 (particularly well represented in the exhibition) help, by contrast, to throw into relief the essential characteristics of those of the preceding period, and never more sharply than when they are of antique subjects illustrating such psychologically complex myths as those of Apollo and Hyacinth or Oedipus rather than the improving moral tales from Livy or Plutarch.
The main achievement of the exhibition was to widen understanding of the great richness and variety of French painting between 1774 and 1830, despite the inevitable absence of some of the finest and most famous pictures (presumably on account of their gigantic size). Its fully illustrated and documented catalogue is already a standard work of reference, as much for the stimulating introductory essays by Pierre Rosenberg, F. J. Cummings, Antoine Schnapper, and Robert Rosenblum as for the individual entries packed to overflowing with information about artists many of whom are very little known. Emphasis was laid firmly on the art of painting and it was perhaps unfortunate that the exhibition acquired, in crossing the Atlantic, the title “The Age of Revolution” in place of the original “de David à Delacroix” which described it more accurately. There were, in fact, relatively few works alluding explicitly to the French Revolution though many inspired by the politics of the Empire and Restoration periods.
The Revolution is naturally at the center of Jean Starobinski’s 1789: Les emblèmes de la raison. One of a series of books each of which is focused on a single year, this volume attempts a synchronic view of all the arts in Europe including popular prints. The illustrations are numerous and several are unfamiliar, though it is a pity that a Fuseli drawing has been cropped and reversed while Blake’s Ancient of Days in the act of creation—binding “the infinite with an eternal band”—is mistitled “Scène du Jugement Dernier.” The text abounds in perceptive comments on art, literature, and events; long notes incorporate quotations from writings of the period.
Best known for his psychological study Jean-Jacques Rousseau: La Transparence et l’obstacle (1955), Starobinski is an outstanding student of late eighteenth-century thought and discusses the visual arts on a higher and more sophisticated level than either Arnason or Eriksen.
He begins by remarking that works of art completed in 1789 were conceived so long before the events of that summer, and executed in styles formulated even earlier, that they seem to invite an interpretation independent of the context in which history placed them. But the coincidence of their appearance at this moment is not without significance, for the Revolution also had origins in the thought of the previous decades, and the absence of a causal link does not preclude a spiritual one. Art and events cannot be dissociated in this period: the flash of light engendered by the Revolution was so bright that it continues to illuminate all contemporary phenomena. Of the Revolution he writes: “Elle impose un critère universel, qui donne la mesure du moderne et du suranné. Elle promeut, elle met à l’épreuve une nouvelle norme du lien social, face à laquelle les oeuvres d’art ne peuvent éviter de prendre une valeur d’acquiescement ou de refus.” Artists of 1789 were contemporaries of the Revolution and, whether they noticed or ignored it, approved or condemned it, they are in a sense “judged” by it.
Enlightenment is the main theme of this book, but Starobinski is well aware of the importance of darkness in the thought and art of the period (especially the work of Goya). He is indeed fascinated by the contradictions and ambiguities behind the nicely proportioned façade of rationalism. He suggests, for instance, how the linear style conceived as the realization of an external and impersonal ideal was also, for David and others, a means for the forceful exercise of the individual will, formal determination of an outline establishing the dominion of the artist’s creative conscience. Whereas Canova’s statues, despite their firm contours, give the impression of a wish to discover (in all senses of the word) the deliberately elusive reflection of a beauty which the ancients alone had been able to eternalize. Ranging from the psychological to the poetic, his interpretations are almost invariably persuasive if not always wholly convincing. (Can one, for instance, really credit the septuagenarian Francesco Guardi with “une sagesse contemplative qui a eu accorder le glissement du dessin au glissement du temps“?)
Another distinguished student of literature, Robert M. Adams, approaches late eighteenth-century neoclassicism from a different angle, in the general context of the classical tradition. The aim of The Roman Stamp: Frame and Façade in Some Forms of Neo-Classicism is not to chronicle the influence of Rome on the imagination (though it reminds one of the long-standing need for such a book) but to investigate the personalities of certain individuals who re-created themselves in the name of Rome. “There are energies within them that Rome releases,” he writes. “Perhaps indeed only Rome could have released them, or only in the particular direction they took. But the men are not passive, plastic wax on which Rome printed its masculine stamp. Quite the contrary, they demanded to be influenced, required it.” He is concerned initially with those who responded to the severer aspects of Roman civilization—what Kipling called “Rome’s thrice-hammered hardihood in arduous things.” But he does not rigorously pursue his thesis. It serves rather as a useful frame for studies of various artists and writers from Mantegna and Palladio to Gérard de Nerval and James Joyce.
It is an extremely interesting, perceptive, unusual, and occasionally irritating book. Some judgments are astonishing. “The watery soil of Mantua has never supported much distinguished building,” Adams declares. What about Alberti and Giulio Romano? Nor is it free from errors. David did not paint The Rape of the Sabine Women: the whole point of the picture in question is that it represents their intervention to stop the war between the Sabines and Romans, their husbands and their brothers. His Oath in the Tennis Court is not in “the Louvre’s lumber room”: it has been on show at Versailles for more than a decade. Yet Adams comes closer than most art historians to an understanding of David when he writes: “His neo-classicism at its most characteristic is not a plastic disguise imposed upon a real scene, it is a knife to cut reality down to its simplest, most heroic dimensions.”
A chapter is given to Piranesi and Canova, who in their different ways “stand in a similar intimate relation to the surface and scene of Rome, to Rome as parent and sponsor. How to accommodate the infinitely expansible, infinitely compressible private dream to the cold image of the antique was their common concern.” Both may be pictured under the image of seduction though “we still can’t tell whether their role in the drama is active or passive—or, rather, why we are sure, as with Narcissus, that it is both.” He writes exceptionally well of the ambi-guities in the outlook of Piranesi for whom “the effort to show Rome as she had been was always secondary to the investigation of what she had become. What he saw of Roman glory he saw always under the image of a colossal disaster, and everything suggests that the disaster was even dearer to him than the glory.” Time the destroyer, “the impalpable, subtle enemy of all solidities,” looms very large in Piranesi’s world of gigantic masonry: “even his prisons are like vast dark sundials through which isolated and interrupted shafts of day strike to mark off the leaden hours.”
In the work of Canova, as of Piranesi, Adams detects an element of concealment and withdrawal. He is fascinated by the way in which his statues “seem to stand staring with an inner eye into the black, motionless pools of their selves.” The essence of his work is a dream, “erotic, melancholy, and far withdrawn behind the glow of its polished surfaces.” Its poetic quality, which appealed to so many poets—Byron, Keats, Foscolo, Heine, Gautier, not to mention novelists who include Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert—is perhaps more important than the frustrated eroticism which has been more frequently noticed. “Canova’s dream is that of a Mallarmé virgin so enfolded in her own icy thoughts that she abandons her polished, impenetrable body to the sculptor almost indifferently.”
Interpretations offered by Starobinski and Adams will probably arouse the suspicion of the hard-core art historian who rarely looks, let alone sees, beyond humdrum problems of attribution and dating. Both write from a psychological, literary, and critical standpoint. Starobinski tends to read a painting by David as if it were a page from Rousseau, Adams to see a statue by Canova almost as a character in a novel. Such an approach to works of art of earlier periods would be much frowned upon in academe. But neoclassicism was a highly literary style, much more so, in fact, than romanticism, which exalted the ability of the artist to depict what could not be put into words and of the writer to describe what could not be visually represented (hence the use of both images and words by Goya and by Blake).
These two books are, in fact, notable manifestations of a new interest in a style which was until recently supposed to be no more than a dry, frigid, and lifeless imitation of antiquity. Publications on the subject now proliferate. Museums have begun to acquire neoclassical works to add to those they have brought up from their cellars. Exhibitions of various aspects of neo-classicism have aroused great interest in France and America. Why? The reason is not supplied by Arnason and Eriksen. It cannot be supposed that people have now developed that fondness for chairs with straight legs which Louis XV so lamentably lacked. Vitruvian scrolls, palmettes, and bucrania remain in the province of specialists. Nor has Greco-Roman sculpture returned to popular esteem. Rather the reverse. The decline in popularity and familiarity of such statutes as the Medici Venus and the Apollo Belvedere, regarded as touchstones of art throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, may have helped neoclassical sculptures to be seen more clearly as individual works of art and judged on their own merits.
Awareness of psychological tensions which sometimes seem to stretch the smooth surface to breaking point may partly account for an increase of interest. A permissive age is better prepared to recognize and accept the homoeroticism latent (and sometimes all but rampant) in much neoclassical art. Then there are the Lolita-like figures of Psyche—a very popular mentor of the late eighteenth-century mythology—a symbol of the soul yet, as Starobinski remarks, “offert à un désir qui n’est pas celui de l’âme.”
There are also signs that the more explicit neoclassical involvement in perennial human problems—about moral choice, authority, the relationship between the sexes and the generations—is nowadays better appreciated than it used to be. But other, more purely artistic factors are involved in this reappraisal. Paradoxically, the experience of nonrepresentational sculpture has sharpened understanding of Canova’s statues, which can now be seen not as simulacra but as carefully, often daringly, poised three-dimensional forms of amazingly subtle composition and variety of surface texture. They have those almost abstract sculptural qualities which are wanting in all but a few of Houdon’s works.
Similarly, as Robert Rosenblum has pointed out, the severer types of neoclassical painting and the engravings after John Flaxman have affinities with hard-edge abstraction. It is, perhaps, significant that the most extensive review of the “French Painting 1774-1830” show should have appeared in Artforum, a journal which rarely gives much space to “old masters.” And I wonder if the neoclassical rejection of the idea of art as a means of fashionable and expensive interior decoration (whether rococo or Louis XVI) has not also found a responsive echo in our days.
April 1, 1976