Luxe et Veritas

The Sculptures of Houdon

by H. H. Arnason
Oxford University Press, 360 pp., $47.50

Early Neo-Classicism in France: The Creation of the Louis Seize Style in Architectural Decoration, Furniture and Ormolu, Gold and Silver, and Sèvres Porcelain in the Mid-Eighteenth Century

by Svend Eriksen, edited and translated by Peter Thornton
Humanities Press, 432 pp., $95.00

French Painting 1774-1830: The Age of Revolution Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

exhibition catalogue, Grand Palais, Paris, The Detroit Institute of
Wayne State University Press, 712 pp., $14.95

1789: Les emblèmes de la raison

by Jean Starobinski
Flammarion, 194 pp., 95F

The Roman Stamp: Frame and Façade in Some Forms of Neo-Classicism

by Robert M. Adams
University of California Press, 254 pp., $12.50

Jean-Antoine Houdon
Jean-Antoine Houdon; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.