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…

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