- Memoirs of the Life and Works of Jean Antoine Houdon: The Sculptor of Voltaire and of WashingtonOur PickBy Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle
Important Art by Jean-Antoine Houdon
Houdon's L'Ecorché is a life-size sculpture of a flayed man. A striking anatomical figure, his entire muscular system is exposed as he stands with left foot forward and right leg slightly bent; his right hand is raised up and reaching out in an almost healing gesture. In describing the impact of this work, art historian Anne L. Poulet states, "Houdon's figure of an Ecorché is one his earliest, most famous, and most widely reproduced works".
The first version of L'Ecorché was made in 1767 while Houdon was a student in Rome and was the basis for a sculpture of Saint John the Baptist (a separate sculpture he completed in the same year). This version is more refined, with the right arm raised more dramatically and the figure freed from the tree trunk base against which he was originally rested. It also provides a splendid example of the Ancient Greek influence on the Neoclassical style which Houdon usually adopted; here with the contrapposto stance of the figure as well as arms raised that are reminiscent of the classic works Lysippos's Apoxyomenos (330 BC) and Polykleitos's Doryphoros (450-440 BC).
Evidence of Houdon's keen interest in human anatomy is in abundance here. Actively seeking training in this field, his fellow student Johann Christian von Mannlich explained how the two young men went, "to Saint-Louis des Français where M. Séguier, professor of surgery, gave us a lesson in anatomy on cadavers for which the king paid. We were the only people from the academy to follow this course, and we profited all the more for it". The work was enthusiastically received and became used as a model for other students at his school.
More importantly, the work had a lasting impact on Houdon's own career and, as Poulet explains, "his preoccupation with the accurate observation and depiction of the bones and muscles as well as the exterior surface of the human body eventually led him to use life and death masks for his closely observed portraits".
Diderot, a personal friend of Houdon's, was a key figure of the Enlightenment - a philosopher, playwright and novelist who, as editor of the Encyclopédie (a renowned project that was to be a summary of "all knowledge") questioned the very authority of the Catholic Church. While Houdon rendered several busts of Diderot, the author Guilhem Scherf observed that he remained "the only great intellectual of the Enlightenment in Houdon's portrait gallery to have been depicted according to a single typology (bare head, nude upper torso)".
The second of Houdon's Diderot busts (the first, in terracotta, was exhibited at the Salon of 1771) is an early instance of the artist's strong support and patronage from Russia. The bust was commissioned by the former Russian ambassador to France, Dmitrii Alekseevich Golitsyn, and, as curator Johanna Hecht states, it would prove to be "a critical milestone" in the young sculptor's career. As she says, the "prominence of the influential subject, the prestige of the patron, and the artistic power of the bust itself brought him to the attention of a wide circle inside France and at foreign courts - a power elite that formed his base of support in the absence of crown commissions".
This bust is a palpable demonstration of Houdon's deft artistic handling and his ability to encapsulate his models' aura. As Valérie Montalbetti, curator at the Louvre museum, observed, for the eyes Houdon "hollows out the iris, then digs the pupil even deeper, leaving a small relief element at the edge to capture the light [with] the resulting play of light and shadow [giving] the illusion of life". The treatment of the hair, meanwhile, "is also typical of the artist [who] models it like a dense and moving mass". She adds that Diderot's lips are "slightly open, as if he were conversing, a reminder of the brilliant orator he was" and that, finally, the "rotation of the head gives the impression that he has just turned to [engage] his interlocutor". Montalbetti suggests that these features combine to create the overall "impression of immediacy" and that the portrait "thus reconciles the timelessness of the thinker with the vivacity of a mind open to the world".
Diana the Huntress was one of Houdon's most celebrated mythological works. It was the first sculpture Houdon ever cast in bronze and offered further proof to an enthusiastic public of Houdon's unique place within the medium of sculpture. As Poulet describes it, Houdon "depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, completely nude, running forward, with her weight balanced on her left foot. Her hair is drawn up loosely on top of her head, on which is placed a crescent moon, and she carries a bow in her left hand and an arrow in her right".
Poulet suggests, moreover, that Houdon's "representation of Diana the huntress as a nude was unusual", and the result was "a daring blend of the traditional representation of Diana nude at her bath with that of Diana the huntress, who was usually depicted clothed, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance". She adds, however, that what makes Houdon's Diana "one of the major masterpieces of the period" was the way he "transformed these received ideas into a sculpture of cool beauty and originality and of great technical sophistication". While he had already demonstrated his skill for capturing the essence of his sitters, with Diana he showed that he could also make supple and elegant figural renderings that were more modern in their approach and for which he sculptured, not from real life, but from the history of antiquity and from his own imagination.