- Memoirs of the Life and Works of Jean Antoine Houdon: The Sculptor of Voltaire and of WashingtonOur PickBy Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle
Progression of Art
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".
White plaster - Collection of École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris, France
Denis Diderot (1713-84)
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".
Marble - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Diana the Huntress
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.
Bronze - Collection of Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours, Tours, France
Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)
Houdon's bust of Franklin was the first of several he made of important American figures including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, the Marquis de Lafayette and Robert Fulton. Franklin spent nine years in France as an ambassador for the newly independent United States. With his flowing locks, his modern dress, and sharp wit, he cut a somewhat unconventional, but appealing, figure for a statesman. He became in fact a figure of curiosity amongst the French public who viewed him as a celebrity. Having become friends, Houdon produced numerous portraits of Franklin in various formats and media. Describing this bust, curator Dean Walker states, "the subject is posed frontally with his head inclined slightly forward. His hair falls onto his shoulders, his eyes look to his right, and his lips are parted as if speaking. He is shown wearing a plain neckcloth and simple suit, often described as Quaker dress".
Arguably the most remarkable thing about this true-to-life depiction of Franklin is how Houdon chose to render his eyes which are not shown in the traditional straight forward gaze. Authors Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle argue that the eyes, "have a restless energy that one does not expect to find in a jovial philosopher of seventy-two". Auguste Rodin praised the sculpture too, picking out the "astuteness in the eyes" and the "corners of the mouth" for special mention. Rodin observed that Houdon had looked beyond Franklin's political standing (his "massiveness" as Rodin put it) to detect "the hard common-sense of the successful calculator amassing a fortune, the wary diplomat who compassed the secrets of English diplomacy. Behold, all alive, one of the ancestors of modern America!". Impressed with his fine skill at sculpting figures, Franklin played a key role in obtaining for Houdon the commission to render George Washington's image, probably the most internationally prestigious project of Houdon's entire career.
Marble - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
In a pose not often seen in his work, Houdon has chosen to render the French Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, in a seated pose. The folds of his robe dramatically cascade around him while he grips the armrests of his chair tightly and looks out at the viewer over his right shoulder.
Houdon was first commissioned to make a bust of Voltaire when, as described on the National Gallery of Art's website he, "returned from exile in Switzerland to Paris in February 1778 [...] Voltaire sat for Houdon several times before the exertion and excitement of his journey took their toll; he died on 30 May 1778. In a few sittings, Houdon grasped the expression that captivated contemporaries. The weary face, with its sagging neck and toothless mouth, nevertheless radiates intense mental and spiritual vitality". After his busts were completed, Houdon turned his attention to the grander project of the seated Voltaire; a work commissioned by Voltaire's niece, Madame Denis as a form of memorialization. While the bust elegantly (and realistically) captured his subject, it is the seated Voltaire that best alludes to his professional status. Draped in classical robes that are reminiscent of the ancient philosophers that came before, he is fit and ready to hold court and to expound the ideas of the new Enlightenment.
In 1940, Salvador Dali produced Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire. Described by the artist as a "paranoiac-critical hallucination", the Spaniard produced a "double-image" featuring the figures of two Dutch women in national dress (their heads become Voltaire's eyes, their collars form his upper cheeks and nose, while the dark part of their clothing create the shadows that form his nose and cheeks) to "recreate" Houdon's famous image.
Plaster, with vestiges of paint and terracotta slip - Collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, called Molière (1622-1673)
The famed French playwright and actor Molière has been beautifully immortalized by Houdon's portrait bust. Depicted with his famous long, wavy locks of hair and his splendid moustache, he looks attentively over his right shoulder. The folds of his shirt are also noteworthy and according to Scherf "the handsome twist in the knotted cravat, which adds a brilliant touch of elegance, is Houdon's signature". The commission for a sculpture of Molière, offered to mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of his death, was created by the Comédie Française and was awarded to Houdon on September 30, 1776. What differentiated this project for his other commissions was that the artist's payment came in the shape of a lifetime free pass to the theater.
While positively received by most, when the work was finally displayed, one artist, Jean-Jacques Caffieri (possibly because he was jealous of Houdon's rising popularity) reacted angrily. According to Scherf, Caffieri wrote a letter to Houdon in which he declared: "your sculptor represents him as a stupid man, with no passion in his physiognomy". Fortunately, this view was not widely held and the bust was praised when it was exhibited at the Salon. Indeed, Houdon's bust of Molière was so well liked it "quickly became famous". Montalbetti argued, meanwhile, that the personal qualities of the bust of Molière was equal only to that of his earlier bust of Diderot. Both create "the feeling that the bust has just come out of his hand", she wrote, and just as the Diderot portrait captured the "timelessness of the thinker with the vivacity of a mind open to the world", so the portrait of Molière caught the "full [...] tenderness of a man aged by tireless activity and permanent worries".
Terracotta, with plaster restorations on circular gray marble base - Collection of Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans, France
One of his most arresting nude figures, Houdon's sculpture, intended as an allegory for the winter season, dates back to 1781 with a small terracotta version he exhibited at Musée Fabre in Montpellier. (In fact Winter had a "sister", Summer, who wears a shift and holds a sheaf of wheat in one hand and a watering can in the other.) A marble version of Winter was exhibited at the Salon of 1783, with this bronze version cast four years later.
With head bent forward, Winter is naked but for the cloth wrapped around her head and shoulders. She is shivering with arms crossed at her waist in what is surely a vain attempt to preserve body heat. While Houdon was for the most part a conservative sculptor, this work caused no little controversy. Some critics debated the artistic value of Houdon's depiction but the work was popular with the viewing public and, as Scherf explains, "Houdon mischievously undressed her, transforming her into a shivering callipygian girl. This audacious interpretation of the subject - bestowing a naturalness on a goddess, who thus becomes humanly desirable - shocked [...] the Académie royale but delighted art lovers".
The Metropolitan Museum of Art states on its online summary that "By showing the figure retracting into herself, Houdon conveys her chilled state while creating a contained form that veers toward abstraction and begs to be circled by the viewer. The sculptor abraded the bronze to give it a sleek, shimmering finish, as revealed by tool marks on the surface. Houdon's decision to portray winter as a partially clothed girl marked a radical departure from traditional representations of the season in the guise of an old man. Her lack of conventional accessories makes her identity ambiguous, opening up the daring possibility that she might be a semi-naked girl rather than an allegorical figure".
Bronze - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
A monumental tribute to America's first president, in this sculpture Houdon has depicted George Washington - on the president's insistence - in his modern military uniform. As Poulet describes, he is, "shown standing; having hung up his sword and clock on the fasces, a Roman symbol for authority, which here consists of thirteen rods representing the thirteen states, [and] he takes up his walking stick, on which he rests his gloved right hand".
American statesmen Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were tasked by the Virginia state legislature to select the artist for this commission and they chose Houdon; with Jefferson first speaking directly with Washington to advocate on the artist's behalf. Traveling to America in the summer of 1785, he spent several weeks at Mount Vernon with Washington where he made preparatory works including a life mask and clay bust model which he worked on when he returned to France to make the piece. According to Poulet, "Houdon prepared models of the full statue in both antique and contemporary dress, and Washington, who expressed a slight preference for the latter, was finally depicted in his military uniform as commander in chief of the revolutionary army". It was a marked move away from the Neoclassical style in which Houdon rendered most of his sculptures and yet the move paid off. Speaking of the legacy of this work Poulet states, "Houdon's portraits established the primary iconography for Washington in Europe and America and were copied and imitated by many sculptors in the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States".
White Marble - Collection of the Library of Virginia, Richmond Virginia
Antoinette-Claude, called Claudine Houdon (1790-1878)
His daughters were preferred subjects for Houdon. Here he captures his youngest child, Claudine, then aged three. Describing the appeal of this figure Scherf states, "the sitter is adorable - with fat cheeks, a frank gaze, and mussed hair - and is prettily enveloped with deeply carved folds".
While Houdon had by this point in his career firmly established himself as a master of rendering the features of his sitters, this work is more romanticized because of the deep personal bond between artist and sitter. Indeed, the bust was made purely for the artist own pleasure. Yet one sees here not a perfect, idealized version of a child, rendered from the removed point of observation that often exists between artist and subject, but rather an emotional rendering of a subject he knew and loved. According to Scherf, the bust, shows, "a tenderness in the modeling of the marble, which has been worked till it seems supple and suggests the translucency of flesh; both exemplify the sculptor's sensitivity to the subtlest expressions; and, above all, both attest to Houdon's love of life and of his children".
White marble on white marble base - Collection of Worcester Art Museum, Worchester, Massachusetts