Bernini and Houdon

By Gibson, Eric | New Criterion, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Bernini and Houdon


Gibson, Eric, New Criterion


If there's a single work of art one wishes everyone could see this season, it is Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Costanza Bonarelli (1636-1638). A marble bust of the artist's mistress, it is one of the high points of "Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portrait Sculpture," which began a two-city North American tour at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles this summer. (1) A fleeting instant captured in stone, it shows the young woman with her head turned and her mouth open, as if about to address someone who has just entered her orbit. Her eyes blaze from the center of a broad, fleshy face, and her chemise has fallen open to reveal part of one breast. Costanza Bonarelli is one of the most psychologically charged and sexually confrontational portraits ever produced--the art historian Howard Hibbard called it "a petrified fragment of passion"--as well as one of the greatest. And if that weren't reason enough go to see it, Costanza has not left her home in Florence's Bargello Museum for fifty years, making this North American visit a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

As it happens, another portrait bust of a great artist's inamorata on loan from an overseas museum is on American soil at the same time. Jean-Antoine Houdon's terracotta Madame Houdon (1786) is included in "Houdon at the Louvre: Masterpieces of the Enlightenment" that was organized by the High Museum in Atlanta. (2) Mme. Houdon bears a striking similarity to Costanza Bonarelli. It, too, captures the fleeting instant when its subject turns her head to direct her attention on something outside herself. Yet in contrast to Bernini's smoldering vixen, Mme. Houdon is a gamine, a sprightly young woman unburdened by cares. As with Costanza, her mouth is open, but she is smiling--dimples on either side add warmth to her face. And the delight so visible in the eyes is offset by a slight recoil, as if out of shyness. In contrast to Bernini's fraught record of erotic engagement, Houdon has commemorated a characteristic expression or, possibly, a moment of mutual attraction, the very instant of falling in love.

The simultaneous presence of these two works in American exhibitions would be little more than a matter of cultural coincidence were it not for the fact that Houdon was profoundly influenced by Bernini's portrait busts during his four years at the Academie de France in Rome between 1764 and 1768. Thus these two shows invited one to compare, albeit across great distances, the work of a master and of a pupil who would come to equal his teacher. And they offered illuminating insights into the dialogue between empirical observation and artistic imagination that is the essence of portraiture in any medium.

The Getty show--organized by Catherine Hess (associate curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the museum), Andrea Bacchi (a professor at the Universita de Trento, Italy), and Jennifer Montagu (Honorary Fellow at the Warburg Institute in London)--was a sixteen-work survey of Bernini's portraiture (slightly less than half his total output), from the early bronze Pope Paul V Borghese (1621-1622) to his late-career likeness of Louis XIV (1700). Along with Costanza, the other indisputable high point of the show is Galleria Borghese's electrifying Portrait of Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1632).

Included also are works by Bernini's colleagues and contemporaries Alessandro Algardi, Giuliano Finelli, and Francois Duquesnoy, many of whom portrayed the same papal luminaries as did Bernini. There are also painted portraits by Philippe de Champaigne, Guido Reni, Velazquez, Guercino, and van Dyck, this last his celebrated Portrait of King Charles I in Three Positions (1635), the basis of a bust Bernini carved of the doomed monarch, since destroyed. As if that weren't enough, the show includes a dozen of Bernini's portrait drawings. It's no exaggeration to say that not even in Rome, locus of the majority of Bernini's works, would it be possible to derive such a deep and broad understanding of Bernini's work as a portraitist as one does here.

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