Houdon's Work Blends 'Beauty' and Reality

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Houdon's Work Blends 'Beauty' and Reality


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The French 18th-century sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon lived in both the bloodiest and most forward-thinking of times. Considered the greatest sculptor of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, Houdon (1741-1828) sculpted its leading figures, including its two most representative men of ideas, Voltaire and Denis Diderot.

These Encyclopedists wanted out with the "old" power of church and monarchy and in with the "new," ideas and progress. With the violent excesses of the French Revolution, they got more than they bargained for, but they nevertheless had laid the intellectual groundwork for the age's epochal social, political and judicial reforms. The individual now was king, not the Bourbon monarchs, at least in theory.

Houdon, whose first major international solo exhibition, "Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828): Sculptor of the Enlightenment," opens tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art, balanced the blazing fires of the Revolution with an almost icy rationality.

While in Rome as a student in 1761 at the French Academy on the coveted Prix de Rome, he formulated his artistic philosophy: to show people candidly but selectively, to ennoble them by bringing out what was most attractive.

Consider two of Houdon's few portraits of the aristocracy, the busts of King Louis XVI (1790) and the monarch's aunt, Marie-Adelaide de France (1777), both in the exhibit.

Claude Vandalle humorously describes the king in the exhibit's catalog: "Louis XVI was thirty-three years old when the 1787 bust was done, and he was physically unattractive, his body heavy from overeating ...'To get an idea of his personality,' said his brother the Comte d'Artois, 'imagine lubricated balls of ivory that you struggle in vain to keep together.' "

Houdon tried to hide the king's defects by tilting the head up and to the right and dressing him in a handsome wig. To draw attention from the puffy face, the sculptor exquisitely detailed silk and embroidery.

Houdon was equally tactful with Marie-Adelaide, reportedly an embittered old maid. Her eyes bulge, her nose sticks out, and her buck teeth protrude. Again, he tried to mitigate her shortcomings with raised, bouffant hair and intricately carved lace.

Studies of cadavers and scientific study of anatomy began as part of the Enlightenment's glorification of individuality. Houdon was a student in Rome when he began dissecting corpses and created his famous figure of a flayed man, known as "L'Ecorche," in 1766. The figure, which welcomes visitors to the exhibit, is sure to startle some. The sculptor went on to use life and death masks in capturing bone and muscle structures for his closely detailed portraits. …

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