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Sculptor to the Great

A new exhibit at the National Gallery should cause Richmonders to take a closer look at home.

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And yes, a from-life bust of Washington is displayed among the pantheon of American politicians, European nobility, philosophers, musicians and military luminaries as well as mythological and allegorical figures. It’s quite a gathering!

Although Houdon was educated under the sponsorship of the French court, his long and fruitful career spanned a tumultuous era when the world was changing radically. Prominent figures of both the French and American revolutions were among his subject matter and he rendered these personalities with all the confidence and elegance that the great classicists that preceded him (Michelangelo and Bernini) had achieved when depicting their subjects.

But Houdon achieved lifelike detail and feeling in his works: His career was coming to a close just as the earliest photographic experiments were underway in Europe. Patrons, admirers and the curious flocked to his studio to marvel at his insightful depictions of prominent contemporary figures. An oil painting, “Houdon in His Studio” (c. 1803) by Louis-Léopold Boilly, shows students and others watching the artist at work, while from enveloping pedestals and shelves, casts of completed works look on.

Houdon approached his craft with the combined mind and eye of a historian, mathematician, surgeon and psychologist. He had studied anatomy extensively, as well as ancient and Renaissance sculpture in Paris and Rome. He made careful measurements of his subjects with calipers and also worked with life and death masks. As the only French artist of his generation who owned his own foundry, he was able to cast and control the quality of his own bronzes.

It was Benjamin Franklin, while ambassador to France for the fledging American states, who made Houdon’s acquaintance and created the bridge between this artist of the Enlightenment and the New World. He paved the way for future commissions of such American notables as Thomas Jefferson, naval hero John Paul Jones and inventor Robert Fulton.

This ambitious and sumptuous exhibition (Anne Litle Poulet, formerly with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is curator) sprawls over six large rooms on the ground floor of the National Gallery. A different theme is explored in each room. First, there is young Houdon in Rome where he studied at the French Academy for four years and immersed himself in ancient, Renaissance and baroque art. His life-size St. John the Baptist (sculpted when Houdon was only 25) was created for a Michelangelo-designed church, Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome. The work itself seems to have been inspired by a Michelangelo sculpture of Christ that stands in another Roman church. But curator Poulet cleverly places the St. John next to Houdon’s almost shocking study of a flayed man, “L’Ecorché,” to suggest that Houdon had anatomy as much as religiosity on his mind when he sculpted the St. John.

In the second gallery, which examines Houdon and figures of the Enlightenment, there are three depictions of Voltaire. Unlike in any of his other works, Houdon here not only achieves a likeness but the personality (if not the soul) of his subject. Voltaire’s twinkling eyes and knowing gaze are almost too engaging.

The “Houdon in America” section of the exhibition attests to the strong bond between France and the United States during the Revolutionary War. And later, it was Jefferson who recommended to the Virginia General Assembly that Houdon sculpt a full-length portrait of Washington to stand in the Capitol rotunda (inspired by classical temples) of Jefferson’s own design. Houdon spent two weeks at Mount Vernon studying and measuring the first U.S. president. Today, the work stands in the place where a statue of a god or goddess of an ancient era might have been placed inside a Greek or Roman temple.

Other galleries focus on artists of the Enlightenment including the actress and singer Sophie Arnould and composer Gluck (whose pockmarked face is proof that Houdon was unblinking in depicting his subjects). But Houdon could also be sensual and smooth, as shown in his depictions of Diana and Apollo and the allegorical works showing “Spring” and “Winter” depicted as nubile young woman.

The sculptor’s individual works, as well as the overall exhibition installation, look spectacular and much at ease in the marble-floored, neoclassical spaces of the National Gallery, a 1930s architectural masterwork by John Russell Pope. (Incidentally, he also designed the building that now houses the Science Museum of Virginia.)

In the early 21st century, being photographed by Richard Avedon or Annie Liebowitz is the ultimate high in portraiture for the meritocracy of Washington, New York, Hollywood or Silicon Valley. But this show makes it clear that in the 18th and early 19th centuries, having Houdon sculpt your visage was the thing.

And as to our own masterpiece standing in downtown Richmond? After a visit to the National Gallery, it is clear that Houdon’s George Washington more than holds its own as a breathtaking work of art. The exhibition reminds us not to take it for granted. S



“Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828): Sculptor of the Enlightenment” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. through Sept. 7. (202) 737-4215.

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