- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

  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.
  An exceptional portrait, recalling a Roman one of the emperor Vespasian, is that of “Denis Diderot” (1771). Like the creator of Vespasian, Houdon did away with fussy clothes and rendered just the face and chest. Sculpted from the precious veiled Italian Carrara marble Houdon favored, Diderot looks slightly to his right. The pupils of the eyes have been incised for greater realism, a common Houdon technique
  Even more perceptive was his 1778 portrait of Voltaire, commissioned by Catherine the Great. Voltaire had returned to Paris on Feb. 10, 1778, for a triumphant welcome just a few months before his death the following May. Houdon captured the philosopher’s strength in the tightly pressed lips and intensely focused eyes.
  His “Sophie Arnould” (1775) is an incisive rendering of a flamboyant actress famous not only for her work on the stage, but also for her love life off of it. Here, he juxtaposed the smooth marble of her glistening skin and breast with detailed dress fabric and cascading mounds of hair.
  The favored portraitist of the French intellectuals, Houdon also was much in demand by America’s leading intellectual and political figures. An especially effective grouping in the exhibit displays “Benjamin Franklin,” “Thomas Jefferson” and “George Washington.” (Houdon traveled to America to sculpt him.)
  The sculptor was just on the cusp of balancing detailed realism with an expressive grasp of his sitters’ inner beings. After finishing with the Houdon exhibit, it is worth walking through the new West Building Sculpture Galleries to the end, where telling contrasts to his work are to be found in the intimate sculptures of Edgar Degas, some of pressed wax, and Rodin, the creator of expressionist sculpture.
  Marrying what he considered “the most beautiful aspects” of his sitters with the reality of their personalities, Houdon was perhaps approaching an expressionist breakthrough, but he was still enmeshed in the Enlightenment’s 18th-century idealism.
  WHAT: “Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828): Sculptor of the Enlightenment”
  WHERE: West Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
  WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 7.
  PHONE: 202/737-4215

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