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Eighteenth-Century Studies 37.2 (2004) 273-284
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Man of Many Faces
Anne Betty Weinshenker
Jean-Antoine Houdon, Sculptor of the Enlightenment. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (4 May-7 September 2003); The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (4 November 2003-25 January 2004); Musée et domaine national du château de Versailles (1 March-30 May 2004). Catalogue by Anne L. Poulet, with Guilhem Scherf, Ulrike D. Mathies, Christoph Frank, Claude Vandalle, Dean Walker, Monique Barbier (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art and Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003). Pp. 384; 134 color and 206 black-and-white illus. $85.00 cloth.
In view of the fact that Jean-Antoine Houdon carried out virtually his entire career in Paris, his significance in the history of art in the United States is remarkable. He was the first major European artist to set foot in the new nation (one could scarcely put John Smibert, John Wollaston, or Joseph Blackburn in that category), sculpted definitive portraits of some of the most important figures of its early years, and has supplied an impressive array of works to North American collections. The venues for this first international exhibition devoted exclusively to his work, which places more than sixty examples on view, have accordingly been pertinently chosen. Rounding out the important picture of Houdon's international activity, the catalogue places considerable emphasis on his connections with German courts. With equal appropriateness, an international array of scholars has participated in the preparation of this volume. The exhibition grants new and needed attention to the production of one of the most important artists of the eighteenth century and follows in the line of recent exhibitions, also accompanied by thorough and scholarly catalogues devoted to French sculptors of the era: Clodionin 1993 (Paris, Musée du Louvre) and Augustin Pajou, Royal Sculptor in 1997-8 (Paris, Musée du Louvre and New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
In the National Gallery the exhibition was located in the central gallery of the ground floor. No natural light reaches most of the area and a generally [End Page 273] rather low level of illumination was provided for it, tending to produce a subdued atmosphere, a mood of age and reverence. The lights focusing on the sculpture worked to compensate for this impression and to draw the viewers' attention, but did not obliterate its partially subliminal effects. By way of contrast, the exhibition area on the first floor above, with its multiple skylights, was washed with light. The sculptures displayed there (not part of the Houdon show) communicated with gleaming vividness.
As installed in the National Gallery, the Houdon exhibition generally followed the chronology of his career, beginning with the works made during his years as a student at the Académie de France in Rome (1764-68). The first room provided an arresting introduction to the show. Centered in its dusky space loomed twin lifesize figures, effectively illuminated by spotlights: the artist's Saint John the Baptist (1766-67; Galleria Borghese, Rome), made on commission for the Carthusian church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and the first version of his Écorché (flayed figure) (1767; Académie de France, Rome), an anatomical study created in preparation for the statue of the saint. Identical in pose, material (plaster), and almost in size, the two rose up before the entering spectator, inviting circumambulation which led to the revelation that the Écorché was finished all around, while the Baptist, a preliminary version of a still-larger one meant for placement in a niche, was not.
Surrounding this striking duo were smaller pieces created during this period and also dramatized by spotlit installation. Some of them, such as the Priest of the Lupercalia (Schlossmuseum Gotha), were given a less-than lifesize scale from the first. Others were reductions of larger works: a lifesize plaster of the Morpheus (1777; Musée du Louvre)—which served as the artist's reception piece into the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture—was made before the small marble...