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Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment.

Apollo 2003, Nov, 158, 501

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The especially delicate state of Franco-American relations at the beginning of May this year supplied an extra historical dimension to the opening of this magnificent exhibition, for which the ground floor of the National Gallery of Art, at the heart of the nation's capital, has been given over to the work of an artist who was not only French but who created the definitive portraits of America's founding fathers--Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin. What brought France and America so close together at the time was their mutual struggle against Great Britain. Nationalism of one kind or another has often infected Houdon scholarship; Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle's 1911 memoir of 'The sculptor of Voltaire and of Washington' is the most marked example of a tendency that caused Louis Reau, the tireless French interpreter of Houdon's work, to refer to the great Voltaire assis, which was commissioned front the sculptor by Voltaire's devoted student and correspondent, the Empress Catherine II, as 'exile' in St Petersburg. The organisers of this exhibition, which will travel to Los Angeles and Versailles, have liberated the sculptor from such bias, for the most part overcoming at the same time the formidable technical difficulties involved in transporting sculpture, drawing freely on loans from Europe and the United States (with the majority in this first showing coming from Europe) to allow for the first time a balanced assessment of his work. The opening coup d'oeil, a truly dramatic set piece of the kind for which the Washington National Gallery is justly famous, presents the unique plaster St John the Baptist of 1766-67 from the Villa Borghese in Rome (no. 1) (Fig. 1) side by side with the preparatory Ecorche (no. 3) (Fig. 2), which has left the French Academy in Rome for the first time since it was made by the student sculptor in the operating theatre of the hospital of S Luigi dei Francesi. The Hermitage authorities have quite under standably taken a different view of the possible risk to the Seated Voltaire, which was moved thirty times during the last century, but the enforced unavailability even of the tiny gilt bronze reduction, made for Houdon by Thomire as a gift for the Empress Catherine in 1779, but stolen three years ago from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, must have been especially frustrating for the organisers. On the other hand, the inclusion of the full-length marble portrait of around 1806-12 (no. 65), prised from the crypt of the Pantheon, is an understandable but perhaps unjustified attempt to represent full-length portraiture in an exhibition otherwise dominated by busts; while the head is admirable, the remainder--and especially the gigantic hands--is surely a workmanlike production by studio assistants. Jean-Guillaume Moitte's statue of General Leclerc, commissioned for the Pantheon at the same time, was entirely sub-contracted.

Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment.
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  • 2,99 €
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac.
  • Category: Performing Arts
  • Published: 01 November 2003
  • Publisher: Apollo Magazine Ltd.
  • Print Length: 8 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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