Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) Vestal, c. 1767–68
23 7/8 in. (60.6 cm)
A life-size marble statue in Rome served as the inspiration for this terracotta, which exemplifies the impact of classical antiquity on Houdon’s early work in Italy. He depicts a priestess of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth whose followers (called vestals) adopted vows of chastity and guarded a perpetual flame in her temple. Featuring the blank eyes and serene expression of a classical sculpture, Houdon’s figure holds an urn of the sacred fire with draped hands that attest to her modesty. A student of anatomy who observed nature as closely as he observed the antique, Houdon activates his figure through the slight sway of her stance, the gentle turn of her head, and the grace of her form emerging beneath the pleats of her garment.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) Young Lise in the Guise of Innocence, 1775
18 1/8 in. (46 cm)
On view April–June 2014
According to popular anecdote, a provincial innocent named Mademoiselle Lise arrived in Paris in 1774 under the naive assumption that husbands, as well as weddings, would be offered to local maidens during a municipal celebration. In this tour-de-force carving, Houdon contrasts the matte texture of Lise’s bountiful hair, bound beneath a wide ribbon, with the smooth, polished surface of her unblemished features, endowing his imaginary portrayal with palpable reality. By adopting the idiom of a classical bust, Houdon transcends the specificity of his subject to personify timeless, youthful innocence.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) Madame His, 1775
31 1/2 x 17 x 12 1/2 in. (80 x 43.2 x 31.8 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York; Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Victor Thaw, 2007
This portrait bust of Marie Anne de Vastre, wife of German banker Pierre-François His, highlights Houdon’s gift for rendering lifelike features and textures in marble. The tumbling curls of Madame His’s coiffure echo the undulations of her mantle and inwardly folding chemise, while her upright bearing, alert gaze, and parted lips — animated to suggest that she is on the verge of speaking — highlight her intelligence. By uniting close observation from life with the classical bust format, Houdon endows his subject with the superior rationality that Enlightenment audiences admired in ancient sculpture.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) Diana the Huntress, 1776–95
75 1/2 in. (191.8 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York; Purchased 1939
Houdon’s exploration of the figure in motion finds full expression in this life-size portrayal of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, who bounds forward in pursuit of her quarry with a bow and (lost) arrow. The open stance of the goddess, who balances on one foot in a display of technical ingenuity, expands the limits of the terracotta medium. In his unorthodox portrayal of the virgin goddess’s nudity, Houdon combines classical subject matter with the knowledge of the human body that he gained while working from life in Rome.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) Armand-Thomas Hue, Marquis de Miromesnil, 1777
25 1/2 in. (64.8 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York; Purchased 1935
Adopting the dignity of a Roman imperial bust, Houdon portrays the marquis in his august role as minister of justice of France, which he held for thirteen years beginning in 1774. The highly polished surface of his official costume, including the buttoned cassock, bow-tied sash, and voluminous robe, is distinct from the delicately textured carving that defines the sitter’s wig and frames his fleeting expression. Houdon conveys the marquis’s intellect through the tensed features around his mouth and the sideways glance of his eyes, which glint with uncanny realism as small reserves of marble highlight the darker recesses of his pupils.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) Comtesse du Cayla, 1777
21 1/4 in. (54 cm)
The Frick Collection, New York; Henry Clay Frick Bequest
Houdon portrays the Countess of Cayla (née Élisabeth-Susanne de Jaucourt) as a bacchante, or female follower of Bacchus. By depicting her as she turns to run or dance, with windswept hair and a sidelong gaze, the artist explores the possibilities of the portrait bust format to convey motion. The grape leaves adorning the countess’s breast emphasize her Bacchic role, perhaps an allusion to her husband’s family name, Baschi. The contrast between this work and the more restrained marble busts by Houdon exhibited nearby conveys the artist’s fluid approach to portraiture and the classical tradition, which he adapted to suit his distinct aims and the individual qualities of his sitters.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) The Dead Thrush (La Grive Morte), 1782
8 7/8 x 5 7/8 x 2 5/8 in. (22.5 x 14.9 x 6.5 cm)
The Horvitz Collection, Boston
Houdon applies his powers of lifelike representation to this portrayal of a lifeless songbird hanging by its feet from a nail with a delicate ribbon. The artist amplifies the trompe l’oeil conceit of the work through the drooping wing of the thrush, whose stiff feathers, differentiated from the down of its body, extend beyond the frame in a masterful expression of high-relief carving. The work suggests Houdon’s engagement with the legend of Zeuxis, the ancient Greek artist whose convincing depiction of grapes attracted hungry birds, as well as the sculptor’s ambition to rival the illusionistic possibilities of painting.