Vestal

Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828)
Vestal, c. 1767–68
Terracotta
23 7/8 in. (60.6 cm)
Private Collection

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.