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THE French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, whose retrospective opens Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, said that the ''sole merit'' of his portraits was ''likeness'' -- his busts looked like their subjects.
They did. With Jeffersonian understatement, Thomas Jefferson praised Houdon's bust of his friend John Paul Jones, the American Revolutionary naval hero, as ''an excellent likeness.'' (It is in the show, along with Houdon's portraits of Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and Lafayette.) In 1905, Jones's body was exhumed from a grave in Paris, to be moved to a crypt at the United States Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Md. His remains were identified by comparing measurements of the skull with Houdon's sculpture. They matched perfectly.
I suspect that Houdon (1741-1828), a cunning businessman and self-promoter, was being coy: he couldn't think likeness was the sole merit of his portraiture, because it wasn't. Of course, likeness meant more, as a technical feat, in the days before cameras made its achievement commonplace and cheap. But likeness was never enough to make a painting or sculpture seem really distinguished. Critics in Houdon's time hated the endless rows of busts at the annual Paris Salon: sculptures of ''nameless men,'' one critic wrote, ''these chief clerks or assistant clerks, these doleful marquises, these anonymous countesses, these no-account judges' wives.'' No doubt many of them looked like their subjects.
Houdon's portraits, besides being of celebrities, were also true to life. This means something beyond likeness. It entails character and social station, an aura and animation that have nothing to do with simple flattery. Diderot put it this way (there are several busts of him in the show as well): ''Strictly speaking, it is not individuals that must be placed on stage, but conditions.'' Conditions of life.
What does it mean to say that a portrait captures the person portrayed? Does it capture the anatomical configuration of the face? A characteristic expression? How do you read an expression, anyway? Is the Mona Lisa smiling or smirking?
Portraiture must be the most ordinary, underappreciated, elusive and dimly understood of all visual genres. The camera nearly killed it off once and for all as an occupation for painters and sculptors -- liberating artists from the chore of verisimilitude, or hastening the breakdown of standards, something from which art in the modern age has never recovered, depending on your viewpoint. Cameras made portraitists of anyone.
Every person who produced a family snapshot or photograph of a friend suddenly became an amateur Houdon. Their portraits ended up in overstuffed wallets and in photo albums or framed on mantelpieces and desks, cherished talismans whose deepest meanings were private and evaporated when separated from their associations. As untethered mementos, the snapshots then became riddles and mysteries, humble Mona Lisas, you might say, spared from the trash can only when their subjects happened to be recognizable -- preferably famous, like Houdon's -- or if the quality of their compositions somehow seemed redeeming and artistic as when, consciously or otherwise, a stranger looking at the portrait could find in it something familiar, a confirmation of some aspect of life or history already considered an article of faith.
Houdon's bust of Jefferson became the model for the nickel because people saw in it the lively intelligence and determination with which he was associated. I wonder whether those would be the characteristics people perceived if the same portrait were of a no-account judge or an assistant clerk. Houdon's bust of Ben Franklin makes him look restless, apprehensive, genial, tight-lipped or as if he is smiling, depending on which cast of it you come across and how you choose to look at it. Both sculptures are vivid, subtle and virtuosic. They are true to life, spectacularly so. But how much, if anything, can you ever really know about a person from a portrait?
Every high school student used to know Houdon's busts of Voltaire, Louis XVI and Napoleon, and of American heroes like Franklin and Jefferson, from history textbooks or plaster reproductions in classrooms, without necessarily realizing that Houdon did them. His accuracy, achieved with life casts and calipers, dovetailed with the scientific bent of Enlightenment thinkers, who were his subjects.
He became especially known for the way he sculptured eyes, with a small isthmus left within an excavated socket to catch the light as it would sparkle off the pupil. The effect was so carefully calibrated that, with his busts of the young children Alexandre and Louise Brongniart, Houdon managed to convey the difference between Alexandre's blue eyes and Louise's brown ones by varying the depth of carving.
Portraiture was only one of his endeavors. Houdon was the son of a concierge. After winning the Grand Prix de Rome, he was commissioned to do a statue of St. John the Baptist for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which inspired him to make a version of a flayed man, his ''Écorché,'' standing, one arm extended. ''L'Écorché'' begins and ends the show: plaster and bronze versions, the arm differently positioned. These are exhibition bookends that stress, as Anne L. Poulet, the curator, writes in the catalog, Houdon's ''blend of an almost scientific recording of nature with its abstraction and idealization.''
Houdon became a sculpteur du roi, but he made enemies and tried official patience. His commercialism was considered crass by rivals. His nudes offended royal moralists. ''Diana'' had visible genitalia. ''La Frileuse,'' a sculpture of a naked shivering girl with only a shawl around her shoulders, was turned down for the Paris Salon because, as the head of the royal academy said, recognizing a basic truth about striptease, ''a completely nude figure is less indecent than those draped with false modesty.'' Naturally, the work became fantastically popular.
Houdon won grand commissions in Saxony and Russia. He traveled to America and made a life mask of Washington at Mount Vernon. His fame became enormous. After the French Revolution, under the Empire, he did busts of Napoleon and Josephine (thin-lipped, with a dental problem, aging): almost streamlined sculptures, compared with earlier Houdons, still heroizing but remarkably frank.
With time, taste being fickle, he came to be less in demand. He died having failed in his lifelong ambition to make a bronze equestrian statue. He had hoped to depict Washington on horseback.
The show, modest-sized and extremely handsome, with 60-odd works plus two paintings by Louis-Léopold Boilly of Houdon and his sculptures, is an eloquent reminder of bygone magnificence. Various versions of the same works, including the busts of Diderot and Voltaire, demonstrate Houdon's stupendous finesse in alternative materials. A life mask of Lafayette shows how closely Houdon hewed to plain facts while conveying his subject's youthful bluster and charisma, the attributes of grand ambitions. His painted plaster medallion of Friedrich III, Duke of Saxe-Gotha, must be the most perfect imitation of bronze ever made.
The refinements of touch and wit are constant. Houdon's portraits of Voltaire in old age have quick, lively eyes. His sculpture of his wife shows her laughing -- she has a wide dimpled smile, and teeth: it is a work of blunt, intimate observation and fresh, honest love. Before leaving the gallery, I stopped in to see the Gainsborough show and noticed the portrait of that painter's wife, from the same time. It's somber by comparison: she's alert and steady but without the same warmth and breezy charm.
Specialists can debate the fine points of different casts and other minutiae. The exhibition makes abundantly clear to anyone who looks that portrait sculpture, a sadly anachronistic art, at its liveliest raised the most basic human question: who are we? In Houdon's world, we are all smart, amusing and noble.
He's so good, you can almost believe it is true.
''Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828): Sculptor of the Enlightenment,'' organized by the National Gallery of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Etablissement Public du Musée et du Domaine National de Versailles, opens on Sunday at the National Gallery, on the Mall between Third and Ninth Streets, at Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, (202) 737-4215, and runs through Sept. 7.
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