Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculpture and Sensibility

29 October 2009 to 28 February 2010

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An exhibition of the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, in cooperation with the Musée Fabre, Montpellier.

Dedicated to the sculptural work of Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), the exhibition "Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculpture and Sensibility” presented on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung will be on display from 29 October 2009 until 28 February 2010. As one of the most famous French artists of the eighteenth century, an exemplary sculptor of the Enlightenment, and the most successful portrait sculptor of his time, Houdon worked in France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and the United States of America. He created portraits of middle-class clients, French and American philosophers of the Enlightenment like Voltaire, Denis Diderot, or Benjamin Franklin, but also of rulers such as Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, Louis XVI, and Napoleon I. Like no other sculptor of his time he knew how to capture his models’ subtle features and to give form to their character in different materials. In addition to portraits, he made full-length statues dedicated to religious and allegorical themes as well as subjects from antiquity. The exhibition centers around Houdon’s Frileuse from 1783, a personification of winter, and the bronze version of the theme dating from 1787, two works that number among the most famous sculptures of their time and paradigmatically illustrate the shift from Baroque to the Enlightenment. A further focus of the show is on Houdon’s personality from the perspective of the materials the artist used. With a total of forty exhibits – nineteen of the items sculptures by Houdon – the presentation in the Liebieghaus offers the first comprehensive survey of the sculptor’s oeuvre in Germany comparing it to the achievements of important contemporaries like Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Augustin Pajou, Jean-Jacques Caffiéri, or Jean-Baptiste II Lemoyne. The exhibition is supported by loans from internationally renowned museums such as the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. After Frankfurt, the exhibition will be shown in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier from 16 March to 27 June 2010.

The eighteenth century was marked by the discussions sparked off by the Enlightenment, which pervaded all spheres of public and private life. The basic principle of the new thinking was the criticism of handed-down traditions. In the fine arts, conventional norms also lost their binding power, and the tasks and contents changed. Painters, sculptors, and graphic artists explored the Baroque art of allegory and transformed it. They used the traditional motifs in new contexts of representation. The illusion of full-of-life corporeality and understandable three-dimensionality was converted into artificial naturalness. The artists freed themselves from their former patrons, the court and the church, and turned to the public of salon exhibitions, for example. A new relationship between works of art, viewers, and artists developed, and the artists saw themselves forced to find convincing, hitherto unused forms for old and new subjects because of their renunciation of aged traditions. One of the decisive trailblazers of the Enlightenment with means of art was Jean-Antoine Houdon, born the son of the concierge to the Comte de La Motte in Versailles in 1741 and trained at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture in Paris and later at the Académie de France in Rome. By the 1770s, Houdon already numbered among the most famous portrait sculptors of France. His contacts went far beyond its borders, though: politicians, enlightened princes, authors, art critics, musicians, and scientists from France, Germany, Russia, and America were bound to him as friends, patrons, and clients, among them Denis Diderot, Voltaire, the Comte de Buffon, the Marquis de Mirabeau, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. He portrayed middle-class clients, French and American thinkers of the Enlightenment, rulers like Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, Ludwig XVI, and Napoleon I, as well as members of the court such as Madame Adélaïde or Prince Henry of Prussia.

Besides portraits, Houdon made a number of full-length statues dedicated to religious and allegorical themes and subjects from antiquity. The two versions of his statue Winter (Frileuse) not only rank among his most celebrated works, but among the most prominent eighteenth-century sculptures. Together with Summer, the counterpart to the marble statue of the shivering woman, they constitute the central works of the presentation in the Liebieghaus. The Frileuse is only covered with a far too scanty shawl loosely wrapped around her head and upper body. The girl’s elegant grace on the one hand and her slightly lowered eyes and withdrawn, almost melancholy look on the other underscore the sculpture’s unique expressiveness and convincingly convey the impression of shivering with cold and a moving sensibility. The choice of a young girl for the personification of winter is unusual, yet has its forerunners in works by Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and Étienne-Maurice Falconet. The attribute of the vase burst from the cold, which was used in the case of the marble figure, provides a symbol of transitoriness, but can also be interpreted as an indication of lost innocence. Likewise, the Frileuse may be associated with tomb monuments, mourners, or pietà figures, which again emphasizes the closeness to death she already radiates as a personification of the cold season. Houdon’s figure also introduced a new understanding of the motif structures "death and the maiden” and "seduction and innocence.” Because of its numerous attributes, such as vine leaves, fruits, a tambourine, blossoms, a sickle and ears, and a watering can, the counterpart sculpture, Summer, is not unequivocally related to summer, but also to autumn and perhaps to spring. The attributes are open to erotic associations: the watering can and the sickle may be read as symbols of male sexuality. While Houdon’s Summer is still modeled on traditional attributes rather, Winter breaks completely away from connotations deriving from the Christian sphere or the world of antiquity and stands for a new form of representing a season. Complementing each other, the two sculptures illustrate the art of the Enlightenment’s paradigmatic shift in its dissociation from the Baroque era.

The artists’ search for a modern form of expression went hand in hand with an increasing attention to material and surface modeling and thus also to the very materiality of their objects. Whether he chose marble, plaster, terracotta, or bronze, Houdon achieved an astonishing mastery of conveying and translating the material’s properties. He executed numerous of his works in different material versions: while the statues Summer and Winter from the Musée Fabre in Montpellier dating from 1783 and 1785 are made of marble, another quite prominent version of Winter from 1787 to be found in the Metropolitan Museum of New York today is made of bronze. White marble had been the epitome of preciousness since antiquity. Houdon used marble for many portraits in which he refrained from an idealizing approach and brought out the subject’s personality like no other artist of his era. Bronze had also been popular as a precious material for large- and small-format works since the days of antiquity. Houdon had a fondness for it. In 1794, he wrote, "…I can say that there are only two things really to which I dedicated myself throughout all my life…: anatomy and casting statues.” Some art lovers had specialized in collecting terracotta works. This material was held in high esteem especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, since clay, a traditional material for studies, was thought to reveal the artist’s true talent and original idea. Houdon’s bust of the French emperor Napoleon, for example, was made in front of the model. The penchant for terracotta encouraged the production of small statuettes with carefully executed details such as Houdon’s Voltaire Seated. Even if considered a less precious material, plaster was often used in the eighteenth century, because the salon exhibitions often included plaster models for future marble statues. Occasionally, the subjects portrayed also commissioned plaster copies after marble originals, which they gave to friends or admirers as a present. Covered with a colored patina, they feign works of terracotta or bronze. In the case of the musician Christoph Willibald Gluck’s grand bust, a plaster work marks the beginning of the creative process; a marble bust and further plaster versions followed.

Rendering man and nature in their truth was one of the things the age called for. Houdon’s portrait busts breathe a compelling physicality. However, they reveal another truth, too: the truth of sculpture. Houdon leaves no doubt that what is to be seen is art and no reality. This makes for an oscillating impression: it is the truth of the content we see on the one hand; the subjects are convincingly rendered in their appearance and their character, for example. Yet, on the other, the truth of the material and of giving form becomes important, too. Houdon gives the illusion of breathing bodies and transfers them into art.

Curator: Dr. Maraike Bückling (Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung)

Research assistant: Eva Maria Breisig M. A.


Main sponsors: Hessische Kulturstiftung and Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung

Additional support: Stadt Frankfurt am Main, Agglomération Montpellier, La Maison du Pain, Teehaus Ronnefeldt

Media partners: VGF – Verkehrsbetriebe Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurter Rundschau

Culture partner: hr2 kultur


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