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My primary interests when writing reviews lie in contemporary art and, to a lesser extent, historic modern art. But this sensibility means I don't always get a chance to focus on traditional art from the past, which is much more popular with the general public. As a result, I have inadvertently neglected an impressive and major exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, Houdon From the Louvre, which is about to close.
The handsome display, installed in the Stanton Gallery in the Ponti tower (ignobly dubbed the North Building), is dedicated to an old master who is one of the most important — and most reproduced — sculptors in European history, Jean-Antoine Houdon.
It's the DAM's second collaboration with the Louvre — one of the most important museums on earth, and one that was founded during Houdon's lifetime — but with the economy tanking the way it is, it's likely to be the last for quite some time.
The Louvre is the world's principal depository of Houdon's work, and the Denver show includes twenty pieces; most are busts, but there is also a standing figure, several bas-relief panels and a sculptural group. It was put together by the Louvre's curator of eighteenth-century sculpture, Guilhem Scherf, who has focused on Houdon's career for nearly a quarter-century. "He is the master of that time, and the Louvre has the most important sculptures he created," he notes. "They have all been included in this show."
Houdon lived during some interesting times in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including the French Revolution, and needed to transform himself from a court artist to one working in a democratic society. The huge cultural sea change is recorded in this work, with the early pieces depicting aristocrats in frilly dress and elaborate wigs, while the later sitters wore plain clothes and their own simply cut hair. Another historic aspect of the work is that Houdon's patrons included many literary and political figures associated with the French Enlightenment; his sculptural portraits provide an interesting guide to those times. And because of the connections between France and America, he also depicted figures associated with the establishment of the United States.
Houdon was born in the royal town of Versailles in 1741. His father was a senior servant to a high-ranking government official. The year after Houdon was born, the family relocated to Paris, where the senior Houdon became the concierge at the École Royale des Élèves Protégès, an institution of higher learning meant to prepare students for study in Rome. This allowed Houdon to become familiar with scholars and artists when he was still a child. Houdon would eventually study at the school and later in Rome; he also earned a degree from the Académie Royale, where he studied with Michel-Ange Slodtz, who had spent most of his career working in Rome.
Given his mentor's taste and his own experiences in Rome, the classical Roman sensibility became an important influence for Houdon; as a result, his work has both a classical flavor and a neo-classical look that was more from his own time.
One of the great misconceptions about classical antiquity is that Roman art is little more than an updated copy of Greek art. It's not. This false conclusion is probably rooted in the fact that the Romans made exact copies of Greek art to decorate their homes and public buildings. But when left to their own devices, the Roman aesthetic was realism, while the Greeks were much dreamier in their depictions. In sculpture, this clearly delineated distinction manifests itself well in the field of portraiture. Roman busts are meant to literally refer to the people being depicted, recording broken noses and warts and blemishes. The Greek approach, on the other hand, was to depict the human form as being supremely beautiful, with pieces based not on any specific person, but on an idealized version of a handsome male or gorgeous female. Houdon, as demonstrated in this show, comes down decisively on the Roman side of this dialectic.
After spending four years in Rome — 1764 to 1768 — Houdon returned to Paris and exhibited the pieces he had made in the Eternal City at the salon held at the Louvre. The readily acknowledged quality of his Italian sculptures had earlier led to his being nominated for full membership in the Académie Royale. Neo-classicism was new at the time, and contemporary critics and commentators noted Houdon's taste for the work of the ancients, and they praised him for it.
Interestingly, perhaps because of his humble upbringing, Houdon needed to make a living, and he opened his studio not just to the titled aristocrats — or, more properly, their dealers and agents — but also to the general public. "He was very modern in this way, and people, including foreign visitors, would go to his workshop to see what he was doing and to buy his work directly from him," Scherf notes.
But Scherf goes on to explain that this was not the standard practice for artists of that time, and it was strictly forbidden by the rules of the Académie Royale, which did not allow artists to function as dealers. A group rose up against Houdon to strip him of his membership, but he was able to weather the storm with help from socially important artists, writers and philosophers of the Enlightenment.
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