As is standard practice at the DAM, the exhibit was not arranged chronologically, but more instinctively. I understand the logic — Houdon's "Diana the Huntress," from 1790, is the only large sculpture, so it makes some sense to put it up front, even if it comes mid-career for Houdon. On the other hand, this method prevents viewers from understanding his artistic development. When I made this complaint while walking through the show, Scherf, who was not responsible for the installation, pointed out that Houdon's style changed little over the decades, and his work of the late eighteenth century looks very much like his work of the early nineteenth.

Scherf considers "Diana," which has never before been seen overseas, to be Houdon's most important piece. It is made of bronze and depicts a nude young woman holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. In addition to being beautiful, it is an engineering triumph, as the very heavy piece is balanced on its round base at only one small point, the ball of Diana's foot.

"Diana" is life-sized, a characteristic shared with the signature portrait busts, made of marble, terra cotta or bronze, that dominate this show as well as Houdon's career. Houdon was too déclassé to get royal commissions, but he did get commissions from many intellectuals of the day, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.

"Diana the Huntress," by Jean-Antoine Houdon, bronze.
"Diana the Huntress," by Jean-Antoine Houdon, bronze.

Details

Through January 4, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000, www.denverartmuseum.org.For a slide show of this exhibit, go to westword.com/slideshow.

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Interestingly, a prominent out-of-towner in Paris, Benjamin Franklin, an emissary to the French court for the brand-new United States, also sat for Houdon. The two became friends and sailed for America in 1785. This led to Houdon's executing busts of George Washington and other American figures.

Back in Paris, Houdon survived the French Revolution, probably because of his lack of royal patrons, but in a twist of fate, he ultimately became a favorite of Napoleon's and executed busts of the emperor. Houdon died in 1828.

The most incredible thing about the Houdon sculptures is the staggeringly fine quality of the craftsmanship. He really knew what he was doing whether carving marble, modeling terra cotta or casting bronze. Another remarkable thing is his incredible naturalism, which he achieved through an elaborate process that involved taking life masks from his sitters, as well as taking careful measurements so that he could replicate their likeness with a tremendous sense of precision.

The Denver Art Museum seems to have something for everyone right now. In addition to Houdon From the Louvre, there's a Western show, In Contemporary Rhythm; a modernist exhibit, Clyfford Still Unveiled; and a contemporary one, Daniel Richter: A Major Survey. But all of them close in a matter of weeks, so this pretty much represents your last chance to see them before they're all crated up and shipped back home.

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