Houdon From the Louvre is on its way out of Denver

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.

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.

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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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia