Tuesday, January 12, 2010

09/10 Academic Decathlon French Revolution Art Selection #17 - Bust of Voltaire

Bust of Voltaire, (1778), Jean-Antoine Houdon, Marble, H. 18 7/8 in. (47.9 cm)

Jean-Antoine Houdon's most famous works are busts of the men and women of the Enlightenment, both in the United States and France. He was highly sought out for commissions of famous men and women. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson helped him receive a commission for a sculpture of George Washington. He was especially skilled in creating beautiful, realistic sculptures of people because of his high skill in representing the human form. He studied under a surgeon who trained his students by having them study from cadavers - a huge benefit for understanding the human body.

This piece, Bust of Voltaire, was made just before his death in 1778. Voltaire was an important figure during the Enlightenment. Both a philosopher and writer, he produced poetry, plays, novels, essays, books, and pamphlets on a wide variety of topics. He was one of the leading figures in intellectual thought and had a large influence on the American independence movement as well as the French Revolution. Because of his criticism of the French government and of organized religion, he was exiled from Paris and lived abroad for many years. He returned to France about 20 years before his death, and returned to Paris in 1778 to sit for this portrait.

This sculpture is referred to as "tĂȘte nue," or bare headed (without wearing a customary wig). His torso is nude, and is lacking the clothing and hairpiece of a contemporary man. Houdon uses great verism (realism) in portraying this man at 83 - his face is wrinkled, his face drawn, his closed taught smile hints at toothless gums and his eyes have a penetrating gaze. There is certainly a reach back to classicism in this sculpture - look at Greek and Roman busts - and has a balance between naturalism and idealism. But he is careful to record the individual characteristics of the man in a way that would represent his spirit beyond his lifetime, goals in keeping with those of the Enlightenment.

1 comment:

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