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Heart and soul in stone

Jean-Antoine Houdon's remarkable sculpture includes a who's who of French intellectuals and early American dignitaries, exceptional work imbued with drama, subtlety and life.

November 09, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

In 1803, the Pennsylvania-born painter, engineer and entrepreneur Robert Fulton was in the process of designing a steamboat that would soon revolutionize commercial shipping on the Hudson and Mississippi rivers. At 38, he had already spent several years in London, where he lived with the expatriate American artist Benjamin West and enjoyed the patronage of various wealthy men, including Earl Stanhope and the Duke of Bridgewater.

Paris too had been the scene of much activity for Fulton, as both a painter and an engineer. Now happily amid a long-term menage a trois with the influential American diplomat Joel Barlow, 12 years his senior, and Barlow's wife, Ruth, the dashing young man had his portrait carved by the leading sculptor in Europe. Barlow paid the tab, commissioning a second portrait of himself.

At the J. Paul Getty Museum, Fulton's exceptional white-marble portrait bust shares a room with others depicting Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Paul Jones and Marie-Joseph-Paul-Ives-Roche-Gilbert du Motier -- the Marquis de Lafayette, whose critical role in the Revolutionary War endeared him to the young nation. Barlow's bust is nowhere to be seen, but the group is a virtual who's who of early American dignitaries.

A gentle sense of animation imbues the stone with life. Fulton, with hair romantically tousled, is shown as a serenely beautiful figure, his visage at once immediate and remote. His chest and shoulders are frontal, but his neck and head turn to his right. The eyes are slightly raised. As you look at him, he looks past you -- as if some higher thought or unseen destiny has occupied his mind.

The effect is startling in its intimacy. Fulton's physical body is offered to your scrutiny, while matters of the intellect absorb him.

Light falls across the life-size bust in a wide array of patterns. Shadows range from deep and dramatic beneath the brow, jaw, coat collar and at the center of the magnificent pleated jabot ruffled just below the throat, to astonishingly subtle along Fulton's cheek and at the corners of his softly set mouth. Superbly handled is a common sculptural trick for giving an illusion of consciousness to human eyes: Lines radiate outward from the deeply carved irises, while a tiny isthmus of stone is left intact to create a shifting flicker of light and shadow.

A short, classical pedestal cut from blue-gray veined marble lifts the bust. To establish an imposing aura for the figure, the coat and shirt collars -- carved in deep relief -- emphasize verticality. Together with the elaborate jabot they create a second, "internal pedestal" that lifts the head. The vertical rise plays against a rhythmic series of carved horizontals -- dramatic in the neckband, shallow in the area above the blue-gray pedestal.

Who carved this remarkable hunk of marble? Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) is a name known mostly to specialists, although an image of his work is seen every day by much of the American public. Pull a nickel from your pocket or purse and check out the head on the obverse; it shows the bust of Jefferson in this exhibition. Houdon, despite his stature as the greatest European sculptor during the Age of Reason, has never been the subject of a full-scale retrospective. The Getty exhibition -- co-organized with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it was seen over the summer, and the Chateau de Versailles in the Paris suburb where Houdon was born and where it travels next spring -- is a major event.

Houdon -- like Fulton -- was a man of modest birth whose entrepreneurial instincts were synchronous with the social transformations underway at the end of the 18th century. His father was concierge to the Comte de Lamotte, whose establishment housed an art school. There, winners of the Grand Prix at France's royal academy were trained before being sent to Rome for further immersion in the traditions of classical art. From childhood Houdon was exposed to the great artistic debates of the day -- and to the routine sweat-equity involved in making art.

Houdon won the Grand Prix himself at age 20. Three years later, he went to Rome. Like all French students he was obliged to make copies of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. Vestal virgins and figures of Achilles were soon being modeled in plaster. The exacting naturalism of antique Roman busts is one clear inspiration for Houdon's mature work as a portrait sculptor. So is the countervailing tendency to idealize, which sticks like glue to any artistic notion of classicism-with-a-capital C. (If only things could be as glorious today as they certainly must have been back then!)

But there's something else about Houdon's work, something that distinguishes it from his immediate predecessors. Forget showy dynamism or programmatic naturalism. Instead, a degree of introspection marks Houdon's figures. Sensory experience and processes of thought are given form.

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