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Getty Museum Displays Works of  French 18th Century Sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon - 2004-01-08

The works of a French sculptor who depicted America's founding fathers as well as the great thinkers of the French Enlightenment are now on exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. From Los Angeles, VOA's Mike O'Sullivan has this report on the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon and the glimpse it offers into the 18th century.

Houdon lived in a time of intellectual ferment in both Europe and America, and his work focussed on some of the period's leading citizens. Many were at the center of the movement called the Enlightenment. They thought they could change the world through the power of human reason.

The American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin encountered the artist during Franklin's tenure as ambassador to France. The curator of the exhibit, Anne Iverson, says Franklin admired Houdon, as did his successor as ambassador, Thomas Jefferson. The French sculptor, through the two men, received an important commission.

"In 1785, Houdon goes to America for three weeks on a very important comission that was proposed by Franklin and Jefferson," she says. "He goes to America to sculpt the monumental portrait of George Washington in the Virginia statehouse. And that was actually carved in Paris, but he spent three weeks at Mount Vernon, at Washington's home, where he took a life mask of Washington and measured his face carefully with calipers to get the dimensions just right. And then he sculpted a model in clay."

He later made a monumental sculpture in marble, and busts in marble and other materials. A bust of Washington, clad in Roman toga, is displayed in the Getty exhibit.

Ms. Iverson says the depictions are realistic and capture the character of the subjects. She says this is particularly true with the bust of Franklin. He is shown informally, with his mouth slightly open.

"It's what is called 'speaking likeness,' she points out. "And it is, like the man, a very humble portrait. He's modestly attired. He's wearing a simple Quaker coat and waistcoat. His hair is left without wig and is loosely brushing his shoulders. It's not idealized in the way that perhaps we might wish to be in our portrait."

Ms. Iverson says the bust of Jefferson also captures the essence of the third U.S. president, who was author of the American Declaration of Independence. This sculpture served as the model for the image of Jefferson on the American nickel, or five-cent coin.

The exhibit of Houdon's work includes other notable figures, including John Paul Jones, the American admiral. Eminent Frenchmen include Voltaire, the celebrated satirist and philosopher, and the critic Denis Diderot, compiler of the great French Encyclopedia.

Houdon held the title of Sculptor to the King under the ill-fated Louis XVI. After the French Revolution, the emperor Napoleon Bonaparte also sat for him. Images of both are in the exhibit.

The Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who joined the American Revolution to fight alongside Washington, is also in the show.

Two busts shown side by side illustrate the method of the artist. Ms. Iverson says he first cast a plaster life-mask on the face of his sitter. From that, he created a model, then a sculpture.

"This is the life-mask of the Marquis de Lafayette, and you can see in the life mask that very aristocratic nose and long forehead, and that is repeated in the portrait bust," she says.

The great thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau declined to sit for Houdon, but was sculpted after his death, based on a death mask. The resulting work is in the exhibition.

Los Angeles artist Roger Hyde is studying Houdon's work in a class at the museum. He says the sculptures seem so real, he can almost hear them breathing, especially that of the writer Diderot.

"His sculpture looks like he was caught in a candid photograph, as if he was just walking by and somebody just snapped it and caught him," he says. "And all the little microscopic muscles in his face and the little wrinkle lines around his eyes, all those little things, along with a general sense of just having the anatomy, the look of the guy correct and the whole thing correct overall, it looks like he's really there."

Artist Diana Loomis is also studying Houdon. She says he captured the emotion in the faces of his subjects and that inspires her own art. "It's just marvelous work, and very realistic, and that was the kind of work I wanted to do from an early age," she says.

The Getty Museum exhibition contains 70 works by Houdon, done in marble, bronze, terracotta and plaster. One piece, the bust of a French nobleman, has not been seen in public since 1785. Some others have never been seen together.

Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, will be on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles through January 25.