HOUDON, Jean-Antoine
(b. 1741, Versailles, d. 1828, Paris)

Bust of Diderot

1771
Marble
Seymour Collection, Nem Haven

If mythology and allegory were not best suited to be illustrated by Houdon this was not because he lived in an age of reason, but because his working methods largely dispensed with imagination altogether. Increasingly driven to be a sculptor of portrait busts, he first publicly revealed his abilities with the Diderot - shown at the Salon of 1771 - the first of his own personal series of 'grands hommes'. The breathing quality of this is more exciting and immediate than in many of Houdon's later busts. Regardless of its likeness to Diderot, it remains lifelike. The pupils of the eyes are deeply cut, dark, and extraordinarily impressive, and the mouth is open - an effect Houdon did not often use again for busts of adults but sometimes for children. The inquiring twist of the head emphasizes another of Houdon's gifts of observation: that character can be conveyed by the way the head is held on the neck. The neck itself, in the Diderot just wrinkled as the head turns, becomes an object of study to the sculptor.

Part of the power of Diderot comes from its simple directness and lack of accessories. Its nobleness has a naked quality, a candour, that perfectly suits the sitter. Perceptive and yet childishly enthusiastic, marked by life and yet still innocent, Diderot seems here the very image of his writings.




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