I’m laptopping you from beside a life-sized statue of Voltaire by Houdon. It’s in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Variations of the piece exist in other places around the world, so seeing it again is like meeting up with an old friend. Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) was well known for his plasters, marbles and bronzes of the titled and talented. When the popular philosopher of the 18th Century Enlightenment was 84, Houdon managed to get him in for one last sitting. Voltaire soon after died, and Houdon produced this masterwork.
Voltaire, half smiling, appears to be looking at his thoughts — perhaps at the tragicomic failings and follies of humanity. His eyes twinkle with wisdom, wit and intelligent doubt. The upper lids are sliced with mannerist lashes, giving the eyes a disarmingly real, almost wet, look. His toothless mouth appears about to speak. He was, after all, the man who said:
The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.
The secret of the arts is to correct nature.
Man is free at the moment he wishes to be.
The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude.
Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.
As for Houdon, he too was a man of simplicity, high spirits and openness of mind. A witty conversationalist and raconteur, he’d go anywhere at any time for a mask of life or death. He knew everyone — princes, dukes, kings, queens, philosophers, composers, authors, architects, popes and painters. He even knew the gods, goddesses and saints, and found time to sculpt Jefferson, Washington and Franklin.
The last time I saw this Voltaire, he was all in gold in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I always see simplicity and directness. Houdon was an “easy worker,” light on his feet and casual with his tools. Life affirmation and spontaneity were his religion. A statue of St. Bruno caused Clement XIV to make the well-known remark, “He would even speak, did not the Rule of his Order compel silence.”
PS: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” (François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, 1694-1778)
Esoterica: Houdon was invited to America by Benjamin Franklin to make a portrait sculpture of George Washington. Washington sat for clay and plaster masks at Mount Vernon in 1785. These models served for many commissions, including the standing figure at the Virginia Legislative Building in Richmond. Numerous variations of Washington were produced: as a General in uniform, in the classical manner showing chest musculature, and as Roman Consul Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus wearing a toga. Houdon, too, was a bit of a wag.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
The Reputation of plaster
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Taking my grandson last week to the sculpture rooms of the National Gallery of Art I was surprised to see so many plaster works. As you mentioned, not as highly thought of as marble (or bronze?), and maybe I had not looked at all the materials while enjoying the sculpture before. There’s nothing like taking someone new or uninitiated to see things better yourself. I had previously thought that both plaster and terra cotta would eventually disintegrate, but there were many beautiful plaster and terra cotta sculptures that were very old and not falling in to dust. The Houdon sculpture of a Voltaire bust we have at the NGA is marble and on a small black pedestal. He is smiling and with that twinkle in his eye. Most sculptured eyes are flat with a hole for the pupil but Houdon’s show a definite likable personality.
Marquise Du Châtelet and Voltaire
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, MichiganI, USA
Voltaire was “supported” financially, and otherwise, by a famous scientist who wrote the first translation of Newton’s Physics into French — one which is still considered worthy and used for reference. The Marquise Du Châtelet was also a mathematician and philosopher who, through great wealth, connections and power, was able to remain removed from most social restrictions. Voltaire considered her to be smarter than he and relied on her through much of his life for financial help as well as insulation against indiscretions both political and personal.
Voltaire asked for ‘more light’
It was not just Houdon and other enlightened ones of the Enlightenment that Voltaire inspired. He was a major figure in knocking down the ignorance and prejudice that came with the French status quo, both Empire and Republic… Free thought, belief in democratic systems, separation of church and state as well as humanistic idealism worked for the founders of the USA as well. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and George Washington saw in Voltaire the potential for freedom of oppression that would be necessary to build in the new world. On his death bed, Voltaire asked that his curtains be opened. His last words were, “More light, more light.”
A realized intention
by Philip Mix, Victoria, BC, Canada
It may be that we are seduced by content, detail perhaps, but surely it is something else. A charcoal drawing by Monet of a woman walking in a long skirt captured it completely. No detail, soft edges, nothing really to say why it works but an almost ghost-like presence of intent radiates from this small insignificant sketch. I saw it thirty-five years ago. I never forgot the experience — it set me on a course of research. Vincent’s boats — I looked for them too when I was in that part of France. Of course, they’re gone, but they weren’t even really there, were they? Not as Vincent saw them. He instilled an intent. Thirty-five years later, I’ve lost the brashness of my youth, I’ve seen my limitations, but every once in awhile a painting soars beyond me with more than its content, beyond, to a beautifully realized intention. If I can see it in someone else’s work, perhaps it awaits within me to communicate it too.
Observational skills connect us with all
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
Our educational system does not teach observational skills. It teaches us to identify things and to name them, to spell and write and solve math problems, and to memorize facts. These are all necessary skills of course, and they have their place. But if that is all we teach, we will never learn to make a complete connection with the world around us, and consequently with ourselves.
Knowledge of drawing important
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I have taught thousands of art students, grades 6 through 12, how to draw. Drawing is primarily about what one knows. It involves language and vocabulary, axioms and rules. I save the expressive side of art until the second semester of instruction. The foundation of line, shape, form, value, etc., informs the expression of personal visions, and makes these expressions much more communicative.
Confidence, confusion, sunlight and fog
by Bev Alldridge
I am a novice hobbyist painter and am enjoying the learning process immensely and feeling proud as I realize my work is improving. I love the fact that I can see progress and am in awe of what is there to be seen, if we only learn to look with an artist’s eye. I find learning to paint is very much like a walk through patches of sunlight and then into patches of fog, into sunlight and into fog, etc. While I am in the sunlight, I am confident of the skills, I have acquired, but as I begin to learn something new, or react to something I’ve read (like here!), that temporary confusion which can result from change is not unlike wandering into the patch of fog. I have enough experience to accept that I should enjoy my time in the fog as that too is a learning opportunity, and that before long I will emerge into the sunlight again. A lovely journey!
by Treza Bordinat, Encinitas, CA, USA
I do find myself rather envious of those who have just made their first bit of something that enchants them! I know that is sometimes our first inkling of the real possibility that something truly spectacular could someday form from our own hands. It seems that when we reach the point where we know we are truly working our way into something really good, we fall silent. We get reclusive. We hug it to ourselves and pray. So why are we like this? Why do we hide it away? Does that new consciousness somehow make us truly focus on our own mortality? Does it finally make us aware of how finite our days are? Do we subconsciously feel that if we ever “get there” that that will be our end? Or does it just make us realize that “later” may already be here? Whatever it is, I think part of the reason we are so utterly certain we have “found our calling” is because the days become far too short to ever accomplish all we would love to create! As perfectionists and optimists, we are so certain that there is always better work coming. As realists and humans, we are always positive there is something we could do better next time. As shown historically, we are known for our work only becoming really valuable after we die. Why? Is that really the only “Later”? How could/ should/ would we learn to enjoy the fruit of our talents right here, right now? I would love to know. It is a simple talent most of us really do not seem to possess!
Enjoy the past comments below for Houdon and Voltaire…
The Flying Beetle
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Becky McMahon of Surrey, BC, Canada who wrote, “I’ve always loved the bust of Voltaire; he looks like he would have had a great sense of humour.”
And also Pepper Hume of Spring, TX, USA who wrote, “All forms of art are transactions. The artist puts forth the art object, but ‘art’ doesn’t happen until a viewer responds to it.”
And also Sandra Bos of Cookeville, TN, USA who wrote, “I love to paint the human figure, from real life, and I’ve decided that’s what I love the most, and what makes my heart go ‘boom- boom- boom.'”