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.
Partly this is a result of a shift in subject matter. In addition to the Americans, the show is populated by French writers, politicians and scientists such as Voltaire, Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The seeds of secular civic consciousness had been planted in the Renaissance, but the exhibition's catalog of a "who's who" among contemporary men and women is until now almost unheard of in art.
Few religious statues
As for sensory experience, shorn of explicit narrative, what could be plainer than Houdon's twining marble lip-lock, "The Kiss Given," which shows a rose-bedecked couple hard at it? So popular was this erotic image that Houdon virtually mass-produced it in different sizes and materials.
Houdon made relatively few religious statues in his life. One, a lovely white-plaster figure of St. Bruno, shows the Carthusian monk with arms folded across his chest, head bowed and body motionless beneath unadorned drapery -- the visual epitome of self-enclosed meditation. More often, sculpture is employed to praise famous men as moral exemplars. The change in subject was a defining feature of an age that replaced Christian faith with human reason.
Two remarkable, full-length sculptures demonstrate the change. They bracket the show -- the earliest and latest works on view. One is a preparatory study for John the Baptist, completed when Houdon was 25; the other is a commanding figure of Voltaire, completed 45 years later for Napoleon's transformation of a Paris church into the Pantheon -- a Temple of Great Men.
The identity of John the Baptist is only hinted at through the standing man's pose, which shows him at rest, right arm extended horizontally in front of him. That's because the figure is flayed -- a shocking construction of raw musculature, cartilage and sinew. In Rome, Houdon studied cadavers with a surgeon to understand anatomy. Beneath the surface flesh of any saint is the stuff of every man. The Getty show is titled "Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment," and it would be difficult to imagine a more blunt statement of Enlightenment values than this youthful work.
It's a declaration of independence made in plaster. As a saint, John embodies the mystical cleansing of the spirit at the epicenter of Christian faith. Peeling back his skin to show his objective human innards asserts the value of applying reason to knowledge. Replacing church (and state) with nature as the indicator of nobility, Houdon's wet plaster performs an artistic baptism. Scientific truth cleanses the corruptions of religious and political ideology.
The figure of Voltaire was begun 30 years after the death of the great, common-sense liberal philosopher. Houdon had sculpted his bust many times before. Shown as an old man -- a sage -- cloaked like a Roman solon, he stands on a sword and mask to symbolize his stature in the fields of justice and theatrical art. His right hand holds a quill pen, his left a sheaf of papers.
The elegant hands are extremely graceful. They are also huge. Houdon subtly presents the patrician Voltaire as a laborer -- a man who works with his hands, toiling in intellectual fields.
Guest curator Anne L. Poulet, who was recently named the director of New York's incomparable Frick Collection, ably organized the Getty exhibition. She engineered a number of remarkable coups.
Among the 66 works is the first reunion in 200 years of a monumental pair of heroic bronze figures of Apollo and Diana. The latter is from the collection of the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, while the former -- a stripped-down action version of the venerated classical masterpiece, the Apollo Belvedere -- comes from Lisbon.
Also, a long-lost bust of a powerful French finance minister makes its second public debut in Brentwood -- to which it will return when the exhibition tour is over, the Getty having just acquired it. The bust was last seen in public at the Paris Salon of 1785, the same Salon where Jacques-Louis David unveiled his epochal history painting of Roman Republic virtue, "The Oath of the Horatii."
If the installation of the show in the Getty's awkward special exhibitions gallery is less than ideal -- irrational spaces thwarting a rational display of rationalist art -- its simple division into themes like allegory and myth, American subjects and portraits of children works well. Chronology unfolds in the excellent catalog.
And the thorough presentation fills a big gap. Sculpture before the Modern era is rarely the focus of major exhibitions. Like the Getty's great 1999 show of Baroque sculptor Adriaen de Vries, the Houdon survey is unprecedented.
'Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment'
Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood
When: Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Ends: Jan. 25
Price: Free, but parking $5
Contact: (310) 440-7300