Sculptors Houdon and Clodion Reunited at the Frick Collection

April 21, 2014 6:25 am Last Updated: April 21, 2014 6:25 am

NEW YORK—When put together, the names Houdon and Clodion sounds like the handle for a Parisian hipster boy band. But you won’t find these two traipsing around Montmartre nowadays.

Claude Michel, known as Clodion (1738–1814), and Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) were Enlightenment-era sculptors who possessed equal artistic talent. Both studied at the French Royal Academy in Paris, and both won the Prix de Rome for sculpture. Their studios were even next door to each other for a time, though they didn’t seem to work together much. Each man’s aesthetic sensibilities and clientele led him onto a distinct career trajectory.

For one year starting this month, the Frick Collection is housing just over a dozen works by Houdon and Clodion in its light-filled portico gallery. Though today Houdon’s name is much better known than Clodion’s, especially in America, the exhibition judiciously lets each man’s work speak for itself.

The Celebrity Effect

Both Houdon and Clodion were critically acclaimed sculptors and sought by influential contemporaries, but as a portraitist to the stars, Houdon can be said to have won out in the long term. 

Houdon became known for his busts of philosophers and statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic. He immortalized the likenesses of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. Rembrandt Peale, a leading portraitist for the American Founding Fathers, painted a profile of George Washington based on Houdon’s marble.

Clodion found great success among collectors who loved his small, expressive, and naturalistic works in terracotta, a medium usually thought of as a drafting material for sculptures in stone. Though he also worked in marble, his expressive strengths are better demonstrated in the malleable medium of terracotta.

Russia’s Catherine the Great was so impressed by Clodion’s terracotta, that she requested his services in St. Petersburg. However, Clodion chose to return to Paris after working in Rome. It was ultimately Houdon who created a bust for the empress, and later for her grandson.

Levity and Solemnity

The exhibition text contains little about the two men other than their common interest in antiquity and classical motifs. Further confounding any attempt at an easy differentiation, both artists worked in marble and terracotta.

If you looked at technique alone and ignored all the wall labels, you might easily assume all the sculptures were the work of one artist. But if you let yourself feel the mood of each sculpture, you’ll notice a qualitative difference.

Case in point—Houdon’s terracotta sculpture of the Roman goddess Vesta features sharply modeled drapery. Right across from it is Clodion’s terracotta of the Three Graces, whose dresses fold in a similarly crisp manner. But Vesta is solemn, while the supple and youthful graces have what the modeling industry might call a “fresh-faced” look.

Houdon stands out for his gravitas and Clodion for his humor and sometimes ridiculous wit. I challenge you not to chuckle at Clodion’s “The Cupid Seller,” in which a street vendor proffers a cherub in a chicken cage to a skeptical-looking young lady. 

Houdon’s sober tone naturally lends itself to his portraits of accomplished and elite clientele. 

Marie Anne de Vastre, wife of German banker Pierre-François His, cuts an imposing figure in Houdon’s marble portrait. Houdon’s Marquis Armand-Thomas Hue can only be described as judicious. The French minister of justice, with lifted eyebrows and oblique gaze, looks as if he’s just spied a crook.

Frick curators have been great at subtlety introducing juxtapositions using strategic placement of works. This exhibition opens with two pieces evoking springtime, one by each artist.

Zephyrus and Flora, a multifigure terracotta, is the first Clodion piece to enter Henry Clay Frick’s collection. In a poetic swirl of thick, tumbling hair and weightless garments, Flora and Zephyrus lean in for a kiss. Interestingly, Zephyrus has double wings reminiscent of the pins on vintage wind-up toys. This detail makes the sculpture imaginative and whimsical while the figures are done in a naturalistic and believable way.

On the opposite wall stands’s Frick’s first Houdon acquisition, The Comtesse du Cayla, dressed as a bacchante with blossoms in her hair and a flourish of grape leaves rolling off her bust. She’s the best dressed of all her dinner guests and she knows it, as evident in her proud smile and sidelong glance.

Enlightenment and Beauty, though small in size, makes for a charming miniature study on two talented contemporaries.

Enlightenment and Beauty: Sculptures by Houdon and Clodion
April 1, 2014–April 5, 2015

The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
Admission $10–$20

Some artworks will be added and rotated throughout the year.