There are few uncooler-sounding words than “eighteenth-century marble portraiture.” Even typing these words makes me feel like I’m prepping for the PSAT. But eighteenth-century marble portraiture—specifically that of Jean-Antoine Houdon, known for his uncool likenesses of Voltaire and George Washington—can be extraordinarily strange. Furthermore, the examples here are nearly nowhere to be found on your phone except in lo-res preview form. In other words, you have to actually go to the Frick to see them.
Two busts, sculpted within two years of each other, are paired in an out-of-the way hall of the museum: a woman, Madame His, and a man, Armand-Thomas Hue. Translucent, actual-sized, people-shaped white rocks carved in Enlightenment dress and balanced atop quadrangular pedestals at eyeball height, both are lopped off somewhere above the waist and function as the sort of thing that museum-going twenty-first-century humans are likely to walk right past and think, “Oh, art.” Which is just what I did, on my way to the Bellini painting I’d planned to write about. But something stopped me. Madame His doesn’t look like the majority of eighteenth-century painted portraits I’d seen, which largely crash-land somewhere in flyover caricature country: big watery eyes, boiled-egg chins, tiny red lips. As I circled the bust, I increasingly admired how it substantiated my mental template of “actual human being,” how Houdon had worked outside his epoch’s stylizations. I was surprised by how the marble skin seemed to suggest hidden muscles and tendons, by how the slightly rougher fabric of the bodice lightly met her soft shoulders. Then I looked up, and something even more surprising happened: Madame His met my gaze.
As any kid with a crayon knows, the human eye is attuned to finding faces. Two dots will fix the seen for the seer, and vice versa; we are constantly seeking to pin other consciousnesses down, catching in our headlights the thoughts of others at our shared twin fulcrums of empathy. That ubiquitous 1975 smiling yellow disc proves it. But in art, it’s up to the artist’s skill and sensitivity whether the sensation of life or the sentiment of “have a nice day” is the result. So it’s to Houdon’s credit that at that moment in front of Madame His, the chasm of the centuries sprang together, and I felt, if just for a moment, like I was uncannily and most genuinely in the presence of someone two hundred years dead. Even more painfully, if I moved ever so slightly one way or the other, she turned once again to stone—not unlike the passengers on the plane with whom I’d traveled to New York, nearly all of whom had closed the shades of their windows to more effectively bury themselves in the light of their screens.
On that flight, I’d sat next to a sixtyish woman in an alarmingly bright red dress. (Her dress was the detail I remembered most as I’d only gotten in a couple of sidelong glances at her, but I also noted her frizzy chestnut hair, square silver earrings, and slightly downturned nose.) Despite more than two hours spent sipping complimentary soft drinks and crinkling pretzel bags within five uncomfortable inches of each other, we—agreeably—didn’t exchange a word and parted at the LaGuardia jet bridge forever. I had completely forgotten about her until the following morning at the Frick, when I looked over from a painted slice of the Renaissance and there she was, right next to me, again: the same alarming red dress, the same frizzy hair, same square silver earrings, same nose. I began to seek the right words to try to express how fabulously weird it was, here in a city of millions, that we’d cross paths twice. But she clearly hadn’t noticed me either on the plane or at that moment, and she turned and walked away.
Madame His’s hallway companion in eternity, Armand-Thomas Hue, won’t look at you either. Try as you might, you absolutely will not be able to meet his eyes. I wonder if this was Jean-Antoine Houdon’s subtle aim, as it ultimately says more about his subject and is almost more of an artistic accomplishment than what he managed with Madame His—and also because it’s what most of us spend our lives actually doing.
Chris Ware is an American writer and artist who has contributed graphic fiction and covers to The New Yorker. Among his numerous books are Rusty Brown (2019) and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), which won the Guardian Prize. His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Jewish Museum in New York, among other institutions.
From The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick, published by The Frick Collection in association with DelMonico Books ‧ D.A.P.