Jean-Antoine Houdon, Madame His, 1775, marble, 31 1/2″ tall. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Victor Thaw, 2007.
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. Read More