Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Shivering Venus: La Frileuse by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)

This wonderful sculpture of a patently shivering young girl (even when it was first exhibited the name The Shivering Girl was in common use as well as its official title Winter) could almost be something from the Art Deco period but it was produced by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon towards the end of the eighteenth century. 

Houdon was born in Versailles in 1741 and began studying at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture at the age of eleven. The  Académie had been set up by Louis XIV and it also ran the Académie de France à Rome and was responsible for the Prix de Rome which offered a prestigious scholarship for French artists to study in Rome for a number of years. Houdon won the Prix de Rome in 1761 and studied in the city for four years from 1764.

He returned to Paris in 1768 and became a member of the Académie de peinture et de sculpture three years later. Not initially fully accepted into the French artistic circle he relied on foreign patrons but his name was made when Catherine the Great of Russia commissioned a portrait bust of herself.   He then made his living producing portrait busts for wealthy clients and in 1778 produced a famous bust of Voltaire.  The same year he met Benamin Franklin at his Masonic lodge in Paris and produced a bust of him.  It was Franklin who arranged for Houdon to travel to Mount Vernon in the United States where George Washington sat for him, resulting in famous portrait bust which was also used as a source for other later representations of Washington.

Diana (1781)

For the Paris Salon of 1781 Houdon submitted a marble sculpture of Diana.  However, the Parisian art world had changed since the licentious days of Boucher and the Salon rejected the figure on account of its undraped nudity.  It was just too anatomically perfect for the Salon, perhaps, even down to a hint of a divided pubic mound.

Shortly afterwards, Houdon began work on another (partial) nude.  Intended to be an allegorical figure representing Winter, he broke from the tradition of representing the season as an old man and instead depicted a young woman barely covered by a shawl, shivering with cold (not surprisingly).  This initial terracotta sketch shows the material he had to add behind the figure to support her tightly clenched legs.  For the same reason the marble version shown at the top of the post had a classical urn included behind the girl's calves.  It was normal practice for a sculptor to produce a terracotta or plaster model of one of their works in the hope that a rich collector would commission an expensive marble version.

Summer (1783)

Houdon first showed the marble version in his studio in 1783 but when he submitted the figure to the Paris Salon in 1785 they initially insisted that she be placed in a corner, so people would not be offended by her naked bottom, before rejecting her altogether.  His companion piece, Summer, was rather better dressed.  As one critic said at the time:  "an entirely nude figure is not as indecent as one draped with false modesty."  Certainly the presence of the scarf covering much of her upper body made her below the waist nakedness more scandalous at the time.

Pierre Antoine Mongin (1762-1827)

In 1779 Houdon proposed a group of two figures of a bather and an attendant to form the basis of a fountain for a hoped for Royal Commission.  Put off by the potential cost, the director of the Bâtiments du Roi declined the opportunity.  Luckily for Houdon, the king’s cousin, Louis-Philippe-Joseph d’Orléans, duc de Chartres, decided to pick up on the project for the sprawling garden he was having built at Monceau, north-west of Paris.  Houdon noted that the figures were completed in 1781 and they were installed by 1783.  An account exists dating from 1787 describing “a basin of white marble, in the middle of which is a charming group by M. Houdon, Sculptor to the King, representing a superb figure in white marble, taking a bath; behind her is another woman, executed in lead and painted black, a negress holding in one hand a white marble drapery, and in the other a gold ewer, from which she spills water over the body of her mistress, whence it falls in sheets into the basin”   There was no illustration of the fountain in situ until, in 2011, a drawing by Pierre Antoine Mongin was given to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

La Baigneuse (1782)

Although it was called Fountain of Diana at the Bath the seated figure was recognised as The Bather by Houdon which was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  It was realised that this was the only picture of Houdon's fountain.  This exquisite figure is the sole surviving element of Houdon's fountain from the gardens at Monceau.

So why did the fountain not survive intact?  The reason, of course, was the French Revolution.  The duc d'Orléans, as he had become on the death of his father in 1785, was taken to the guillotine in 1789 and his park fell into disrepair.  In 1794 Houdon visited the garden and noted that the fountain, especially the figure of the negress attendant, was in some disrepair and needed restoration.

In 1795 the revolutionary Commission Temporaire des Arts removed the figures from the fountain but by that time the head of the attendant was missing.  Some time later the entire figure went missing and was presumed melted down for the lead.  A black painted plaster model of the attendant's head survives giving us the only detailed information about that figure.

An early model of the fountain still exists from 1779 and it is assumed that it is this which was shown to the duc du Chartres and led to the commission.  It is notably different from Mongin's drawing, however, especially as regards the position of the attendant, which remains the only illustration of how it looked in situ during its brief, thirteen year life.

It was the ill-fated duc d'Orléans who gave us the final version of Winter which now became known as La Frileuse (literally she who suffers from the cold).  Not concerned with the prudish views of his establishment contemporaries, he commissioned Houdon to produce a bronze version of the sculpture.  Houdon oversaw the casting himself and was particularly pleased with the result.

The strength of bronze enabled Houdon to create the sculpture he had always wanted to and allowed him to dispense with the necessity for the supporting urn at the rear of the figure, revealing the girl in all her semi-naked splendour.  This figure is now also in the Metropoliton Musem of Art in New York.

Despite its initial notoriety, the figure was very popular and was much copied during his lifetime, to Houdon's annoyance.  A particularly fine copy was made in 1850 by the  Barbedienne foundry,  A certain Achille Collas had invented a mechanical process that allowed him to reproduce sculptures exactly but reducing them in size.  Interestingly, this bronze is a copy of the marble version of the sculpture, rather than the unsupported bronze version.

Houdon modelant le buste de Laplace dans son atelier (1803) by Louis Boilly

Jean-Antoine Houdon, despite his aristocratic clients and link to the Royal court, managed to avoid the guillotine or prison but he did fall out of favour, although he did produce some portraits of revolutionary figures and even a bust of Napoleon in 1806.  Today, he is regarded as the finest French sculptor of the eighteenth century and La Frileuse is a delicately erotic masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful work. I did not know him before this post. Thank you!