Imagine this: a terracotta sculpture portraying Zephyrus and Flora enrapt, entwined, enamoured, their bodies a spiral of sensual twisting energy. This winged god of the west wind – a herald of spring – is embracing his beloved goddess of flowers, crowning her with a wreath of roses, while mischievous putti frolic at their feet, gently pushing them closer together. Natural light caresses them so the sculptor’s every subtlety of flesh, drapery, and hair is clear to see. Behind them, out in the garden, ancient magnolia trees in full pink bloom seem to be the couple’s Arcadian setting.
This masterpiece is by Claude Michel, known as Clodion, and he created it in 1799. It is one of a handful of fine neoclassical French marble and terracotta sculptures by him and by Jean-Antoine Houdon, arguably France’s greatest sculptors of that period, installed until next April in the glass portico (really more like a conservatory) of New York’s Frick Collection housed in Henry Clay Frick’s mansion on Fifth Avenue, across from leafy Central Park.
This is a jewel-like, near-perfect show in a near-perfect setting: order, harmony and proportion inspired by the antique, reinterpreted for the 18th century. Moreover, the natural light that flows over and around each exquisitely carved piece lifts the experience to new heights.
Mr Frick, one of America’s most successful industrialists, commissioned the prestigious New York firm Carrère and Hastings to build his mansion in 1913–14. He bought Zephyrus and Flora the next year – although he’d been collecting art for more than three decades by then. The following year he acquired Houdon’s stunning marble bust of the Comptesse du Cayla. His daughter Helen added two more Houdon pieces in the 1930s. More recently, Houdon’s Madame His and Clodion’s Dance of Time were donated to the collection. The show also comprises loans, mostly from local private collections. As Denise Allen, its curator, explains, ‘We have outstanding loans, mostly from East Coast collections. There was a love of small-scale decorative arts by these creators of French salon rooms. And Houdon was associated with the American Revolution – he did Washington, Franklyn, Jefferson.’ In addition, the vivid naturalism of his work appealed to US collectors.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the tour de force portrait bust of Armand-Thomas Hue, Marquis de Miromesnil that Houdon carved in 1777, and that Helen Clay Frick bought in 1935. Houdon captures his solemn power as France’s minister of justice – the sculptor was a keen student of Bernini’s work, and there is certainly a reference, perhaps subconscious, to Bernini’s Cardinal Scipione here. As Denise Allen, who knows the piece so well, observes: ‘This is one of the best busts of Houdon’s surviving oeuvre. It has the original polishing and textures of surfaces’ – compare his buttoned cassock, his wig. ‘The fineness of the sculpture technique gives his eyes a lively glance’, she adds, achieved by leaving marble inside the recesses of the pupils so they catch the light.
The same year, 1777, Houdon created what Ms Allen considers the signature piece of the show, a mesmerising and fluid portrait bust of the Comtesse du Cayla, a banker’s wife who seems to be finding her freedom as a bacchante, a follower of Bacchus. Windswept, her face expectant, she has a deliciously flirtatious smile. She’s ready to party.
‘Enlightenment and Beauty: Sculptures by Houdon and Clodion’ is at the Frick Collection, New York, until 5 April, 2015.
The website has a full illustrated checklist, videos about the show, and a virtual tour.
One Frick piece is absent at the moment: Houdon’s Diana is undergoing conservation. This powerful goddess of the hunt, poised on one toe, will return in December for the show’s final three months.
Outstanding Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes at the Frick Collection (David Ekserdjian)