The age of Enlightenment, which flourished in France in the eighteenth century, centered on the belief that social and moral advancements stemmed from the application of reason and knowledge. In looking forward to the future, some of the greatest thinkers and artists of the period also looked to the achievements of the ancient past as foundation for modern progress. Two of the foremost French sculptors of the late eighteenth century-Claude Michel, called Clodion (1738-1814), and Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)-used the language of the antique to articulate the flowing grace and expressive naturalism that typified the contemporary art of the period. These artists are celebrated at The Frick Collection in the exhibition Enlightenment and Beauty: Sculptures by Houdon and Clodion, on view in the Portico Gallery. The installation illuminates Houdon and Clodion's defining contributions to the art of the Enlightenment by presenting a selection of their works from the Frick's holdings. These objects, assembled by Henry Clay Frick, his daughter Helen Clay Frick, and more recent gifts and purchases, will rotate throughout the year-long presentation with rarely seen loans from private collections (twelve objects will be on view at all times, with seasonal changes enhancing the presentation). Among them are portrait busts, reliefs, figure groups, and (for the later part of the show's run), Houdon's remarkable, life-size terracotta Diana the Huntress, considered one of the Frick's masterpieces. Together, the sculptures highlight the freedom of the artists' responses to classical motifs, which they interpreted in marble and terracotta with the realism, beauty, and astonishing technical facility that testify to the innovative spirit of the age. The exhibition is organized by Denise Allen, Curator, and Katie Steiner, Curatorial Assistant, with Alyse Muller, Ayesha Bulchandani-Mathrani Curatorial Intern. Support for the presentation is generously provided by Margot and Jerry Bogert and Mrs. Henry ClayFrick II.
At the outset of their careers, both Houdon and Clodion followed similar paths, studying at the French Royal Academy in Paris and winning the prestigious Prix de Rome for sculpture. This award enabled them to travel in the 1760s to the French Academy in Rome, where they overlapped for a time and engaged first-hand with the antique. In Italy and during their mature years in the French capital, the two artists adapted their deeply internalized knowledge of classical art to suit distinct creative objectives, exemplified by Houdon's exquisite marble portrait busts and Clodion's lively terracottas. They maintained, however, a shared commitment to the models of antiquity as well as direct observation from life.