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18th-Century France — Chardin and Portraiture
Light from the upper left falls across a glass, a pitcher, peaches in a basket, and other fruit arranged along a brown tabletop or ledge in this horizontal still life painting. The arrangement fills the height and width of the composition, and the table and most of the back wall are mottled with pecan brown and fern green. The background along the left edge of the composition is in deep shadow behind a translucent, wide-mouthed glass. Thin streaks of pale pink and white create reflections in the glass, and a brown hazelnut sits next to it. Moving right and a little farther back on the table, a tall, cinnamon-brown jug is turned so its handle faces us. A low, woven basket piled with at least six peaches sits next to the jug, filling most of the right half of the painting. The basket is lined with pine-green leaves, and the peaches have butter-yellow highlights. Three pieces of fruit sit on the table in front of the basket and jug: two small, frosty green, round pieces are connected by a shared stem and the larger, third piece of fruit is plum purple.

Overview

The Academy

The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was established in 1648 to centralize control over the arts, and in eighteenth-century France it dominated artistic life. Only members could receive royal commissions or participate in the official Salons, the Academy's influential exhibitions.

Full membership required the Academy's acceptance of an artist's "masterpiece." Painters were received as specialists in a particular type of painting. In the strict hierarchy promoted by the Academy, "history painting," which included religious, mythological, and historical subjects, was the most highly esteemed. Next came portraiture, then landscape and still life. This ranking suggested that some types of painting required an artist to use his mind as well as his eyes.

Chardin: Great Magician of the Everyday World

Although held in low esteem by the Academy, still lifes and scenes of everyday activity were quite popular. The greatest painter of these subjects was Jean Siméon Chardin. Denis Diderot, the period's foremost critic, called Chardin the "great magician," suggesting the seemingly effortless harmony of color and composition with which Chardin imparted gravity to ordinary objects and occupations.

Chardin had already acquired a considerable reputation when he was accepted by the Academy—the same day he applied—as a painter of "animals and fruit." After a friendly gibe from a fellow artist about the lowly status of his work, Chardin began about 1730 to paint figures, mostly women and children, engaged in simple acts of middle-class life. His treatment of the domestic world was unprecedented in France. Lively Dutch and Flemish scenes of peasant life, with embedded morals about vanity and the impermanence of worldly goods, had long been popular with French collectors. Chardin, however, depicted a more contemplative and self-contained world, painting moments of arrested motion. His subjects, absorbed in activities that require quiet concentration, take on the quality of still life.

Chardin worked laboriously from arrangements directly in front of him and rarely made the detailed drawings that were standard academic practice. Slowly building up thick layers of paint, he created colors of depth and complexity by mixing different hues and varied his brushstrokes to match the texture of each surface.

Because his technique was slow and difficult—and the prices brought by his subjects low—Chardin copied his compositions often. In his time, creativity was in an artist's original conception, so subsequent copies were no less valuable. Many of the works here exist in several versions, all painted by Chardin himself.

Jean Siméon Chardin, French, 1699 - 1779, Fruit, Jug, and a Glass, c. 1726/1728, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1943.7.4

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A young woman, holding a knife and vegetable in her lap and wearing a clay-brown jacket over a long, poppy-red skirt, sits on a wooden ladderback chair angled to our right in the center of this vertical painting. She has pale skin with cheeks and lips flushed deep pink. A white cap covers her upswept hair, and a sea-blue and tan neckerchief drapes around her neck. She hunches forward slightly and gazes to our right with parted lips. Her hands rest in her lap, and she holds a knife in her right hand and a white root vegetable in her left. Her lap is draped with an ivory-white cloth, speckled with tan spots that continue onto the hem of her red skirt and the floor. A copper-brown bowl with a flaring lip and a peacock-blue interior sits on the floor at her feet with several irregular white shapes lying inside, presumably peeled vegetables. To her left, our right, is a log-like section of a thick tree trunk with a cleaver embedded in it. The handle of a copper pan leans against the block. The bottom of that pan is propped up against a deep blue-gray bowl with a gold-colored interior. Light coming from the upper left gleams on the edges of the cookware and illuminates a spatter of tomato red on the surface of the chopping block. In the lower left, a handful of dirt-brown tubers are piled near an orange pumpkin or gourd, which is cut off by the edge of the painting. The floor and wall behind the woman are peanut brown washed with thin layers of slate blue. The artist signed and dated the painting in black on the wall above the chopping block, “Chardin 1738.”

Portraits and New Patrons

Portraiture grew in importance during the eighteenth century and attracted larger numbers of first-rank painters. It was so lucrative that the Academy sought to discourage its popularity—which came at the expense of history painting—by lowering official prices. Demand stemmed largely from a new and wealthy middle class. There was, in addition, a growing interest in individual psychology, as Enlightenment thinkers made man and his perfection the focus of systematic inquiry. This was reflected not only in the sheer numbers of portraits produced but also in the evolution of new portrait types, which from about 1740 presented pensive sitters in surroundings that reflected their interests as much as their incomes.

Jean Siméon Chardin, French, 1699 - 1779, The Kitchen Maid, 1738, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.38

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A young man and child, both with pale skin, are framed within the rectangular opening of a stone window in this vertical painting. At the center, the young man leans toward us over his forearms, which rest on the wide ledge. Angled to our right, he holds a long straw to his mouth to blow a large, glistening bubble that hangs on the opposite end. A second straw rests in a glass cup filled with white liquid, presumably soapy water, that sits near his right elbow, on our left, and he looks down at the bubble. His chestnut-brown hair is tied back with a black ribbon, and curls hang down from his temple. He wears a brown jacket over a white shirt. A younger child peeks over the ledge to our right and also looks at the bubble. Seen from the nose up, the child wears a hat that curves up and over the crown of the head. The face of the brown stone building into which the window is cut seems close to us. A vine of ivy climbs up the face of the building to our left.

This is one of several versions of Soap Bubbles, Chardin's earliest work to include human figures. A boy concentrates his full attention on a quivering bubble, which seems ready to slip from his pipe. Eighteenth-century French viewers would have recognized the soap bubble from Dutch and Flemish painting as a symbol of life's fragility and the vanity of worldly pursuits.

Chardin frequently exhibited and probably conceived of his works in pairs, called "pendants." He used them to reinforce or amplify meaning and alternated them to shift the emphasis. At different times this painting was used as a pendant with two other works, also in the Gallery's collection. In House of Cards another boy focuses on a similarly idle pursuit, while in the Young Governess a girl pays close attention to duty instead.

Two paintings by Charles Amédée Vanloo also explore this subject. Vanloo paired his own Soap Bubbles with the Magic Lantern, where children (perhaps his own) play with a camera obscura. This artists' tool, whose mirrors produced a faint reflected image, suggested, like the soap bubble, the transitory nature of life.

Jean Siméon Chardin, French, 1699 - 1779, Soap Bubbles, probably 1733/1734, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. John W. Simpson, 1942.5.1

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An orange and the bodies of a large fowl and two rabbits on a brown ledge nearly span the width of this square still life painting. The face of the ledge takes up the bottom quarter of the composition. Near the left edge of the canvas, the orange has a stem with dark green leaves. Next to it, near the center of the composition, the bird lies face up with its sapphire-blue head and neck draped down backward over the face of the ledge. The rest of its body is rust red, gray, and brown, and its tail feathers are angled up toward the top right corner of the canvas. The two rabbits have silver-grey fur tinged with muted golden yellow. They lie, one atop the other, to our right of the fowl. Their eyes are closed, and a drop of dark red blood drips from the mouth of the rabbit underneath. The ledge is caramel brown, and the wall behind is mottled with ginger brown and putty grey. The artist signed the lower left, “chardin.”

When Chardin returned to still-life painting late in his life, he employed a freer style than the more refined technique he had used for figures. His contemporaries painted dead game with trompe-l'oeil (literally, "fool the eye") realism and great virtuosity, but Chardin chose instead to evoke the limp plumpness of these animals with softness and a certain ambiguity. An array of tones spreads like light diffusing across this canvas. Vivid highlights of turquoise and coral in the feathers punctuate the warm neutrals and are echoed with ever diminishing strength from left to right. The feathers are painted with smooth scalloping arcs, while the fur of the rabbits is made with thicker paint puckered on the surface. Approach the painting, as the critic Diderot suggested visitors to the Salon exhibitions do, and the forms of the game disappear into a mosaic of pure paint. "Move away," Diderot continued, "and everything creates itself and reappears."

Jean Siméon Chardin, French, 1699 - 1779, Still Life with Game, probably 1750s, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.36

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A pale-skinned woman stands holding a spoon and egg, and bracing a long-handled pan in one elbow, in front of a wooden table near a fireplace mantle in this vertical painting. The scene is brightly lit from our left, and the background falls into shadow. To the right of center, the woman wears a hip-length, white jacket patterned with large, rose-pink dots over a long skirt with vertical stripes of peach, shell and carnation pink, white, and tawny brown. A knee-length, petal-pink apron is pinned to the front of her dress. A frilled white bonnet covers her hair, and she wears fern-green, high-heeled, slip-on shoes. Her body faces our left almost in profile. She holds a silver spoon in her right hand as she peels the egg she holds in the other. A white cloth with a powder-blue stripe is draped over her left arm, which is bent to cradle the long handle of a pot. She stands in front of the table, which angles away from us. The end of the table closest to us is covered with a white cloth under a round loaf of bread, a tall, sky-blue pitcher, a shallow bowl with another egg and a pewter egg cup inside, and a large knife with a wooden handle. A mahogany-red pot with its cover askew sits at her feet. Behind the woman and to our right, the mantle and fireplace is cut off by the right edge of the canvas. A wooden ladderback chair peeks out from beyond the mantle, and a tall, covered, olive-green pitcher sits on the floor in front of it. A stoppered flagon and two bowls sit on the corner of the mantle. The wall and floor are fawn brown, darkening in shadow toward the back and left of the room.

Through the simple action depicted here, Chardin reveals dignity and beauty in everyday life. The woman's expression as she concentrates on her task suggests that her thoughts are elsewhere, perhaps with the invalid whose meal she is preparing (Chardin lost his first wife and young daughter to illness). Each object receives careful treatment from the artist's brush. The table setting is a harmony of white tones: jug, tablecloth, egg, and plate, each subtly different. Every pot, each piece of crockery is palpably present. As Diderot wrote of Chardin, "it is not white, red, or black pigment that you mix on your palette, it is the very substance of objects."

Chardin's modest subjects—like this and that of the Kitchen Maid—were extremely popular with all classes of society, including the aristocracy. Perhaps their appeal rested in their sense of order, of things in their proper place. Chardin anticipated the popularity of paintings of "sensibility," which increased from the 1740s on, telling a colleague that "one uses color, but one paints with sentiment."

Jean Siméon Chardin, French, 1699 - 1779, The Attentive Nurse, 1747, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.37

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Shown from about the lap up, a young person with brown hair and a peachy complexion faces our left in profile as he leans onto a table and sets folded playing cards up in a row in this vertical painting. Shown against a dark background, his long, brown hair curls by his ears and is pulled back with a navy-blue ribbon at the nape of his neck. He has a delicately sloping nose, his pink lips are closed, the cheek facing us is flushed, and he looks down at the tabletop under lowered lids. He wears a chestnut-brown, long-sleeved coat with a dark blue sash across his chest and tied around his waist. The white of his undershirt peeks out at the high neck and wrists, and the brick-red lining of the sleeve of his jacket rolls back at his right wrist. The wooden table is lined with teal-blue fabric on its surface, and three coins lie near his left hand, closer to us. In that hand he holds three nested, vertically folded playing cards. With his right hand he places the last in a line of ten cards, standing vertically but close together like dominoes, in a curving row in front of him. Scarlet-red diamonds and hearts and the edges of some black shapes are visible within the bent cards. A jack of hearts and a piece of paper or the back of another card sit in a drawer that opens toward us along the side of the table. The artist signed the work in dark brown paint in the lower right corner: “J. Chardin.”

Like its occasional pendant, Soap Bubbles, this painting points to idleness and the vanity of worldly constructions. The boy's apron suggests he is a household servant called to clear up after a gaming party. Instead, he uses the cards—folded to prevent their being marked and used again—to build the most impermanent of structures. The stability of the painting's triangular composition freezes the moment, as the boy is poised, breathless, to remove his hand and test the fragile balance of his construction. In the open drawer the jack of hearts hints at rascality.

When Chardin showed this painting or Soap Bubbles with the Young Governess he could contrast the boys' idleness with the girl's industry and underscore the fleeting nature of the objects that held their attention. The point is made especially clear by the nearly identical poses of the girl and of the young servant seen here. Both appear against warm, neutral backgrounds whose subtly blended tones create depth and set off bright accents of red and blue.

Jean Siméon Chardin, French, 1699 - 1779, The House of Cards, probably 1737, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.90

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A young woman with light skin stands in a garden, wearing a voluminous, full-length, silvery, shimmering gown in this vertical portrait painting. Her body faces us, as she looks into the distance to our left. She has rosy cheeks, gray-green eyes under gently arched, light brown brows, and her coral-pink, thin, closed lips curve in a slight smile. Her ash-brown hair is pulled back and adorned with tiny shell-pink and azure-blue flowers along the left side top of head, to our right. A pleated lace ruffle encircles her smooth neck. Her gown is parchment white where the light glints off the stiff fabric and is silvery gray in the shadows, creating a silk-like sheen. The dress is cut low across the chest, fits tightly around her narrow waist, and has puffy sleeves tied at the elbows with topaz-blue bows. Another blue bow is tied at her chest, and the ends wrap around her back along her waist. A corsage at her left shoulder, to our right, is a profusion of white flowers around a pale pink rose. In her other hand, to our left, she holds a straw hat with a shallow crown and a wide brim, trimmed with sky-blue ribbon. The arm holding the hat is nearly engulfed in the deep folds of her full skirt. She holds a pink rose in her other hand, which rests on the lip of a shiny, copper-colored urn filled with pink flowers and delicate green leaves. On that wrist she wears a bracelet with four strands of white pearls holding a cameo. She stands on a pale, dirt ground. A teal-blue bench in the lower left corner of the painting is tucked into sage-green shrubbery. Sprigs of pink roses are strewn across the seat and on the ground. The woman is framed to either side with olive and celery-green trees and vegetation, which blend into the hazy distance beyond her head.

Of the more than one thousand paintings Boucher produced, only about twenty are portraits. Contemporaries noted that the artist had difficulty capturing a likeness, a handicap eighteenth-century audiences felt less severe for women's portraits. In them, flattery could substitute for veracity. The fresh glow of Margeurite Bergeret's complexion, the rich, shimmery fabric of her gown, the profusion of roses—even the rustic touch of a straw hat—are all typical of Boucher's style. It captured the grace of a pampered way of life, of aristocrats who, as a contemporary explained "really have nothing else to do but seek pleasant sensations and feelings."

Madame Bergeret was the wife and sister of important art patrons, and it is possible that they introduced Boucher to a third—Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's powerful mistress. Her refined tastes influenced French art for two decades, and Boucher would become her favorite painter. He produced several portraits of her, the most celebrated modeled on this earlier one of Madame Bergeret.

François Boucher, French, 1703 - 1770, Madame Bergeret, possibly 1766, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.3

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The formality and clear outlines of Largillière's Young Man with His Tutor continue traditions of the baroque "grand manner." When that work was painted, late in the reign of Louis XIV, such depictions of boys with their teachers were popular for royal portraits. However, the identity, even the nationality, of this sitter remains unknown. The rich colors and textures and the precision of sensitive detail in the tutor's face reveal the influence of Flemish painting. Largillière spent his youth in Antwerp and London, where the great Flemish portraitist, Anthony van Dyck, had been court painter.

Nicolas de Largillierre, French, 1656 - 1746, Portrait of a Young Man and His Tutor, 1685, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.26

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Bonnier was the perfect eighteenth-century amateur, whose wealth allowed him the leisure to study nature's curiosities. His large collection, open to the public, held cabinets devoted to anatomy, chemistry, pharmacy, and mechanical engineering. Nattier's portrait shows a man of lively intelligence, informally dressed and in a relaxed pose, surrounded by the objects that held his interest: books about natural history (perhaps a publication he sponsored), jars of biological specimens, and mechanical models.

Jean-Marc Nattier, French, 1685 - 1766, Joseph Bonnier de la Mosson, 1745, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.30

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Shown from about the lap up, a woman with light skin sits facing us as she wears a voluminous garment that covers her head and forehead beneath a black veil that falls over and past her shoulders in this vertical portrait painting. The light comes from our left, illuminating her smooth skin and flushed cheeks. She looks at us with gray eyes under gently arched brows. Her coral-pink lips are closed and possibly pulled back slightly at the corners. Her garment is pleated across the chest and sleeves to fall in full folds over her arms. A wide panel covers her shoulders, the sides of her neck, and head, and a white band crosses her forehead. The semi-transparent black veil creates a stiff peak over her head where it attaches to the top of this garment, called a wimple. Her right hand, on our left, rests in her lap and her index finger marks her spot in the small book she holds. The other hand is presumably tucked under the folds of her garment. The background behind her is peanut brown, and a diagonal line suggests a curtain pulled to our right. An inscription in capital gold letters spans the right half of the painting along the top edge: “ELIZABETH DAUGHTER OF SR ROBT THROCKMORTON BART.”

During Largillière's long life portraiture evolved to satisfy new patrons from the wealthy bourgeoisie. Elizabeth Throckmorton was an English Catholic whose family left England rather than acknowledge its Protestant church. She entered an Augustinian house in Paris and served twice as Mother Superior before her death in 1760. Largillière's great facility with color shows in the complex pleats of her robe, the transparency of her dark veil, and the delicacy of her complexion. The fragile hues and soft atmosphere complement her calm beauty.

Nicolas de Largillierre, French, 1656 - 1746, Elizabeth Throckmorton, Canoness of the Order of the Dames Augustines Anglaises, 1729, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1964.20.1

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Shown from the knees up, a woman sitting next to an eagle has pale skin and rosy cheeks, and she faces and looks at us in this vertical portrait painting. The woman takes up most of the height of the composition and her right arm, on our left, rests on what looks like a puffy, sand-colored cloud. Her long, light blond hair is pulled back but one long tendril rests over her right shoulder, on our left. White and pale pink roses are tucked into a string of white pearls pinned into her hair across top of her head. The woman gazes at us with hazel eyes under light gray brows, and her long nose and closed, pale pink lips are set in a heart-shaped face. The low neckline of her ivory-white chemise wraps across her shoulders, and a small bouquet with a peach-colored rose and delicate white flowers is tucked into a bow at the front. The chemise has voluminous, elbow-length sleeves and is belted with a single strand of white pearls. Robin's egg-blue fabric is fastened with a gold pin on her right arm, to our left, and it falls in folds across her lap. Light reflecting off the fabric creates a sheen, suggesting it is silk or satin. Her right arm is bent to hold a pitcher over a small bowl in her other hand. The pitcher and bowl are both iridescent silver edged with gold. The body of the pitcher is decorated with people wearing robes, perhaps dancing. The eagle nestles near her left elbow, to our right. We see the upper half of its brown body and curved wing. Its narrow head and parted, hooked beak face our left in profile. The sky behind the woman transitions from a warm, golden yellow behind her to celestial blue along the top edge of the painting. Wispy bands of clouds rise to meet a larger smoke-gray cloud at the top that spreads out to frame her head. The painting is created with blended strokes, giving it a soft appearance, especially in the woman’s face and hands. The artist signed and dated the painting in the lower left corner, “Nattier pinxit. 1753.”

Nattier entered the Academy as a history painter, but after financial losses in a shaky market scheme he turned to a more profitable career as a portraitist. Before long he was the most fashionable painter in Paris. His daughter wrote that he had "reconciled the two major branches of art" for he specialized in historical portraits, casting his sitters in mythological or literary roles.

Madame de Caumartin as Hebe is one of several portraits Nattier painted of women as the ever-young cupbearer of the gods. Hebe's father, Zeus, appears in the guise of an eagle, and the pitcher, which holds the nectar of eternal youth, echoes the shape of ancient vessels then being recovered from Pompeii. Like a mythological figure, Madame de Caumartin is timeless and faultless, her perfection mirrored by the glasslike smoothness of Nattier's painting technique. Casanova marveled over Nattier's indefinable ability to make even plain women beautiful without sacrificing truth. A younger contemporary, on the other hand, ridiculed Nattier's mythological portraits as absurd and artificial.

Jean-Marc Nattier, French, 1685 - 1766, Madame Le Fèvre de Caumartin as Hebe, 1753, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.13

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Lalive de Jully was a wealthy art collector and amateur artist. Unlike many other Parisian collectors, who favored works of Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Renaissance masters, Lalive de Jully made a conscious effort to collect contemporary French artists. He is shown here with a suite of furniture in the latest neoclassical style. Rectilinear and decorated with motifs from ancient Greek and Roman architecture, this style would become increasingly popular, supplanting the sinuous curves of the rococo.

Lalive de Jully was an early admirer of Greuze, who showed this portrait of him in the 1759 Salon. He was among the first to appreciate the moralizing subjects for which Greuze was primarily known. These melodramatic works, which later generations dismissed as overly sentimental, were greatly admired by eighteenth-century audiences and are now recognized as having played an important role in shifting France's taste from the frivolity of rococo to the more sober styles popular in the last decades of the century. There is a hint of this seriousness in the momentary directness of Lalive de Jully's gaze, as he turns from his harp to engage the viewer.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, French, 1725 - 1805, Ange Laurent de La Live de Jully, probably 1759, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1946.7.8

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A white marble sculpture shows the head and upper chest of an elderly, gaunt, bald, smiling man. In this photograph, the man’s face is angled to our right, and he looks off in that direction with hooded eyes under bushy brows. His forehead, eyes, and mouth are lined with wrinkles. He has a bulbous, slightly hooked nose and high cheekbones. He smiles with his thin lips together. There is a fringe of hair over the ear we can see, and his head is otherwise smooth. The tendons on his neck stand out. The narrow base of the sculpture curves in a U down past his collarbones, and is supported on a charcoal-gray, polished marble base. The sculpture casts a light shadow against a pale gray background to our left in this photograph.

When Voltaire (1694-1778) returned to Paris in February 1778 from decades of exile in Switzerland, he was met with tumultuous welcome in the streets of Paris. Crowds pulled his carriage and surrounded his house, clamoring for a glimpse of this skeptical philosophe, who was a playwright, novelist, historian, satirist, champion of the oppressed—and the century's greatest wit. He was eighty-four years old, and the exertion killed him before the end of May.

During those few months Voltaire sat several times for Houdon, who portrayed him in busts and as a seated figure, in classical drapery and contemporary dress. Voltaire became Houdon's most popular subject and one of his most compelling characterizations. This version, which is the simplest, seems also the closest to life. Its realism—sagging skin and bald head—has the austere truth of portrait busts from republican Rome. This conception was probably the basis for other interpretations. Voltaire's expression seems to change as the light, or our point of view, shifts. By turns he is wise or sarcastic, understanding or impatient, engaged or introspective. But always, his features, especially his eyes, are animated by intelligence and wit. Houdon developed an effective way to capture the depth and glint of an eye in stone. Within the hollow iris, spokes radiate from a deeply drilled pupil, and just under the lid, Houdon left a tiny peg of stone to suggest the reflection of light.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, French, 1741 - 1828, Voltaire, 1778, marble, 36.5 x 21.3 x 21.3 cm, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.240

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