Published: March 16, 2004
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) recently unveiled a gift to the museum from the Ahmanson Foundation: an extremely rare life-size plaster sculpture of the famed Eighteenth Century writer and philosopher Voltaire by the great portraitist Jean-Antoine Houdon.
The work, known as ‘Seated Voltaire,” is regarded as Houdon’s masterpiece. There are eight versions of the composition – three in plaster, two in terra-cotta, two in marble and one in papier mache. LACMA’s is the only one outside Europe.
“This generous gift by The Ahmanson Foundation is a truly spectacular gesture toward LACMA and the people of Los Angeles, and adds to the foundation’s long history of helping the museum acquire some of its most important works of art,” said LACMA president and Wallis Annenberg director Andrea L. Rich. “For the first time, visitors from Los Angeles and abroad will be able to see Houdon’s masterpiece in the United States and only at LACMA.”
The monument to Voltaire is justifiably called Houdon’s masterpiece. Within weeks before the subject’s death in 1778, Houdon captured the essence of the great man in a portrait-bust. Soon Voltaire’s niece commissioned a full-scale marble monument, as did Catherine the Great. Houdon conceived the basic composition by 1779 and completed a full-scale plaster version in 1780. The marble sculptures (Comedie Francaise, Paris and State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) are dated 1781. Houdon succeeded in creating a vibrant, timeless image: immersed in a great robe stripped of stylish details, his compassionate eyes sparkling with wit, Voltaire seems to come to life before us. His brilliant and challenging personality embodies the paradoxical contradictions of the age in which he lived. Although Voltaire was the philosopher most admired by the Empress of Russia, he was a defender of democracy and decried the feckless cruelty of tyrants and hypocrites who were their lackeys. Voltaire’s mourners proclaimed that he had “prepared us to become free.”
Besides the two marbles, the Musee Fabre in Montpellier and the Voltaire Institute in Geneva own terra-cotta casts. A papier mache copy in the Municipal Library in Rouen was crafted in 1791 for the memorial procession that carried Voltaire’s body to the Pantheon in Paris. In addition, three versions in plaster are known: one in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France; one in the Coty collection that was auctioned in 1936 (now in a European private collection) and the one now in LACMA’s permanent collection.
“Seated Voltaire” is on view in LACMA’s Ahmanson Building. LACMA is at 5905 Wilshire Boulevard. For information, www.lacma.org or 323-857-6000.
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