The Detroit Institute of Arts will display two pieces by renowned French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The artist’s terra cotta busts of Benjamin Franklin (1778) and George Washington (1786) are on loan from the Musée du Louvre in Paris from Oct. 6, 2019-May 3, 2020.
The pieces will be on display in the DIA’s American galleries along with Houdon’s marble bust of Robert Fulton (ca. 1804) from the DIA’s collection, as well as other portraits of Franklin, Washington, and other early American leaders. The visiting busts were created during the Age of Enlightenment.
Houdon’s bust of Franklin is shown with an early print and a textile showing Franklin and Washington. The bust was made during the height of Franklin’s fame as America’s first ambassador to France from 1776-1785. The American Revolution took place from 1776-1783, and Franklin won the support of the French financially and militarily.
Washington’s bust is displayed alongside the English textile titled “Apotheosis of Franklin and Washington” (ca. 1785) which is on view at the museum for the first time. The textile depicts Washington and Franklin as heroes and symbols of the early American republic and was mass-produced and used as bed coverings and curtains in many upper-class American homes. Other portraits of Washington include the DIA’s paintings by Charles Wilson Peale and Rembrandt Peale that highlight the roles of Washington’s service as general, his return to civilian life, and his time as the nation’s first president.
The works are accompanied by a prompt that invites visitors to explore the men’s histories with slavery as they advocated for individual liberty and freedom in the Declaration of Independence.
“This display was specifically designed to serve the curriculum needs of educators that bring their classrooms to the DIA for field trips each year,” says Salvador Salort-Pons, director of the DIA. “Art is an important tool for bringing history and culture to life for students, and for this exhibition, we worked directly with teachers to develop meaningful content to help their students connect to America’s past.”
Houdon’s sculptural skills defined his career and earned him fame throughout Europe and America. His subjects were often icons. His work in terra cotta and marble portrays subjects’ physical likeness and their personalities.
Viewing the busts is free with museum admission, which is free for residents of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties. In conjunction with the exhibition, the DIA will host Guilhem Scherf, curator general of heritage and assistant director of the department of sculptures at the Musée du Louvre for a public lecture at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5 in the Marvin and Betty Danto Lecture Hall. The talk is titled “The American Connection: Jean-Antoine Houdon and his Great American Friends” and is free with museum admission.