The Bather – Jean Antoine Houdon

FRENCH, 1741-1828

Houdon, the pupil of Pigalle, and the great sculptor of the eighteenth century, has always been appreciated in this country from the time when, in the early days of the republic, he came to the United States to execute the famous portrait-statue of Washington and on the same visit carried out a number of lesser works which have remained here ever since. In more recent years other sculptures of his have been brought from abroad, but none exceeds in distinction the Bather in the Altman Collection. It is one of the comparatively few works of art with a complete history, which has been ably expounded by M. Paul Vitry, Curator of Sculpture in the Museum of the Louvre, from whose article, published in Art in America for August, 1914, Volume I I, No. V, the following slightly abridged account is quoted:

“Among the most important works of Houdon in America, the Bather of the Altman Collection must be put in the foremost rank. Together with the celebrated Diana of the Hermitage it is, one of the most important and significant works in marble of the sculptor. But, while the Diana is characteristic of the revival of taste for the classic style and the correctness of perfect forms (a correctness which often degenerated into dryness), the Woman Bathing is in the true French eighteenth-century spirit and exhibits the essentially naturalistic tendencies of Houdon’s genius. Although of the same date, it therefore offers an absolute antithesis to the Hermit-age statue. Half a century ago this Baigneuse was thought to have been lost. Anatole de MontaigIon, in his study of Houdon, scarcely speaks of the group to which it belonged, and Délerot says distinctly that the group was destroyed during the Revolution. Fortunately this was not so. In 1828, after vicissitudes the details of which are unknown to us, the Woman Bathing was placed by Lord Hertford in the gardens of Bagatelle, his Paris home, where it remained until after the death of his heir, Sir Richard Wallace. Coming into the market some fifteen years ago, it was acquired by Mr. Altman. It bears the date 1782 and was originally the principal figure of a rather peculiar work exhibited at the Salon of 1783, and which is also found under the head of the year 1 781 in the list of Houdon’s works which he drew up, about 1784, before his departure for America. The artist describes it as follows: ‘A naiad, life size, in marble, seated in a basin bathing herself, and a negress, also life size, in lead, pouring water over her mistress’s shoulders. Group intended as a fountain in the garden of the Duc de Chartres at Monceaux.’

” In the last years of the old régime this well-known group of the garden of Monceaux was often described by the authors of guide books of Paris, among those picturesque features which the prevailing sentimental fashion for English gardens had caused to be placed in the grounds of royal and princely residences in the vicinity of Paris. The group, being placed out of doors, suffered from exposure and the negress has disappeared; however, there remain studies made for her and among them a bronzed plaster bust of a negress in the Museum of Soissons, which, if it is not the bust of a negro woman ‘imitating antique bronze’ of the Salon of 1781, may be a replica of it of a slightly later period. When the marble figure was placed in the grounds of Bagatelle, it again was exposed to the inclemencies of the weather, to which it owes its present patina and the careful restorations which it has undergone. The leg which had been repaired in 1793 had again to be restored, and the foot now rests upon a fragment of rock which has been added to the base.

“Notwithstanding these repairs, and the slightly peculiar pose which the picturesque composition of the group must have made appropriate, this statue is a most valuable and fascinating work because of the easy grace and beauty of the movement, and of the subtlety of the modeling. The head, which is less regular than that of the Diana, recalls somewhat the naturalistic figures of Allegrain, and is assuredly, like them, studied directly from the living model.”