Diderot Essay Painting

Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

Jean Antoine Houdon (French, Versailles 1741–1828 Paris)
French, Paris
Height (bust): 15 3/4 in. (40 cm); Height (stand): 4 11/16 in. (11.9 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1974
Accession Number:

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 528

A philosopher and man of letters, and one of the internationally famous exponents of the French Enlightenment, Denis Diderot is best known for the multivolume encyclopedia that he compiled and coedited with Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783) between 1751 and 1772. In the entry for painted portraits, Diderot’s Encyclopédie states that the principal merit of the genre is to render the sitter exactly, by capturing both his character and his physiognomy.[1] A portrait bust of Diderot, believed to be the terracotta bust now in the Musée du Louvre, which served as a model for the Museum’s marble version, was exhibited by the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon at the Salon of 1771. The sitter approved of that work, describing it as très ressemblant ( having a very strong resemblance). It was also well received by contemporary critics, one of whom wrote: “I single out the bald head of the editor of the Encyclopédie. The flame of genius brought that bust to life; there is a fire, an expression, that gives it a striking resemblance; I don’t want to say it out loud, but our colleagues the painters have done nothing equal.”[2]

Winner of the Prix de Rome in 1761, Houdon had spent ten years in Italy and was profoundly influenced by the arts of antiquity. Diderot is shown as a classical philosopher, bare-chested and without wig or other paraphernalia. Justly known for his naturalistic portraiture and his classic simplicity, Houdon was very successful in capturing his sitter’s lively eyes and conveying the determination and intelligence that won Diderot many admirers and some enemies—as attested by the words inscribed on the plinth: “il eut de grands Amis et, quelques bas jaloux / le Soleil plait à l’aigle, et blesse les hiboux” ( He had great friends and a few low jealous ones / the sun pleases the eagle and wounds the owls). The slightly parted lips are said to have suggested the brilliance of Diderot’s conversation. This is consistent with Horace Walpole’s description of the philosopher in his journal entry for September 19, 1765, as “a very lively old man, and great talker.”[3]

Possibly shown at the Salon of 1773, the Museum’s marble bust, signed and dated by the artist, was acquired by a patron of Houdon’s, the Russian Francophile Count Alexander Sergeyevich Stroganoff (1733–1811), during a sojourn in Paris. It remained for many years at the Stroganoff palace in Saint Petersburg. In 1773 Diderot himself traveled to Russia, at the invitation of Empress Catherine the Great (1729–1796), a supporter of his work with whom he had corresponded.

[Daniëlle Kisluk-Grosheide, 2010]

[1] Diderot 1751–72, vol. 13 (1765), p. 153.
[2] Journal encyclopédique (Collection Deloynes 49, no. 1320), quoted by Scherf 2008b, p. 44.
[3] Walpole 1937–83, vol. 7 (1939), p. 262.

Signature: On edge of bust: "Mr. Diderot, fait en 1773 par Houdon" ["Mr. Diderot, made in 1773 by Houdon"]

Inscription: Inscribed on front of plinth below socle: "il eut de grands Amis et, quelques bas jaloux le Soleil plaît à l'aigle, et blesse les hiboux" ["He had great friends and a few low jealous ones/ the sun pleases the eagle and wounds the owls"].

made for Count Alexander Sergei Stroganov ; Stroganov Family , Saint Petersburg (until ca. 1918) ; Stroganov Palace Museum / Hermitage (until 1931; sale of Stroganov collection belonging to Soviets, Rudolph Lepke's Auction House, Berlin, May 12, 1931, no. 225); Thomas Fortune Ryan , New York ; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman , New York (until 1974; to MMA)

Robert Fulton (1765–1815)

Artist: After a model by Jean Antoine Houdon (French, Versailles 1741–1828 Paris) Date: early 20th century cast, after model of 1803Medium: BronzeAccession: 09.199On view in:Not on view

Joel Barlow (1754–1812)

Artist: After a model by Jean Antoine Houdon (French, Versailles 1741–1828 Paris) Date: 18th centuryMedium: PlasterAccession: 14.15On view in:Not on view

George Washington (1732–1799)

Artist: After a model by Jean Antoine Houdon (French, Versailles 1741–1828 Paris) Date: 19th–early 20th century, cast after a model of 1788Medium: Bronze, dark brown patinaAccession: 08.165On view in:Not on view

Art criticism has a history that is almost as long as the history of art itself. In his Naturalis Historia, written in the first century AD, the Roman author Pliny the Elder discusses the lives and works of painters and sculptors. Not quite art criticism as you find it in a modern newspaper, maybe, but he does rail that "a fatal malaise has taken hold of the arts".

The real birth of modern art criticism is usually traced to 18th-century France. It started at the moment art addressed a wide and potentially universal audience: "the public". Instead of pleasing the court and king, 18th-century French artists appealed directly to public opinion at the hugely popular Salon exhibitions. Critics, reviewing these shows, started to make themselves heard. Today, the most famous of these 18th-century critics is Denis Diderot, the Enlightenment philosopher who also wrote passionately about his loves and hates in contemporary art.

Diderot raises a question: is a good critic one who is right, or one who makes an interesting case, however wrong-headed? He loathed the sensuous, sophisticated, courtly and erotic painter François Boucher. In his eyes, Boucher's paintings were heartless, decadent, trivial, and morally worthless.

In place of Boucher he preferred another contemporary, Jean-Baptiste Greuze. For Diderot, this painter of grief-stricken families and sincere young people was a truly serious and worthwhile artist – the antithesis of Boucher.

A good place to compare these two artists is the Wallace Collection in London, which has works by both in abundance. Boucher's erotic mythological fantasies are floating concoctions of silk and skin, ethereal and flimsy and ... hugely pleasurable. He is defiantly unserious and delightfully ambitious in the scale and proliferation of his visual frolics. As for Greuze – what visitor to the Wallace Collection spends much time on this sentimental, morbid, palpably dishonest artist's clogged and nauseating daubs?

Well, that's changing taste for you. There were compelling reasons for Diderot to see so much more in Greuze that meets our eyes. He was setting out a theory of art, searching for a definition of value that was truly serious, moral, even political. His readers were searching too, which was why they too loved Greuze.

What does all that have to with art and criticism today? Everything. The job of a critic is not to be "right" – that would make them into jumped-up authority figures, high-court judges of art. What pompous nonsense. The memorable critics – including the greatest of all, John Ruskin – were often wrong, even absurd, but they made arguments that will always bear thinking about. Ruskin could pursue a train of thought over hundreds of pages and his richness of intellect and language makes the journey worthwhile, even if you find his opinions insane or offensive.

Critics are not parasitical on art. They practice an art of their own. History shows that being right has very little to do with it.

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