Here’s a curious sales strategy. Sotheby’s is auctioning off a Houdon bust of George Washington in next week’s Old Master sales in London. The Associated Press flags the sale and points out that the Louvre, LACMA and National Gallery in DC all have editions of this same bust:
The bust comes from the workshop of 18th-Century master sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon of France and will be sold on July 9. It is one of a series of famous busts of Washington produced after Houdon was commissioned by the U.S. Congress and the Virginia Legislature to produce a life-size sculpture of Washington. Officials expect it to be sold for more than 300,000 pounds ($490,000).
Here’s the Sotheby’s catalogue on the bust:
Following the American War of Independence and the peace of 1783, Congress and the Virginia Legislature wished to honour George Washington for his important contribution. They voted to erect a life-size equestrian monument and Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris recommending Houdon for the commission: ‘I find that a Monsieur Houdon of this place, possesses the reputation of being the first statuary in the world.’ Houdon was thrilled to accept the opportunity – modelling an equestrian monument had been a long-term ambition for the sculptor.
A painted portrait of Washington was sent to Paris for Houdon to work from, but Houdon considered this the most important commission of his career and instead volunteered to travel to America to meet his subject and complete studies directly from life. The sculptor arrived in Philadelphia on 14th September 1785. He spent 17 days at Mount Vernon carrying out extensive studies of his subject including measurements taken with callipers and a life mask which he brought back with him to Paris before Christmas of the same year. Back in Paris, with a typical concern for liveliness, Houdon engaged Gouveneur Morris to pose in place of Washington, a role which prompted the model to remark that ‘the humble role of artist’s model is rather tiring.’ Working from the live model and his studies Houdon produced a bust of Washington which he displayed in his studio from December 1786 and exhibited at the Salon of 1787.
Houdon went on to produce a number of variants of the bust showing Washington bare-chested à l’antique, with a simple shirt and scarf, and with a tunic and toga as in the present example. Other examples of this variant include a marble at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a plaster at the National Gallery of Art, Washington and a terracotta in the collection of the Louvre Museum. Although none of these are dated, Anne Poulet has proposed that they were created in the 1780s. For the monument Washington preferred to be portrayed in contemporary dress. The project for an equestrian portrait was finally abandoned in favour of the less expensive marble standing figure of Washington erected in the Capitol Building, Richmond, Virginia in 1792.
Washington Bust to Be Auctioned in London (Associated Press)