Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait Bust of Christoph Willibald Von Gluck (1714-1787) 1770c.

Jean-Antoine Houdon, Studio of 1741 - 1828

Portrait Bust of Christoph Willibald Von Gluck (1714-1787), Jean-Antoine Houdon, Studio of
18th Century
20 inches 53 cm high
Private Collection, USA
L. Reau, Houdon, sa vie et son oeuvre, II, Paris, 1935, pp. 374-5, vol. III, p. 31. G. Giacometti, La vie et l''oeuvre de Houdon, Paris, 1928, p.61-62. France in the Eighteenth Century, Royal Academy of Art Exhibition, London, 1968 H.H. Arnason, The Sculptures of Houdon, London, 1975, pp. 108 -9. Les Sculptures, I-Le Musee National du Chateau de Versailles, Paris 1993. Exhibition catalogue, Houdon, at the Salander O''Reilly Galleries, New York, 1998, pp. 12 -15.
The presence and realism of this of this terracotta representation of the composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck, (1714 -1787) by Jean Antoine Houdon are a tribute both to the abilities of the sculptor and to the musician he commemorates. Here in an expression filled with inspiration, the much-celebrated composer of Orpheus and Euridice directs his gaze into the distance. Gluck''s features are portrayed with striking veracity: his hair is tousled, his complexion mottled by the scars of smallpox. Such honest depictions of sitters are a rarity in an era when artists were influenced by the smooth tones and elegant lines of classical statuary and clearly, Houdon sought to depict his contemporary as he was known to those in musical circles.

This terracotta relates to a large scale finished marble work by Houdon commissioned by the Paris Opera. Although the statue was lost when the opera house burned in 1783, Houdon's studio would have been expected to produce a number of smaller busts amongst which ours must number. Subsequently, during the nineteenth century plaster busts (such as that at the Louvre) and reduced bronzes of Gluck were also produced, however late eighteenth century signed terracotta versions originating from the sculptor's studio are a rarity. Equally, unlike our example, few of the artist's busts bear evidence of the workshop cachet d'atelier.

Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714 - 1787) was born in Bavaria, studied music in Prague and later in Milan and produced his first opera in 1741. In 1756 he settled in Vienna as Court Chapel Master to the Empress Maria Theresa. With the opera, Orpheus and Euridice, produced in 1762, Gluck revolutionized opera, which had until then consisted of a series of arias loosely strung together by a complex plot. In Paris he was widely acclaimed, winning the favour of Queen Marie Antoinette and of Voltaire, but was opposed by Nicolo Piccinni, who had succeeded Lully as composer at the Paris Opera. Although best remembered for Orpheus and Euridice, Gluck completed a number of operatic works and ballets including Semiramis, Iphigenie, and Alceste, in addition to revising works by Lully and Rameau.

As a contemporary of Gluck, Houdon and his highly successful studio created likenesses of a number of noteworthy individuals during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including Napoleon, Voltaire, Diderot and LaFayette. Although educated at the renowned Ecole de l'Academie and based in Paris, Houdon's commissions were not restricted to French sitters. In 1785, the sculptor traveled to the United States where he executed statues of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin before returning to France. In addition to his production of busts, Houdon earned great fame for his marble tomb effigies and his large scale decorative works including Ceres and Negresse en plomb verse de l'eau. Houdon exhibited widely at the Paris Salons throughout his career where a plaster bust of Gluck is recorded as having been displayed in 1775.
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