Even in the art of portraiture, truth and power seldom get along with each other


The ideas of France’s philosophers, the refinement of its language, and the sumptuousness of its fashion defined the eighteenth century. French paintings from the Age of Enlightenment gleam from the walls of great museums from St. Petersburg to New York. What would the Wallace Collection be without Watteau, the Frick without Fragonard? Yet sculpture contributed as much to this era as France’s other arts. Certainly there are well-known examples around the world—Jean- Antoine Houdon’s statue of George Washington in Richmond, for example, or Étienne-Maurice Falconet’s equestrian monument to Peter the Great on the Neva. But the full richness of eighteenth-century French sculpture—as spirited as it was virtuoso—has been little noted outside its homeland. All the more reason to celebrate the decision of the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, in collaboration with the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, to gather together a glittering selection of French sculpture from the days of Voltaire to the First Empire. The show includes both statues and smaller works—among them, above all, a remarkable ensemble of portrait busts. The Liebieghaus galleries are not large and do not always offer enough space for the works to achieve the full effect of their magic and wit. Nevertheless, what an experience! It feels like entering a Paris salon in the days of Madame du Deffand and eavesdropping on the philosophes in brilliant conversation.

more from Willibald Sauerländer at the NYRB here.