Seduction in Stone: Jean-Antoine Houdon's Bust of Madame de Vermenoux

Dec. 21, 2013Apr. 15, 2014
Huntington Art Gallery

Carved by the most famous French portrait sculptor of his day, this magnificent bust celebrates the ravishing beauty of Anne-Germaine Larrivée. Houdon depicts her in an unguarded moment, turning to her right, as if toward someone approaching, an affectionate smile on her lips. The contrasts in texture between her cascade of soft curls and the smooth, bare skin of her shoulders, between the delicate lace-trimmed garment and the heavy cloak that wraps both her body and the socle on which the sculpture sits, ask us to believe that, instead of a piece of stone, we are in the company of a sensuous and engaging woman.

The warmth and intimacy of Houdon’s marble portrait proclaims the captivating power of his sitter. Anne-Germaine Larrivée became Madame de Vermenoux at the age of 17 when she married an influential Swiss officer. He died two years later, leaving her a wealthy widow with connections to intellectual circles in Geneva and Paris, where elite thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s finance minister, and physician Théodore Thronchin, a close friend of Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire, were enthralled by her loveliness, culture, charm, and noble character. The writer Jacques-Henri Meister was so devoted to her that when she died he kept her heart in a metal box and had it buried with him on his death forty-three years later.