Art pieces relating to the period 1607 AD – 1865 AD can be found in the exhibitions of the Kimbell Art Museum, located in Fort Worth, Texas. In this context, particular attention should be paid to the descriptions and analysis of the pieces of French sculpture exhibited in American museums that accentuate tendencies in depicting the nobility of the 18th century. From this perspective, the purpose of this report is to discuss Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay, Premier Président de la Chambre des Comptes (1779).
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The bust of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay was carved in marble by Houdon during the Age of Enlightenment in France, also the same period as the American Revolutionary War. Today, Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay is one of the prominent artifacts of French cultural and art heritage stored in the collection of Kimbell Art Museum (see Fig. 1). Later, traditional elements of French portrait sculpture such as this were emulated by American sculptors in their representations of famous and influential political figures.
It is important to note that Aymard-Jean de Nicolay was a representative of the noblesse de robe, with his family being responsible for performing certain administrative and judicial functions since the early 16th century. While being referred to as Marquis de Goussainville, Nicolay also performed duties as the First President of the Chambre des Comptes and registered the laws. This influential person was seen as a ‘perfect’ member of the French nobility; as such, he was interested in having a portrait sculpture only made by the very best sculptor of that period, Houdon.
Houdon was famous for his unique approach to depicting men of nobility with a particular focus on many details in their appearance. As a result, even though carved in marble, his portraits of political or authority figures look realistic in terms of the eyes, hair, and facial expression. Indeed, in Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay, the viewer’s attention quickly becomes focused on Nicolay’s face and eyes because Houdon was among the first sculptors who used a specific technique for carving eyes. Starting with carving the iris, the sculptor then creates a hole for the pupil, while leaving the protruding fragment of marble overhanging the iris. As a result, both eyes look sparkling, as if holding a certain expression.
In viewing Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay, it is possible to see what facial expression Nicolay had during his life, and this approach to treating eyes in sculpture adds to creating a realistic effect. The eyes of Nicolay seem to attract the viewer’s attention in comparison to observing rather “empty” eyes typical of more traditional portrait sculptures. The elements of Nicolay’s dress are also worthy of examination, especially when looking at the bust in comparison with the elements of clothes worn by influential figures in America in the 18th century.
After visiting the Kimbell Art Museum, it is possible to analyze a variety of artworks that can impress viewers. The choice of Houdon’s Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay, Premier Président de la Chambre des Comptes for detailed discussion can be explained by the aspect of its focus on representing nobility in sculpture. In addition, another reason for analyzing this artwork here is the author’s interest in Houdon’s unique and masterful technique of carving the eyes of individuals’ within portraits made out of marble.
“Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay, Premier Président de la Chambre des Comptes.” Kimbell Art Museum, 2019, Web.
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