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Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)
Bust of Madame de Sérilly
1782
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Carved in white marble, Madame de Sérilly (1762-1799) is turning her head and looking to her right. Her hair is dressed high off the forehead and falling in two curly locks on either shoulder. Her smooth skin, the turn of the head and her proud posture enhance her beauty and youth. To emphasise her sensuousness, the seemingly careless fall of the mantle, loosely draped around her shoulders, reveals the fine lace that barely covers her left breast. Cleverly composed, the mantle also covers the lower part of the bust.

The bust captures Madame de Sérilly at 20 years of age. Made from white marble, the portrait does not reveal if she truly had clear, pale skin, chestnut hair and grey eyes as reported. But, with its confident and bravura handling, what does it tell us of her personality or status?

Anne-Marie-Louise de Pange, the orphaned daughter of a French Army General, was renowned for her beauty and for her position in her early married life at the centre of a brilliant circle of artist and writers. However, she was to suffer dramatic reverses of fortune, surviving three husbands, one of whom died from consumption, another of smallpox, the same disease which eventually killed Anne-Marie at the age of 36. Her first husband, Antoine Mégret de Sérilly, Treasurer General in the War Ministry, was executed in 1794 for plotting on behalf of the King during the French Revolution. Anne-Marie, accused of the same crime, only escaped execution by claiming she was pregnant.

The French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) was one of the greatest portrait sculptors of all time. He produced a large number of portrait busts of prominent international contemporaries, working in marble, plaster and bronze. The bust of Madame de Sérilly is a supreme example of his ability to skilfully exploit the lustrous qualities of the white marble, while taking full advantage of the darker veins which make its surface seem to come to life.
How does the smooth marble correspond what we know of Madame de Sérilly? Could you imagine the bust to be made in other materials that would better reflect her life, her beauty or her character?
How does the time and skill involved in making a bust of someone compare to painting their portrait? What can you achieve in a sculpted portrait that you can't in a painting, and in a painting that you can't in a sculpture?
Can a painting and a sculpture carry the same meanings or will they always speak differently about the sitter's importance, status and reputation?
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)  Bust of Madame de Sérilly   1782
Materials and technique: Marble
Dimensions: 62 cm high
Wallace Collection (S26)
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