In his portraits of the men of letters and nobility of the Enlightenment, Houdon created an entirely new genre, in which he achieved spontaneity and informality of expression without compromising the decorous and elevated presentation of his sitters. His bust of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay, marquis de Goussainville (1709–1785), was exhibited in the Salon of 1779, where it was described as “joining to the most perfect resemblance an elegance and nobility of form.” Nicolay was a member of the noblesse de robe, nobility whose judicial and administrative function dated back to the sixteenth century. As First President of the Chambre des Comptes, he was the senior official at the sovereign court responsible for the royal accounts and for the registration of all laws touching upon the Crown’s domain, a position that had been held by his family since 1506.
It is in the carving of Nicolay’s face and hair that Houdon’s genius as a portraitist is most fully engaged. The treatment of the eyes is particularly masterful. He first cut out the entire iris, then bored a deeper hole for the pupil, taking care to leave a small fragment of marble to overhang the iris. The effect is a vivacity and mobility of expression that was acclaimed even in the artist’s own time; it was noted that Houdon was perhaps the first sculptor in the history of art who knew how to render eyes.
Adult: Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay
Children's: Portrait of Aymard-Jean de Nicolay
Sculpted for Aymard-Jean de Nicolay, marquis de Goussainville [1709-85], Paris, 1779;
by descent to Aymard, comte and marquis de Nicolay [b. 1832], Paris;
his daughter, comtesse de Contades, née Marie de Nicolay [1873-1944], and her husband, comte Gaston de Contades [1866-1953], Paris and Cannes;
their son, comte André Marie Arthur Aymard de Contades [1900-58], Paris;
(Moatti S. A., Paris);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1991.