The consensus among the experts is that, although Houdon probably created a life mask of Robespierre, he never actually went on to make a sculpture. So what is going on?
|Houdon, portrait of an unknown man, 1774|
Museum of Art, RISD
We are told that the Houdon expert Louis Réau listed three examples of the bust:
1. A plaster, formerly in the collection of Jacques de Saint-Pierre.
2. A cast from a lost terracotta which belonged to the sculptor Henri Chapu, who himself made a cast for the Musée des monuments français (in the Palais de Chaillot) - possibly the cast in the postcard below.
|An old postcard for sale:|
Bust of an unknown subject, attributed to
Houdon. Private collection.
Musée de Sculpture Comparée
(now part of the Musée des monuments français)
It is not clear which, if any, of these versions is the one which ended up in Versailles.
In addition there is a fourth sculpture in the Musée d'Orléans, which is identified as a Bust of Laurent Gilbert. Houdon's biographer Georges Giacometti apparently doubted the authenticity of this sculpture. I can't find the reference, so I'm not sure quite why, but, on the face of it, Laurent Gilbert is a tempting candidate for the subject.
Nicolas Joseph Laurent Gilbert (1750-1780) was a satirical poet who made something of a name for himself as a panegyrist of Louis XV and opponent of the Encyclopedists. He first arrived in Paris in 1774 so the dates fit. More to the point - it looks like him!
|Comparison with engraving of Laurent published in Wikipedia|
The idea that the statue is Robespierre can probably be explained by its superficial resemblance to the sculpture of Robespierre by Claude André Deseine.
Other example of the bust turn up from time to time at auction, and there is also a notable later copy on display in the Café Procope.
But sadly none of them is Robespierre!
|"Portrait de Maximilien de Robespierre", |
Sold at auction by Drouot.
"255e anniversaire de Maximilien Robespierre" on Les grosses orchades, les amplesThalamèges.....(blog)
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, European painting and sculpture, ca. 1770-1937 (1991) . p. 262 (S 40) [Extracts on Google Books]