Houdon’s Winter Wonderland

Brrrrr, winter sure is in full swing! At the very least, Jean Antoine Houdon’s Winter sculpture definitely sets the winter-esque mood. It’s an all in one allegorical and sensual piece that just makes you want to get away from the cold. So, curl up next to a fireplace with a nice cup of hot chocolate and settle in for a discussion about Houdon’s Winter

Ready to be Enlightened?

Jean Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) is a well-known French sculptor. His works are influenced by the Enlightenment to showcase virtues of simplicity, grace, and nature. Houdon even drew inspiration from the baroque, antiquity, and naturalism. He’s quite versatile, no? As a sculptor, Houdon was particularly famous for his portraiture of philosophers, inventors, and political figures. On that note, you can find one of his sculptured portraits of Voltaire at the Louvre (and maybe do a Louvre Hunt while you’re at it!). Alongside his study of anatomy, he could successfully portray a subject’s personality and create the essence of living flesh!  

Breaking the Ice About Houdon’s Winter 

Houdon’s Winter, completed in 1787, is a bronze state currently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum. With careful design, this statue simultaneously becomes a winter allegory and an elegant portrayal of feminine beauty.  

Bundle Up, It’s Cold Outside

Houdon’s Winter, Photo Credit: The Met

Arms crossed and legs drawn together, a young woman huddles beneath a shawl that fails to completely cover her. She is desperately trying to preserve her body heat. This bodily retraction into herself mimics a chilled state that we associate with winter. Through her, Houdon emphasizes winter’s bitterness. 

Interestingly, when looking at this piece, you might be compelled to wrap her in a hug and warm her up! You even might shiver with coldness yourself! Neuroscientist Eric Kandel describes this sensation saying,

There is a system in the brain which responds to her shivering. We actually feel cold when we look at something like this.”  

Eric Kandel

Just as this poor woman is vulnerable to winter, so are we! Our empathy takes hold. Be careful, you wouldn’t want to catch your death. 

Winter’s Charm

As a partially clothed, shivering girl, Houdon takes a radical departure from traditional winter representations. Typically, you’ll associate winter with old men. Do Santa Claus and Jack Frost ring a bell? Instead, we get this shivering female figure. 

In fact, Houdon’s Winter goes beyond a winter allegory by emphasizing the nude female body. You’ll notice that the woman is nude from the waist down for the shawl only covers her head and torso. In addition, since the woman is an ambiguous figure (we don’t know who she is), Houdon leaves the sculpture up to interpretation. He uses this sculpture as an opportunity to reveal the charm behind the female nude.  

We know that Houdon liked to study anatomy, so it comes to no surprise that, though the woman is shivering, her naked legs are almost flirtatiously posed with her right foot bent slightly inward. Likewise, Houdon sculpted her legs smoothly. The bronze is abraded for a sleek finish. Let’s not forget her nicely sculpted behind. She is beautiful and elegant creating a sensual experience. We aren’t just feeling empathy towards the cold, we also feel sensually charged. 

Thinking in the Abstract

Though keeping true to the body’s natural figure, Houdon’s Winter does have an underlying abstract quality. It goes slightly beyond the human. For instance, there’s a discreet zig-zag in the bent leg’s curve. Or you could think about the distinct contrast between the folding fabric and smooth flesh. 

The piece also compels viewers to circle around it to see the allure between the shivering front and naked behind. Does your interpretation of the woman shift as you move around the piece? 

You can also experience this sculpture through music. Listen to Joan Jeanreaud’s musical composition that accompanies Houdon’s Winter. How does the music affect your experience?

The Met’s Sounds for the Shivering Woman

Overall, whether you prefer the winter allegory, beauty, or abstraction, Houdon’s Winter is compelling, no? 

For more risqué pieces, check out our Love Hunts at the Louvre!

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