This commanding portrait of the Comte de Guibert, one of France’s foremost military tacticians, was commissioned on November 2, 1791 from Houdon, the preeminent portrait sculptor of his time, by the sitter's widow, Louise Alexandrine Boutinon de Courcelles, Comtesse de Guibert. The work, which exemplifies Houdon’s mastery of the material and his fondness for both naturalistic detail and psychological realism, conveys the sitter’s strength, intelligence and virility.
Guibert was a general, a writer and a friend to many of the Enlightenment's leading intellectuals. His Essai général de tactique
had an enormous impact on the science of military strategy and was admired by both George Washington and Frederick the Great and influenced the young Napoleon Bonaparte. He was the son of General Charles Benoît de Guibert and his wife, Suzanne Thérèse née Rivail. He began his career at a young age as a professional soldier and military writer, travelling alongside his father throughout Germany in the army of the Duc de Broglie during the Seven Years War. His considerable courage and initiative earned him promotions and by 1763 he began an intense study of the military arts based on his observations of Prussian regimental drills and army maneuvers. In 1766 as captain, he assisted his father when the Duc de Choiseul, Foreign Minister under Louis XV, called him to Paris to improve the efficiency of the army.
On June 1, 1775, Guibert married the seventeen-year-old Louise Alexandrine Boutinon de Courcelles, the daughter of a commissaire des guerres
of the Swiss Guard regiment. In the following year the couple had a daughter, Apolline Charlotte Adélaïde (1776-1852), the future Madame René Vallet de Villeneuve.
As a dashing young man with an illustrious power of seduction, Guibert was involved in liaisons with beautiful aristocratic women and his love affair with Julie de Lespinasse is immortalized in their celebrated love letters, later published by Guibert’s grandson in 1906. Madame Pierre François His, née Marianne de Vastre, a member of the financial bourgeoisie, was equally so charmed by the handsome young count that she left her own portrait bust also by Houdon, to her beloved Guibert rather than to her descendants. This sculpture is now in the Frick Collection, New York.
Guibert wrote for the theater and achieved such fame as both a writer and a military theorist that on February 13, 1786, he was elected to the Académie Française. In 1776, the year he was promoted to colonel, he was raised to the nobility as a count of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1781, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and in 1778 he was promoted to the rank of marechal de camp.
The original handwritten receipt by Houdon dated November 2, 1791 given to the Comtesse de Guibert with the present marble, was published in the sale catalogue of Galerie Georges Petit, Paris February 27, 1918 (fig. 1):J'ai Reçu de Madame de Guibert la somme de Deux / Milles huit cens Livres pour un Marbre, terre cuite et quatre / Platres du Buste de Monsieur de Guibert Paris ce deux / Novembre mil sept cens quatre vingts onze / houdon
[I received from Madame de Guibert the sum of two thousand eight hundred livres
for a marble, terra cotta and four plasters of the bust of Monsieur de Guibert Paris, this 2nd
of November 1791 houdon].
A plaster bust of Guibert was featured as lot 28 in the auction sale of Houdon's studio, after his death, on December 15-17, 1828. A second plaster was recorded by Louis Réau (op. cit
., II, p. 32, no. 128) in the de Rilly collection at Rilly-sur-Vienne and a third is preserved in the Musée Ingres, Montauban (inv. no. MI.50.876, gift of M. Villeneuve Chanonceau, Guibert's son-in-law).
In discussing Guibert's life and career, H. Harvard Arnason (1975, op. cit
., p. 88) described this accomplished marble portrait:Houdon's interpretation is a romantic one, showing the count informally in an open-necked shirt, his handsome head lifted, eyes and mouth suggesting the shadow of a smile. Curiously, the turn of the head as well as the informal costume with the open, frilled shirt is closely modeled after that of the Cagliostro
[National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.] of 1786. Since there is no demonstrable affinity between the two individuals, Houdon was obviously using a formula to suggest a visionary. Both busts are prototypes of the romantic tradition...
It is evident from this portrait that Houdon’s genius lies in his ability to capture the character of his sitter. The deeply and idiosyncratically carved irises became a hallmark of Houdon's work. They capture the light and both enliven and accentuate Guibert’s gaze, revealing the sculptor's skill in translating his sitter's palpable self-assurance and magnetism.
Georgette Lyon, Joseph Ducreux, premier peintre de Marie-Antoinette (1735-1802), sa vie, son oeuvre, Paris, 1958, p. 188, pl. VI
Jean-Paul Harnay et al., Guibert ou le soldat philosophe, Paris, 1981