Refining the database for white marbles: Isotope analysis of 18th century marble busts by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Katherine A. Holbrow


This study examines the quarry provenance of marble sculptures by the French master sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), using light stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen in combination with petrographic techniques. Houdon’s famous portraits of heroic figures from the French and American Revolutions have enjoyed immense popularity for centuries, and have been copied so extensively and expertly that accurate attribution by art historians can be very difficult. However, documentary records from the Archives Nationales in Paris and the Académie Française in Rome reveal that marble for these sculptures was carefully selected from a limited group of Italian quarries. Using this information, 25 new samples were collected from the Torano valley quarries at Carrara and added to the pre-existing quarry database to provide a more accurate basis for comparison. Samples from thirty-one sculptures attributed to Houdon were compared to this expanded and improved database, and the comparison shows that a) the isotopic signatures of both groups fall within an extremely narrow range and b) the two groups are closely aligned. The results suggest that in circumstances where quarry sources are well documented historically, isotopic provenance determination may be useful for authenticating artwork of specific artists and periods.

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2007 | Richmond | Volume 14