Wednesday, April 16th was an exciting day at the David Owsley Museum of Art, as we welcomed supporters, students, and faculty to the museum for the 25th Petty Memorial Lecture. This year’s lecture, “Houdon’s Bust of Buffon: On Science, Art, and Politics in Eighteenth Century France” was given by Richard W. Burkhardt, Jr., Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Fittingly, Burkhardt’s talk was inspired by the Bust of Buffon, which resides in the Dorothy and Richard W. Burkhardt Gallery, named in honor of his parents.
The Petty Memorial Lecture has a rich history at the museum, established with funds from the Margaret Ball Petty Foundation, the Ball Brothers Foundation, and the Petty family. The Petty family has been long time supporters of the museum, with a stained glass window from the Ball stores installed just outside the Riverview entrance and the Edmund F. Petty Gallery of Native American and Pre-Columbian Art named in their honor. The lectures are given by artists and art historians on various topics relating to the museum to benefit students, faculty, and the Muncie community.
Burkhardt gave an insightful talk on the influences and interconnectedness of art, science, and politics in 18th century France. Jean-Antoine Houdon, the sculptor of the Buffon bust, was the premier sculptor in France during the Enlightenment. In 1781, Houdon was commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia to sculpt a bust of the greatest naturalist in France at the time, George-Louis Leclerc, or the Comte de Buffon. The commissioned marble bust now resides in St. Petersburg, Russia at the State Hermitage Museum. Houdon captured Buffon’s personality perfectly; the naturalist is rendered elegant and profound, as if he is about to speak. Buffon not only had influential ideas on evolution and the effects of climate, but he was also the director of the Jardin des Plantes.
The year after Buffon’s death, the French Revolution began. One of the only museums to continue to thrive during the turbulent time was the Jardin des Plantes, now France’s Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. After the Revolution, under the rule of Napoleon, France conquered and looted countries of their art treasures and brought them back to France. Bringing the story of art, science, and politics full circle, Burkhardt told the audience of a festival thrown by the French government in 1800, which paraded the looted art treasures and newly captured wild animals soon to become part of the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle.
If you cannot make it to Russia or the Louvre in Paris to see the Bust of Buffon, stop by the Dorothy and Richard W. Burkhardt Gallery to view DOMA’s Bust of Buffon, a sculpture representative of important aspects of French history, on view right here in Muncie, Indiana.