March 20, 2013
The Metropolitan Museum of Art sums up the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon: “The Enlightenment virtues of truth to nature, simplicity, and grace all found sublime expression through his ability to translate into marble both a subject's personality and the vibrant essence of living flesh, their inner as well as outer life.”
His life-like sculptures, particularly his busts, have persisted through history to make him one of the most famous artists of the French Enlightenment, though no individual work became celebrated.
Houdon was born on March 20, 1741, in Versailles. He was the son of a servant who worked in the Bâtiments du Roi, the department responsible for the King’s numerous homes and buildings. In 1749, the Paris residence managed by his father became the elite preparatory school for recipients of the Prix de Rome, a scholarship to study art in Rome, École des Élèves Protégés. Though Houdon did not grow up a member of the privileged class, he spent his childhood in the Louvre studios of artists sponsored by the King. The time was well spent apparently; he was apprenticed to the sculptor Michel-Ange Slodtz, and was selected to attend the King’s prep school. He earned a Prix de Rome in 1761, and spent several years studying in Rome.
His work in Rome, particularly “Saint Bruno,” “Ecorché,” and “John the Baptist,” foreshadowed the attention to anatomical detail and his use of life and death masks. They also foreshadow his future frustrations – despite his popularity, he did not receive commissions to sculpt monumental works.
Houdon returned to Paris in 1768. He showed his work at the Salon, but Pierre d'Angiviller, the controller of the major crown commissions for full-scale marble statuary, did not approve of his sculpture. But he became popular with many of the foreign nobility in Paris.
Houdon's “portrait” of Denis Diderot, co-founder and chief editor of the “Encyclopédie,” in 1771 set him on the path to success. Commissioned by the former Russian ambassador Dmitrii Alekseevich Golitsyn, the terracotta piece was shown at the salon of 1771. The prominence of Diderot and the prestige of the patron caught the attention of Paris.
While he struggled with large commissions, the success of the 1771 salon, led to portraits of the soprano Sophie Arnould, the famed writer Voltaire, and other leaders of the French Enlightenment.
His works of the Americans in Paris, Benjamin Franklin (1778), John Paul Jones (1780) and Thomas Jefferson (1789) earned him a commission from the Virginia General Assembly to depict George Washington. The full-size Carrara marble sculpture is in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.
Houdon came to America in 1785 and Washington sat for a plaster life mask and several wet clay models; the models were used to create a number of commissions of the American hero.
Houdon died on July 15, 1828 in Paris.