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Jean-Antoine Houdon Photo

Jean-Antoine Houdon

French Sculptor

Born: March 20, 1741 - Versailles, France
Died: July 15, 1828 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
"I can say that I devoted myself to only two types of study that filled my entire life, and to which I sacrificed all that I earned...anatomy and the casting of statues."
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Jean-Antoine Houdon
"But if I had to create an equestrian statue, I would want to know this animal as deeply as I flatter myself to think I know man."
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Jean-Antoine Houdon
"The sculpture that is well lit is quite different from one that is not. The famous Apollo in the Vatican, does not strike me when lit from below; I see it as a statue. But lit differently, I forget the material from which it is made, and only see him a god."
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Jean-Antoine Houdon
"One of the most beautiful attributes of the difficult art of statuary is that it preserves forms in all their truth and renders almost imperishable the images of men who have brought their nation glory or happiness. That idea has followed me constantly and encouraged me in my long labors."
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Jean-Antoine Houdon
"In addition to [the works that] I deliver to those who honor me with their trust, I always keep an exemplar for myself. The mold always belongs to the artist, unless different arrangements are made."
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Jean-Antoine Houdon

Summary of Jean-Antoine Houdon

Houdon was the preeminent sculptor of the age of French Enlightenment. He left his signature on this most turbulent period in French social and political history by sculpting "living" portraits of visitors from foreign courts and governments, many of France's leading thinkers, and glamorous singers and actors of the Parisian stage. Houdon worked comfortably in marble, bronze, plaster and clay, on busts and figures that see him routinely aligned with the school of Neoclassicism. His style owed a debt to the Renaissance masters like Donatello and Michelangelo, and the great Baroque sculptor, Bernini, but he also fostered a career-spanning commitment to a refined realism that supported his general aversion to idealism.


  • Houdon, with the Italian Antonio Canova, emerged as the leading sculptor of eighteenth and nineteenth century Neoclassical movement. Whereas Canova mostly produced works on a mythical theme, Houdon is better remembered for his portraits of modern democratic thinkers. Between them, the two men revitalized the craft of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.
  • Early in his career, Houdon produced what would become one of the most widely reproduced sculpted works in history; a figure that has been used ever since in art academies and ateliers to teach students human anatomy and cast drawings. The figure introduced to the world the Frenchman's lifelong concern for physiognomic accuracy in the muscles, bones and exterior covering of the human body.
  • Houdon's busts were distinguishable by his subjects' gaze. Audiences were transfixed by the way he modelled the eyes in a way that seemed to bring the sculptured figures to life. He mastered a technique which involved carving a depression in his sitter's iris, and modeling a concave that highlighted the eye's pupil with a small fragment of marble overhanging the iris. These realistic features raised the bar for contemporary and future generations of sculptors.
  • Complementing his busts, Houdon produced a number of statutes to which he brought a modern twist. Houdon had demonstrated through works like Diana (mythological), Winter (allegorical) and his monument to George Washington (in modern dress), that the progressive ideas of the Age of Enlightenment could impact on the classical arts too.
  • Houdon was a consummate technician who preferred to model in clay, although subsequent versions of an original cast would typically be rendered in either marble, bronze, or plaster. He often took full charge of his own repetitions, or he might put final touches to his assistants' work. In either case, Houdon demonstrated his preference for naturalism by leaving toolmark traces in his sculptures (rather than polishing them out). It was a trait that celebrated artisanship and brought a touch of character to the normally idealistic Neoclassical style.

The Life of Jean-Antoine Houdon

Jean-Antoine Houdon Life and Legacy

For Houdon patriotism and sculpture went hand-in-hand; the true "art of the sculptor", he maintained, was to "render almost imperishable the image of those who have contributed either to the glory or the happiness of their country".

Important Art by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Progression of Art
L'Ecorché (1769)


Houdon's L'Ecorché is a life-size sculpture of a flayed man. A striking anatomical figure, his entire muscular system is exposed as he stands with left foot forward and right leg slightly bent; his right hand is raised up and reaching out in an almost healing gesture. In describing the impact of this work, art historian Anne L. Poulet states, "Houdon's figure of an Ecorché is one his earliest, most famous, and most widely reproduced works".

The first version of L'Ecorché was made in 1767 while Houdon was a student in Rome and was the basis for a sculpture of Saint John the Baptist (a separate sculpture he completed in the same year). This version is more refined, with the right arm raised more dramatically and the figure freed from the tree trunk base against which he was originally rested. It also provides a splendid example of the Ancient Greek influence on the Neoclassical style which Houdon usually adopted; here with the contrapposto stance of the figure as well as arms raised that are reminiscent of the classic works Lysippos's Apoxyomenos (330 BC) and Polykleitos's Doryphoros (450-440 BC).

Evidence of Houdon's keen interest in human anatomy is in abundance here. Actively seeking training in this field, his fellow student Johann Christian von Mannlich explained how the two young men went, "to Saint-Louis des Français where M. Séguier, professor of surgery, gave us a lesson in anatomy on cadavers for which the king paid. We were the only people from the academy to follow this course, and we profited all the more for it". The work was enthusiastically received and became used as a model for other students at his school.

More importantly, the work had a lasting impact on Houdon's own career and, as Poulet explains, "his preoccupation with the accurate observation and depiction of the bones and muscles as well as the exterior surface of the human body eventually led him to use life and death masks for his closely observed portraits".

White plaster - École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, Paris, France

Denis Diderot (1713-84) (1773)

Denis Diderot (1713-84)

Diderot, a personal friend of Houdon's, was a key figure of the Enlightenment - a philosopher, playwright and novelist who, as editor of the Encyclopédie (a renowned project that was to be a summary of "all knowledge") questioned the very authority of the Catholic Church. While Houdon rendered several busts of Diderot, the author Guilhem Scherf observed that he remained "the only great intellectual of the Enlightenment in Houdon's portrait gallery to have been depicted according to a single typology (bare head, nude upper torso)".

The second of Houdon's Diderot busts (the first, in terracotta, was exhibited at the Salon of 1771) is an early instance of the artist's strong support and patronage from Russia. The bust was commissioned by the former Russian ambassador to France, Dmitrii Alekseevich Golitsyn, and, as curator Johanna Hecht states, it would prove to be "a critical milestone" in the young sculptor's career. As she says, the "prominence of the influential subject, the prestige of the patron, and the artistic power of the bust itself brought him to the attention of a wide circle inside France and at foreign courts - a power elite that formed his base of support in the absence of crown commissions".

This bust is a palpable demonstration of Houdon's deft artistic handling and his ability to encapsulate his models' aura. As Valérie Montalbetti, curator at the Louvre museum, observed, for the eyes Houdon "hollows out the iris, then digs the pupil even deeper, leaving a small relief element at the edge to capture the light [with] the resulting play of light and shadow [giving] the illusion of life". The treatment of the hair, meanwhile, "is also typical of the artist [who] models it like a dense and moving mass". She adds that Diderot's lips are "slightly open, as if he were conversing, a reminder of the brilliant orator he was" and that, finally, the "rotation of the head gives the impression that he has just turned to [engage] his interlocutor". Montalbetti suggests that these features combine to create the overall "impression of immediacy" and that the portrait "thus reconciles the timelessness of the thinker with the vivacity of a mind open to the world".

Marble - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Diana the Huntress (1776)

Diana the Huntress

Diana the Huntress was one of Houdon's most celebrated mythological works. It was the first sculpture Houdon ever cast in bronze and offered further proof to an enthusiastic public of Houdon's unique place within the medium of sculpture. As Poulet describes it, Houdon "depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, completely nude, running forward, with her weight balanced on her left foot. Her hair is drawn up loosely on top of her head, on which is placed a crescent moon, and she carries a bow in her left hand and an arrow in her right".

Poulet suggests, moreover, that Houdon's "representation of Diana the huntress as a nude was unusual", and the result was "a daring blend of the traditional representation of Diana nude at her bath with that of Diana the huntress, who was usually depicted clothed, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance". She adds, however, that what makes Houdon's Diana "one of the major masterpieces of the period" was the way he "transformed these received ideas into a sculpture of cool beauty and originality and of great technical sophistication". While he had already demonstrated his skill for capturing the essence of his sitters, with Diana he showed that he could also make supple and elegant figural renderings that were more modern in their approach and for which he sculptured, not from real life, but from the history of antiquity and from his own imagination.

Bronze - Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours, France

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) (1778)

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)

Houdon's bust of Franklin was the first of several he made of important American figures including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, the Marquis de Lafayette and Robert Fulton. Franklin spent nine years in France as an ambassador for the newly independent United States. With his flowing locks, his modern dress, and sharp wit, he cut a somewhat unconventional, but appealing, figure for a statesman. He became in fact a figure of curiosity amongst the French public who viewed him as a celebrity. Having become friends, Houdon produced numerous portraits of Franklin in various formats and media. Describing this bust, curator Dean Walker states, "the subject is posed frontally with his head inclined slightly forward. His hair falls onto his shoulders, his eyes look to his right, and his lips are parted as if speaking. He is shown wearing a plain neckcloth and simple suit, often described as Quaker dress".

Arguably the most remarkable thing about this true-to-life depiction of Franklin is how Houdon chose to render his eyes which are not shown in the traditional straight forward gaze. Authors Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle argue that the eyes, "have a restless energy that one does not expect to find in a jovial philosopher of seventy-two". Auguste Rodin praised the sculpture too, picking out the "astuteness in the eyes" and the "corners of the mouth" for special mention. Rodin observed that Houdon had looked beyond Franklin's political standing (his "massiveness" as Rodin put it) to detect "the hard common-sense of the successful calculator amassing a fortune, the wary diplomat who compassed the secrets of English diplomacy. Behold, all alive, one of the ancestors of modern America!". Impressed with his fine skill at sculpting figures, Franklin played a key role in obtaining for Houdon the commission to render George Washington's image, probably the most internationally prestigious project of Houdon's entire career.

Marble - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Seated Voltaire (1779-95)

Seated Voltaire

In a pose not often seen in his work, Houdon has chosen to render the French Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, in a seated pose. The folds of his robe dramatically cascade around him while he grips the armrests of his chair tightly and looks out at the viewer over his right shoulder.

Houdon was first commissioned to make a bust of Voltaire when, as described on the National Gallery of Art's website he, "returned from exile in Switzerland to Paris in February 1778 [...] Voltaire sat for Houdon several times before the exertion and excitement of his journey took their toll; he died on 30 May 1778. In a few sittings, Houdon grasped the expression that captivated contemporaries. The weary face, with its sagging neck and toothless mouth, nevertheless radiates intense mental and spiritual vitality". After his busts were completed, Houdon turned his attention to the grander project of the seated Voltaire; a work commissioned by Voltaire's niece, Madame Denis as a form of memorialization. While the bust elegantly (and realistically) captured his subject, it is the seated Voltaire that best alludes to his professional status. Draped in classical robes that are reminiscent of the ancient philosophers that came before, he is fit and ready to hold court and to expound the ideas of the new Enlightenment.

In 1940, Salvador Dali produced Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire. Described by the artist as a "paranoiac-critical hallucination", the Spaniard produced a "double-image" featuring the figures of two Dutch women in national dress (their heads become Voltaire's eyes, their collars form his upper cheeks and nose, while the dark part of their clothing create the shadows that form his nose and cheeks) to "recreate" Houdon's famous image.

Plaster, with vestiges of paint and terracotta slip - Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, called Molière (1622-1673) (1781)

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, called Molière (1622-1673)

The famed French playwright and actor Molière has been beautifully immortalized by Houdon's portrait bust. Depicted with his famous long, wavy locks of hair and his splendid moustache, he looks attentively over his right shoulder. The folds of his shirt are also noteworthy and according to Scherf "the handsome twist in the knotted cravat, which adds a brilliant touch of elegance, is Houdon's signature". The commission for a sculpture of Molière, offered to mark the one-hundred-year anniversary of his death, was created by the Comédie Française and was awarded to Houdon on September 30, 1776. What differentiated this project for his other commissions was that the artist's payment came in the shape of a lifetime free pass to the theater.

While positively received by most, when the work was finally displayed, one artist, Jean-Jacques Caffieri (possibly because he was jealous of Houdon's rising popularity) reacted angrily. According to Scherf, Caffieri wrote a letter to Houdon in which he declared: "your sculptor represents him as a stupid man, with no passion in his physiognomy". Fortunately, this view was not widely held and the bust was praised when it was exhibited at the Salon. Indeed, Houdon's bust of Molière was so well liked it "quickly became famous". Montalbetti argued, meanwhile, that the personal qualities of the bust of Molière was equal only to that of his earlier bust of Diderot. Both create "the feeling that the bust has just come out of his hand", she wrote, and just as the Diderot portrait captured the "timelessness of the thinker with the vivacity of a mind open to the world", so the portrait of Molière caught the "full [...] tenderness of a man aged by tireless activity and permanent worries".

Terracotta, with plaster restorations on circular gray marble base - Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orléans, France

Winter (1787)


One of his most arresting nude figures, Houdon's sculpture, intended as an allegory for the winter season, dates back to 1781 with a small terracotta version he exhibited at Musée Fabre in Montpellier. (In fact Winter had a "sister", Summer, who wears a shift and holds a sheaf of wheat in one hand and a watering can in the other.) A marble version of Winter was exhibited at the Salon of 1783, with this bronze version cast four years later.

With head bent forward, Winter is naked but for the cloth wrapped around her head and shoulders. She is shivering with arms crossed at her waist in what is surely a vain attempt to preserve body heat. While Houdon was for the most part a conservative sculptor, this work caused no little controversy. Some critics debated the artistic value of Houdon's depiction but the work was popular with the viewing public and, as Scherf explains, "Houdon mischievously undressed her, transforming her into a shivering callipygian girl. This audacious interpretation of the subject - bestowing a naturalness on a goddess, who thus becomes humanly desirable - shocked [...] the Académie royale but delighted art lovers".

The Metropolitan Museum of Art states on its online summary that "By showing the figure retracting into herself, Houdon conveys her chilled state while creating a contained form that veers toward abstraction and begs to be circled by the viewer. The sculptor abraded the bronze to give it a sleek, shimmering finish, as revealed by tool marks on the surface. Houdon's decision to portray winter as a partially clothed girl marked a radical departure from traditional representations of the season in the guise of an old man. Her lack of conventional accessories makes her identity ambiguous, opening up the daring possibility that she might be a semi-naked girl rather than an allegorical figure".

Bronze - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

George Washington (1792)

George Washington

A monumental tribute to America's first president, in this sculpture Houdon has depicted George Washington - on the president's insistence - in his modern military uniform. As Poulet describes, he is, "shown standing; having hung up his sword and clock on the fasces, a Roman symbol for authority, which here consists of thirteen rods representing the thirteen states, [and] he takes up his walking stick, on which he rests his gloved right hand".

American statesmen Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were tasked by the Virginia state legislature to select the artist for this commission and they chose Houdon; with Jefferson first speaking directly with Washington to advocate on the artist's behalf. Traveling to America in the summer of 1785, he spent several weeks at Mount Vernon with Washington where he made preparatory works including a life mask and clay bust model which he worked on when he returned to France to make the piece. According to Poulet, "Houdon prepared models of the full statue in both antique and contemporary dress, and Washington, who expressed a slight preference for the latter, was finally depicted in his military uniform as commander in chief of the revolutionary army". It was a marked move away from the Neoclassical style in which Houdon rendered most of his sculptures and yet the move paid off. Speaking of the legacy of this work Poulet states, "Houdon's portraits established the primary iconography for Washington in Europe and America and were copied and imitated by many sculptors in the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States".

White Marble - Library of Virginia, Richmond Virginia

Antoinette-Claude(1790-1878) (c.1793)


His daughters were preferred subjects for Houdon. Here he captures his youngest child, Claudine, then aged three. Describing the appeal of this figure Scherf states, "the sitter is adorable - with fat cheeks, a frank gaze, and mussed hair - and is prettily enveloped with deeply carved folds".

While Houdon had by this point in his career firmly established himself as a master of rendering the features of his sitters, this work is more romanticized because of the deep personal bond between artist and sitter. Indeed, the bust was made purely for the artist own pleasure. Yet one sees here not a perfect, idealized version of a child, rendered from the removed point of observation that often exists between artist and subject, but rather an emotional rendering of a subject he knew and loved. According to Scherf, the bust, shows, "a tenderness in the modeling of the marble, which has been worked till it seems supple and suggests the translucency of flesh; both exemplify the sculptor's sensitivity to the subtlest expressions; and, above all, both attest to Houdon's love of life and of his children".

White marble on white marble base - Worcester Art Museum, Worchester, Massachusetts

Biography of Jean-Antoine Houdon

Childhood and Education

Jean-Antoine Houdon was the third child born to Anne Rabache and Jacques Houdon, a servant in the house of government official, M. de La Motte, in Versailles. When Houdon was a year old, the family moved to his employer's Paris home. When de La Motte died, the residence was converted by the King of France into the École royale des élèves protégés, an elite preparatory school, where Jacques Houdon continued his employment as a concierge. According to authors Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle, Houdon "lived continually in the environment of artists", with Houdon's son-in-law, Raoul Rochette (cited by Hart and Biddle), adding that the boy would sneak into classrooms to "'snatch a few pieces of moist clay in order to imitate the work of the students'". At the age of fifteen Houdon enrolled as a student at the École royale where he soon distinguishing himself.

Early Training

Houdon was a student of the <i>Académie de France</i> in Rome for four years.

Johanna Hecht, curator of European Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote that the Houdon family's new Parisian residence "enabled the budding sculptor to spend his childhood in the studios of the crown-sponsored artists in the Louvre; and, after [securing] an apprenticeship to the sculptor Michel Ange Slodtz, he himself became an Élève Protégé, winning the [Prix de Rome] prize for sculpture in 1761". The award earned him a three year residency at École royale and a further four years at the Académie de France in Rome. The four-year scholarship was awarded by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, an institution that, in 1666, established a school in Rome with the intention of providing prodigious French artists with direct lessons in the culture of antiquity. Hecht wrote that "During his formative years in Paris, Houdon absorbed the lessons of the then-flourishing style of the late Baroque. In Rome, these early influences would be infused with nuances absorbed from his new environment - the full force of antiquity, as well as the unmediated power of the High Baroque as represented most strikingly by the work of Bernini".

Describing his dedication to his studies in Rome, Houdon wrote home stating, "If I do nothing of mark, at least I shall have nothing to reproach myself with". It was in Rome that he created two important sculptures. The first was a large marble statue of Saint Bruno for the church of Santa Maria in Rome (completed in 1766), and the second, L'Écorché, a skinless figure that provided early proof of his mastery of the human anatomy (completed in 1767). Saint Bruno demonstrated a subtle combination of Roman realism and Greek idealism, while L'Écorché was so anatomically accurate it would become a model for future generations of students.

Mature Period

Many of the French leaders of the Enlightenment movement were subjects for Houdon, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose bust he sculpted in 1778.

In 1768 Houdon returned to France. By this time he had learned to interweave naturalism with the art of antiquity and the decorative features of the Baroque. He set up a studio and exhibited frequently at the Paris salons but, as Hecht observed, "Despite this nominal mark of official approval [...] and the warm critical reception accorded his numerous submissions to the Salon of 1769 (which featured many of his Rome models), Houdon failed to win the approval of the Directeur des Bâtiments, Pierre d'Angiviller, the controller of the major crown commissions for full-scale marble statuary". She adds, however, that Houdon would soon acquire "patrons of another sort, among them foreign nobility drawn to the orbit of French culture and the spirit of the Enlightenment, spearheaded by the Encyclopedists, [Denis] Diderot and [Jean-Baptiste le Rond] d'Alembert".

In 1770 Houdon presented a reclining figure, Morpheus (reproduced in marble in 1777) as his reception piece for membership of the Académie Royale. He made painstaking measurements of his subjects (typically using calipers) and often using masks to accurately capture his sitters' features. His preferred working method was to model in clay which he then fired. From the resultant terracotta he would fashion a plaster-cast. The plasters were often sold as sculptures but they also served as models for works he created in bronze and marble. Houdon was thought to be the first French sculptor of his era who chose to cast his own bronzes and it is known that he even rented his own foundry. His studio functioned a little like a factory as he often produced several versions of the same work. He also fiercely defended the rights to his images by placing a red wax seal on his sculptures as a means of authentication. This was an especially prescient move given that many of his works proved so popular that imitations and unauthorized copies were in wide circulation on the black market.

Houdon's first bust of Diderot was commissioned by the former Russian ambassador Dmitrii Alekseevich Golitsyn, and was shown in terracotta at the salon of 1771. It was a critical success and proved something of a turning point in Houdon's career. As Hecht describes, the "prominence of the influential subject, the prestige of the patron, and the artistic power of the bust itself brought him to the attention of a wide circle inside France and at foreign courts". Thanks to the efforts of Friedrich Melchior von Grimm (who was cultural attaché to several prominent members of the German nobility) Houdon's reputation quickly spread beyond France. In Germany, he attracted the attention of the Duke of Saxe-Gotha and was commissioned to make busts of his family and a memorial tomb (which never came to fruition). Houdon travelled to the Duke's court in 1771 and 1773 and, describing the demand for his works, author Ulrike D. Mathies wrote, "most of the approximately seventy extant works by Houdon in Germany were acquired in the eighteenth century by German noble families, a historical link still reflected in the locations of the main collections in Gotha, Schwerin, Berlin [...] and Weimar".

In France, Houdon's work displayed his adaptability. He would, for instance, adopt the free-flowing Rococo style for his 1775 portrait of the soprano Sophie Arnould, a more austere classicism, for his busts of Voltaire while for Diderot, his leaning towards naturalism came more to the fore. Hecht notes that Houdon's "mélange of styles clearly appealed to his audience" amongst whom was "the architect Alexandre Théodore Brongniart, whose son and daughter Alexandre and Louise were the subjects of two of Houdon's finest children's portraits, a beloved genre of the era reflecting the cult of childhood also expressed in the contemporary passion for the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau".

Houdon earned extra income through portraiture; his sitters included Empress Catherine II of Russia.

Houdon soon attracted the attention of prominent Russian and American patrons too. In Russia, for instance, Princess Catherine II took a liking to Houdon and he created a bust of her in 1773. She became one of his most devoted patrons in fact and even commissioned from him a bust of one of France's greatest writers, Voltaire, in 1778. Also in that year, on hearing of the death of the Swiss-born philosopher and theorist (and inspiration for French revolutionaries and the Romantic generation), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Houdon raced to his home at Ermenonville where he made a death mask, and from which, he produced a famous bronze bust (now housed in Le Louvre). Speaking of the finished work, one critic commented that Rousseau's eyes were so life-like that "they seem to penetrate into the most hidden innermost folds of the human heart!".

It was about this time that Houdon produced one of his most popular children's portraits, thought to be Anne Audéoud, the daughter of a friend of Houdon's patron, Jean Girardot de Marigny. The Metropolitan Museum of Art said of this bust, "Houdon varied the format of his children's portraits much as he did when modeling the most distinguished figures of his day - sometimes showing them bare-chested, á l'antique, sometimes in modern clothes, as in the fashionably ruffled dress worn here. The [Anne Audéoud] plaster captures the original clay's modeling of the whimsically tousled hair, one of Houdon's fortes".

Houdon would return to Russia on other occasions, completing several commissions there between 1783 and 1814, but it was his connections with America that led to his most internationally celebrated commission. When the charismatic American ambassador Benjamin Franklin arrived in France in 1776 many artists, Houdon included, wanted to capture his image. Houdon and Franklin became friends and socialized together at the French Masonic Lodge, La Loge des Neuf-Sœurs (The Lodge of the Nine Sisters). According to Hart and Biddle, this was "a club for persons of distinction, intelligence and talent, where young men and old men, in science, in letters and in arts, met on a much freer and more familiar footing than was possible elsewhere". Houdon's first attempt at a bust of the American statesman was very well received when exhibited in 1778, with Grimm enthusing: "what elevation of thought is seen in the bust of the legislator of the New World!".

The depiction of Thomas Jefferson on the first version of the United States nickel features an image of Houdon's bust of the artist which he made in 1789.

In 1783 the Virginia Legislature approved an equestrian sculpture to be made featuring George Washington, with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson appointed to the task of overseeing the project. Both men admired Houdon's work and set about securing his services as sculptor for this project. Jefferson, who had become friends with Houdon during his time as Minister to France, went so far as to personally canvas for the Frenchman in Washington. Houdon returned the compliment when he took Jefferson as his subject in 1789.

At first Houdon was most attracted to the Washington project because it was to include a horse, an animal he had long wanted to sculpt. Unfortunately, this project was dismissed because of the high cost. The commission was then renewed without the equestrian element and Houdon was once more selected as the sculptor. While honored to be offered the commission, Houdon insisted he would only take it on if he were allowed to sketch Washington's likeness in person. His request was granted and he left with Franklin for America in July 1785. They arrived in Philadelphia in September and soon after traveled to meet Washington.

Houdon, made several clay busts of George Washington, including this one completed in 1786.

Washington and Houdon got along famously and "in an effort to know his subject better, Houdon followed Washington around and attended a number of social events including the wedding of Martha Washington's niece". During his stay at Mount Vernon, Houdon made a clay bust model which he left as a gift for Washington, and a life mask which he would use for his final piece when he returned to France (three months later).

The sculpture, which was publicly acclaimed when it was finally completed in 1798 (eleven years after Houdon made his first preparatory sketches), was treasured by the artist himself. Indeed, according to art historian Anne L. Poulet, "Houdon considered his portrait of George Washington the most important commission of his career". Years later, Rochette remembered that, "the pleasure of having been close to Washington left memories which he was fond of [recalling] when many others of various kinds had long been forgotten".

Later Period

Marie-Ange-Cecile Langlois. Houdon created this bust of his wife in 1787.

Upon his return from America in 1786, a 45 year-old Houdon married a well-connected young woman, Marie-Ange-Cecile Langlois, whose father worked for the king of France and who was closely connected to the countess de Villegagnon. Houdon duly turned his attentions to personal works, including a bust of his wife and a number of delicate portraits of their children. Although never mawkish, these pieces tended to be more emotionally engaged and polished that his commissioned children's portraits, and he never submitted to representing his own daughters in the latest fashion (as had been the case with some of his commissioned children's portraits), preferring to create an image of his family that was more timeless. Indeed, Houdon spoke out against woman's fashion, stating, "Women who ruin their feet and their waist as well as their face, no more than those who carry heavy burdens, are not appropriate to serve as our models, neither the one or the other".

Artist Léopold Boilly took his fellow countryman as his subject in his 1803 painting <i>Houdon in His Studio</i>. The work celebrates Houdon's two great loves: sculpture and his family (his seated wife and their three daughters pictured here).

Houdon continued to take on commissions, including one of King Louis XVI in 1790, but generally speaking his commissioned work slowed during the decade due to the turbulence caused by the French Revolution. Houdon adjusted to these changing times by taking on the new role of professor. He took up his first position in 1792 at the Académie royale and later (a year after being inducted into the Legion of Honor in 1804) he served as a professor at the École spéciale de peinture et de sculpture. In his studio practice, meanwhile, a shift in focus from royalty and establishment figures onto heroic individuals from the French Revolution proved a shrewd decision that, in all probability, saved him from imprisonment. As Hecht explained, "as many of his subjects and patrons fell victim to the Terror [Houdon] stressed his artisanal roots and his formidable skills as a bronze founder. He continued to find private patrons and executed several portraits of Revolutionary notables [including] the orator Mirabeau in 1791 [and a] bust of Napoleon in 1806".

Both Houdon and Canova produced busts of Napoleon during the early years of the nineteenth century. Canova produced a series of idealized plaster busts (based on busts of Roman Emperors) between 1802-22 recording Napoleon's eminence and his political evolution. For his part, Houdon was commissioned to make a single monumental bronze statue of the Emperor to adorn the top of the Grande Armée column in Boulogne (in the event, the column was never realized). In 1806 Napoleon agreed to sit for Houdon in the Palais de Saint-Cloud (Houdon recalled, "I was very pleased that he was happy with the likeness"). Francesca Sandrini, writing for the History Website of the Foundation of Napoleon, describes how the bust "was done in terracotta, and as a result of the exceedingly precious sitting time, remains probably one of the finest representations of the emperor ever made. Simplicity, sobriety, and severity all emanate from this psychologically profound work, a profundity which derives from the sculptor's extraordinary powers of observation".

The last of his American commissions came in the first decade of the century, and a number of his final works reprised earlier works, such as his Standing Voltaire (c. 1808-12) which incorporated his 1778 bust. Houdon executed a notable commission for a bust of the Russian Czar Alexander I in 1814 but, in the last years of his life, he removed himself increasingly from public life and suffered personal tragedy from the loss of his wife in 1823. He did accept the position of emeritus professor at the Académie royale, an appointment which supported his commitment to the next generation of sculptors, but by this time his own health was in decline and in 1828 he died at the age of eighty-seven. His body was interred in the famous Montparnasse Cemetery.

The Legacy of Jean-Antoine Houdon

Houdon was the preeminent sculptor of the French Enlightenment, a specialist in portraiture that brought him fame and posterity. As Hecht put it, "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". Houdon helped to define the modern sculptural portrait and to memorialize the image of some of the most important public figures of the age. Of his own work, Houdon once stated, "One of the finest attributes of the difficult art of the sculptor is to preserve the truthfulness of form and to render almost imperishable the image of those who have contributed either to the glory or the happiness of their country. The idea has followed me constantly, and encouraged me during long hours of labor".

The famous historian E. H. Gombrich observed of the eighteenth century that "In France, as in England, the new interest in ordinary human beings" had started to benefit the art of portraiture, and that "perhaps the greatest of the French portraitists was not a painter but a sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon. In his wonderful portrait busts", he continued, "Houdon carried on the tradition which had been started by Bernini more than a hundred years earlier". Indeed, his technical skill and range of subjects, matched with a fine eye for naturalism and anatomical accuracy, directly influenced future generations of sculptors ranging from Auguste Rodin to contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Jean-Antoine Houdon
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Frédéric-Melchior Grimm
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    Dmitrii Alekseevich Golitsyn
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    Princess Catherine II
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Denis Diderot
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    Benjamin Franklin
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    Thomas Jefferson
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Jean-Antoine Houdon Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 19 Dec 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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