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.
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.
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 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!".
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.
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".
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".
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.
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
First published on 19 Dec 2020. Updated and modified regularly