Jean Antoine Houdon (French, 1741–1828)
H. of bust 15 3/4 in. (40 cm), H. of base 4 11/16 in. (11.8 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1974 (1974.291)
Houdon's bust of Diderot, a pivotal figure of the French Enlightenment, was first modeled in terracotta in 1771 at the behest of Prince Dmitrii Golitsyn, a Russian diplomat and former ambassador to France (1762–67), possibly as a souvenir of his friendship with the renowned Encyclopedist after Golitsyn's posting to the Hague. A particularly prestigious commission, due in part to Diderot's prominence as an art critic, the success of this portrait helped make the young sculptor's own fame.
Although Diderot's thoughts and writings paved the way for revolution, his incandescent wit, combined with an almost childlike enthusiasm, endeared him to intellectuals and aristocrats alike. Houdon's portrait, more than any other contemporary image of the philosophe, captures the elusiveness of his quicksilver charm.
The empress Catherine enticed Diderot to Russia the year in which this marble was carved. It has a well-documented provenance in the collection of French art assembled by another Russian expatriate, Count Alexander Stroganov. It was for many years kept in the Stroganov palace-museum in Saint Petersburg along with a bust of Voltaire by Houdon (1972.61), a vivid documentation of the enduring Russian passion for French culture.