Jean Antoine Houdon (French, 1741–1828)
Plaster, tinted to imitate terracotta
Overall 14 x 5 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. (35.6 x 14.6 x 20 cm)
Anonymous Gift, 1952 (52.211)
In March of 1778, in the course of recording Voltaire's features for the revered writer's portrait bust (1972.61), Houdon seems to have made a quick sketch of the old man informally seated in the sculptor's studio. Later that year, Voltaire's niece, Mme Denis, commissioned a lifesize marble statue based on the sketch, which had been much admired by visitors who saw it in Houdon's studio. The marble (Comédie-Française, Paris) was completed in 1781, but a small gilt-bronze example of the maquette version, destined for the collection of Catherine the Great, was shown in the Salon of 1779. (The Russian empress also commissioned a marble version, still in Saint Petersburg.) Houdon's studio went on to produce numerous replicas of this sketch model, of which the Museum's example, which features the sculptor's atelier seal on its back, is one.
The contrast between the two subtly different versions—the sketch from life and the tuned-up final conception—is fascinating and instructive, revealing precisely how the artist adjusted "reality" to produce an immortal image. The initial maquette is more passive, less alert than the large versions; it shows the bald-pated philosopher seated upright with left hand resting inertly on the chair arm and both feet aligned. One contemporary description emphasizes its naturalistic, domestic quality: "This is precisely the old man of Ferney. . . . shrouded in his dressing gown, tired, ready for bed . . ."
In comparison to the maquette, the larger sculpture was subtly energized. Its head is slightly cocked to the side, the left hand actively grips the chair arm and the right foot is angled further back. A lower seat back and bulkier robe both lend greater monumentality to the sculpture, a graphic demonstration of the creative processes that transformed a casual genre sketch into an icon of the Enlightenment.