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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Jean Antoine Houdon (1741–1828)

Jean Antoine Houdon, the preeminent sculptor of the French Enlightenment, was primarily known for his portraiture, a specialization that brought him fame among his contemporaries and posterity alike, despite a lack of parallel achievement on the more monumental scale. 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.

He was born in Versailles in 1741, the son of a servant in the household of a powerful figure in the royal artistic establishment (the Bâtiments du Roi). Although not a member of one of the great familial dynasties that dominated official French sculpture, Houdon profited from another sort of privilege: in 1749, the Parisian residence in which his father served as concierge became the seat of the newly founded École des Élèves Protégés, an elite preparatory school for recipients of the Prix de Rome. This situation enabled the budding sculptor to spend his childhood in the studios of the crown-sponsored artists in the Louvre; and, after an apprenticeship to the sculptor Michel Ange Slodtz, he himself became an Élève Protégé, winning the Rome prize for sculpture in 1761.

The four-year scholarship was awarded by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, whose goal in establishing a branch in Rome in 1666 was to provide contemporary French artists with firsthand lessons in the culture of antiquity. Painters were to be inspired by the monuments of classical Rome; sculptors were assigned to copy the famed marbles and bronzes directly, their new versions shipped to France to furnish the royal gardens. The École des Élèves Protégés was introduced in the following century as a new stage in the official training program—a three-year program intended to teach both technical skills and general culture to the young Rome prize winners in preparation for their stint in Italy.

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.

By 1768, when he returned to Paris, the young sculptor had fully absorbed and integrated the disparate influences that would mark his life’s work—intense naturalism, the art of antiquity, and the Baroque. As might be expected, however, classicizing themes dominate works from those years. Some, like the Vestal, were virtual copies of antique sculptures. Others, like the Roman Youth or the Peasant Girl of Frascati, were original inventions emulating the antique. An exception was the Priest of the Lupercalia, a classical subject depicted with all the dynamic panache and grace of the Rococo, a style by then under challenge but still practiced with great flair by the older generation of sculptors in France. Remarkably, however, all these divergent works bear the clear imprint of an inimitable personal style that would permeate his work through the end of a long career that spanned two reigns of the ancien régime through the Revolution, Directory, Empire, and Restoration.

Three of the sculptures he made during his stay in Rome—Saint Bruno, the Ecorché, and John the Baptist—incorporate hallmarks of his later work. In particular, the Ecorché (Flayed Man), which served as the foundation for the noble figure of John the Baptist, displays Houdon’s preoccupation with anatomical study. It also reveals his interest in casting and reproduction; like so many of his most popular works, he would replicate it innumerable times. But these three statues also point to a sphere of activity in which he would ultimately experience frustration: commissions for full-scale monumental sculpture, the ultimate source of fame and financial reward for professional sculptors of the era.

Upon his return to France, Houdon was entitled to show his work at the biennial Salons. Despite this nominal mark of official approval, however, 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. Fortunately for the young sculptor, he soon acquired 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, Diderot and d’Alembert. Some of these aristocrats were actually resident in Paris; others, such as Catherine II of Russia (a major patron whose portrait he carved), kept abreast of doings there through regular correspondence with Diderot’s close friend, Friedrich Melchior von Grimm.

Houdon’s portrait of Diderot (1974.291), commissioned by the former Russian ambassador Dmitrii Alekseevich Golitsyn, and shown in terracotta at the salon of 1771, was a critical milestone for the young sculptor. 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.

In the wake of his success at the Salons, Grimm and Diderot promoted a series of trips to the court of Gotha, where they hoped Houdon would obtain the commission for a funerary monument, a project that fell through as the young duke’s taste shifted to the more rigorously classical fashion emerging at that moment in Germany. At the same time, Houdon’s work in France continued to display more variety. Sometimes veering toward the free-flowing Rococo, as in the 1775 portrait of the soprano Sophie Arnould, sometimes toward more controlled classicism, as in his busts of Voltaire (1972.61) and Diderot, it was always modulated by a constant orientation toward the naturalism he saw as his guiding light. This mélange of styles clearly appealed to his audience—intellectuals, artists, members of the high bourgeoisie, and advanced political thinkers. Among them was the architect Alexandre Théodore Brongniart, whose son and daughter Alexandre and Louise (14.40.670) 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’s various busts of influential philosophers were often paired (08.89.1a, b; 08.89.2a, b) with portraits of the even more frequently replicated Voltaire, with many copies emanating from Houdon’s own studio. His iconic bust of the latter would ultimately lead to a series of much prized commissions for full-scale sculptures of the Seated Voltaire (52.211).

It was the prospect of another such monumental commission, a statue of George Washington, that led to an important body of Houdon’s work and brought him particular fame in the United States. Moving within his circle of admirers in the French intellectual vanguard were the Americans residing in Paris to promote the cause of their young nation with sympathetic Europeans: Benjamin Franklin (72.6), whose portrait he modeled in 1778; John Paul Jones, in 1780 (14.58.133), and Thomas Jefferson, in 1789. At Jefferson’s recommendation, Houdon would travel to Virginia in 1785 to model Washington’s portrait and the full-scale figure now in the State Capitol Building in Richmond, Virginia. To his great disappointment, the projected equestrian statue of the first president never materialized.

In the interim, Houdon forged ahead with portraits of a broad cross-section of contemporary society (magicians, magistrates, ministers, and members of the royal family) and showed plaster models of statues, hoping for patrons to sponsor their execution in bronze or marble. These include Winter of 1781 (62.55) and the Bather of 1782 (14.40.673; 32.100.159). Both are striking in their natural display of the female body undisguised by dramatic attitude, a forthright presentation that shocked many in the artistic establishment.

Upon his return from America, Houdon’s reputation continued to flourish, and in 1786 he married a well-educated and well-connected young woman, Marie-Ange-Cécile Langlois. Depictions of their three daughters, the first of them the infant Sabine (50.145.66) of 1788, are among the most exquisite of his children’s portraits. Keeping a low profile through the ensuing revolutionary decade, as many of his subjects and patrons fell victim to the Terror, he 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, ranging from the remarkably energetic image of the orator Mirabeau (1791) to a refined and subtle herm-shaped bust of Napoleon (1806), in which delicate realism and psychological perception were embedded in the purely classical format of the moment.

The last of his American commissions, the busts of Robert Fulton (1989.329) and the inventor’s poet friend, Joel Barlow, date from this era. His final works reprised some of his earliest: he incorporated his 1778 bust into a statue of the Standing Voltaire (ca. 1808–12, this time an officially sanctioned monument for the Pantheon), and in 1814 executed a last commission for imperial Russia—the portrait of Catherine’s grandson Czar Alexander I.