Born in Versailles, France, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) began sculpting at the age of nine. His virtuosic talents were evident almost immediately, and he entered the French Academy to undergo the requisite long period of training. In 1764, Houdon traveled to Rome to continue his studies, having won the prestigious Prix de Rome at the age of 20, and established his reputation with large statues of St. Bruno and Écorché (both 1767).
In 1777, Houdon presented a reclining mythological figure, Morpheus, as his reception piece for membership in the French Academy. A year later, he became a professor at the Academy. Houdon earned his livelihood, however, through portrait sculpture, and it was during this period that he portrayed a veritable "Who's Who" of the age, sculpting such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, members of the German court of Saxe-Gotha, and Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Houdon's famous bust of Denis Diderot secured his lasting fame as a portraitist; he created multiple busts of Voltaire, as well as a death mask and a celebrated terracotta bust of Rousseau.
In 1785, at the recommendation of both Jefferson and Franklin, Houdon crossed the Atlantic to spend several weeks at Mount Vernon, George Washington's home in Virginia, to begin a commission for a life-sized statue of the first American president. Houdon strongly desired to portray Washington on horseback in the style of the great equestrian statues of ancient Rome, but the president declined that grandiose plan, opting instead for a standing portrait in military uniform. The marble statue, dated 1788, was placed in the Virginia state capitol in 1796.
Houdon took meticulous measurements of his portrait subjects with calipers, and often used life or death masks to record his sitters' features. It is thought that his usual working method was to model a figure in clay, which was then fired. From this terracotta he made a plaster cast, which was kept in his studio and used to create other plaster or terracotta versions at his clients' requests. The plasters, sold as sculptures in their own right, also served as models for his works created in the more expensive materials of bronze and marble. Houdon was the only French sculptor of his era who chose to cast his own bronzes and even rented his own foundry.
Houdon did not hesitate to produce multiple versions of his most popular works. One scholar describes Houdon's studio as a "veritable factory," where clients would come to view his works and order copies by pointing at this bust or that one. While he scrupulously guarded the rights to his images, placing a red wax seal on his sculptures for authentication, many of his works were so overwhelmingly popular that imitations and unauthorized copies frequently appeared during his lifetime and after his death.
Houdon was so well regarded that his prestige continued even during the tumult of the French Revolution and the rise of the Directory. He created portrait sculptures of Napoléon and Josephine, and continued to work until the downfall of the emperor in 1815. Houdon spent the remainder of his life quietly, and died in 1828, remembered by many only as a figure of the past. His vivid, elegant, and realistic sculptures live on, however, allowing us a rare glimpse of the great personalities of the Enlightenment.
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Thea M. Page
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