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Jean-Antoine Houdon


Houdon's portraits of great American leaders and thinkers of the Enlightenment reflect the close ties between France and the United States during and after the Revolutionary War. His depictions of America's founders created lasting images that are widely reproduced to this day.

  • Thomas Jefferson (1789) is a marble bust that has literally shaped the world's image of Jefferson, portraying him as a sensitive, intellectual, aristocratic statesman with a resolute, determined gaze. This sculpture has served as the model for numerous other portraits of Jefferson, including the profile on the modern American nickel. Jefferson considered Houdon the finest sculptor of his day, and acquired several of the artist's busts of famous men—including Washington, Franklin, John Paul Jones, Lafayette, and Voltaire—to create a "gallery of worthies" at his home, Monticello, in Virginia. He sat for his own portrait at Houdon's studio in Paris in 1789 at the age of 46. This piece is on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  • George Washington (late 1780s), a portrait of America's first president, is a marble bust, one of several Washington portraits created by Houdon. The most famous, and considered by Houdon to be the most important commission of his career, is the full-length statue of Washington that commands the rotunda of the capitol building of the State of Virginia. Both Jefferson and Franklin recommended Houdon for the commission, and the sculptor traveled with Franklin from Paris to Mount Vernon in 1785 to visit Washington, make a life mask, and take careful measurements. The bust, which shows Washington garbed in antique Roman costume, was probably made at the same time Houdon was completing the full-length statue for Virginia. The work is on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
  • Benjamin Franklin (1779), on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows the famous American statesman, inventor, and philosopher as he appeared while he was U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to France in 1776–1785. Franklin was an enthusiastic participant in the intellectual salons of Paris, and became a great admirer and promoter of Houdon. This exquisitely finished bust, with mouth slightly open as if Franklin were preparing to speak, dynamically conveys his curious, restless, and good-humored nature.
  • John Paul Jones (1781) is a marble bust on loan from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The "Father of the American Navy" is famed for his command of the Bonhomme Richard in battle with the British frigate Serapis during the American Revolution. He is also known for his legendary reply, when asked by the enemy captain if he would surrender: "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight." Houdon effectively captured Jones' resolute personality and intelligent face. A plaster cast of this bust was among those on display in Thomas Jefferson's "gallery of worthies" at Monticello. When Jones' body was exhumed in Paris in 1906, measurements taken of the skull exactly matched the measurements of Houdon's marble portrait, perfectly illustrating the artist's attention to exacting detail.
  • Robert Fulton (1803–04) is among the last of Houdon's series of busts of great American men. Fulton was an artist, engineer, and entrepreneur—an exemplar of the self-made man so greatly admired during the Enlightenment. He studied with the famed American painter Benjamin West in London, exhibited portraits at Britain's Royal Academy, and in 1797 he moved to Paris to promote his many inventions, including a torpedo-firing submarine. Fulton is perhaps best known for perfecting the concept of the steamship. He built his first steam-powered boat in Paris in 1803, and Houdon's portrait of him may have been commissioned, in part, in celebration of that event. The result is one of Houdon's most beautiful late works. It presents the handsome Fulton at age 38, with romantically curling hair, delicately pleated jabot, and purposeful, ambitious expression.


Recognized as a gifted artist who was sympathetic to the ideas of his time, Houdon became the preferred sculptor of leaders of the Enlightenment. Influential thinkers such as Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, and Voltaire promoted the work of the young artist in intellectual circles in Paris and abroad, greatly expanding the reach of Houdon's career.

  • Voltaire (1778) is one of four sculptures of the famous philosopher in the exhibition. François-Marie Arouet, called Voltaire (1694-1778)—playwright, novelist, satirist, and celebrated wit—was also a superstar of his day and one of Houdon's most popular subjects. Voltaire returned to Paris in 1778 from a 30-year exile in Switzerland, greeted by cheering crowds who surrounded his house, pushing and surging for a chance to see him. In the few months before his death that same year, he sat for Houdon several times. This portrait bust shows him wigless and bald, full of lively personality and imbued with a sympathetic realism. Voltaire's expression seems to change from every angle, from sardonic and witty to reserved and introspective. After Voltaire's death, the bust drew legions of his admirers to Houdon's studio, where they settled for viewing the lifelike portrayal instead of the late icon. Voltaire is on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers, France.


Houdon held the title of sculpteur du Roi (sculptor to the king) during the reign of Louis XVI (1774&8212;1792). Among his commissions in that capacity was a portrait of the king himself. Houdon's fame spread throughout Europe largely due to the enthusiastic recommendations of Denis Diderot and other Enlightenment thinkers, as well as through the visits made to his Paris studio by traveling aristocrats, diplomats, and royalty.

  • Marie-Sébastien-Charles-François Fontaine de Biré (1785) was last exhibited at the Salon of 1785, before it disappeared from public view for more than two centuries. Until its rediscovery in 2002, the bust was known only from a half-size version dated 1786. Recently acquired by the Getty, this marble bust reveals expressive details not present in the smaller piece. Probably commissioned soon after 1782 when de Biré assumed an important treasury position in Paris, the bust captures the psychological sensitivity and personality evident in Houdon's greatest works. Rather than disguise the signs of age in his subject, Houdon seized the opportunity to articulate the wrinkles and lines that express the wisdom and experience of his sitter.


During the 1700s childhood was increasingly viewed as a distinct and formative stage of life. No longer perceived and treated as miniature grown-ups, children were thought to embody virtues or characteristics not found in adults. In the 18th century, with a new focus on innocence and naturalism, portraiture began to depict children as individual, emotive subjects rather than as mere heirs to wealth and power.

  • Louise Brongniart (1777) is a superb example of Houdon's engaging portraits of children. Louise was five years old when Houdon modeled the bust, along with one of her brother Alexandre, age seven. Both were created for the children's father, the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart. The exhibition features this terracotta on loan from the Louvre and two marble versions, one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and one from the Getty's permanent collection. Since the 18th century, this portrait has remained extremely popular, and has been widely reproduced in a variety of materials.


By the mid-18th century the social status of artists, writers, composers, and actors had risen to equal that of scientists and philosophers. In his portraits of artists, Houdon conveyed a sense of spiritual inspiration and dramatic movement that sets them apart from his more staid and contained depictions of philosophers and politicians.

  • Sophie Arnould (1775) is among the earliest artistic figures that Houdon portrayed, and this bust is the only surviving plaster version of his portrait of the star of the Paris Opera. Lost and forgotten in a storage room of the Kunstsammlugen Goethe-Nationalmuseum in Weimar, Germany for more than 150 years, it was rediscovered and identified in 1999 by exhibition curator Anne L. Poulet. Despite—or perhaps because of&8212;being lost, it is in a remarkable state of preservation. The work is on loan from the Stiftung Weimarer Klassik und Kunstsammlugen Goethe-Nationalmuseum.


From the time of the Renaissance, French palaces and gardens were traditionally adorned with sculptures of mythological and allegorical figures, the best-known example being the palace and park of Versailles. In the mid-18th century, a building boom in Paris and a vogue to redesign gardens in the English style, complete with fountains, follies, and sculpture, created an increased demand for indoor and outdoor sculpture. These trends benefited Houdon immensely.

  • The Kiss Given (Le Baiser Donné, 1778) is a double bust in white marble. This passionate portrayal of a man and woman kissing, bound together by a wreath of roses, is one of Houdon's most-copied sculptures. He himself produced various versions in different materials. The placement of two busts on one shared socle was virtually unprecedented, and gained Houdon many admirers. The work is on loan from the collection of Stewart and Lynda Resnick.
  • Diana the Huntress (1782), on loan from the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, and Apollo (1790), on loan from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, are life-sized bronzes intended to be garden sculptures. The brother and sister Olympians are among Houdon's most popular works, and are reunited in this exhibition for the first time since the 18th century. The complete nudity of Diana was a shock to Houdon's contemporaries, and the sculpture's precarious pose, balanced on the ball of one foot, is a feat of virtuoso design and casting.
  • Winter (La Frileuse, 1783) is an allegorical depiction of the season, on loan from the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Sculpted in marble, it shows a half-nude young girl shivering with cold. The work became famous in Houdon's day, and was considered fairly shocking. Its counterpart, Summer (L'Ete, 1785), depicts in marble a young woman with symbols of the warm season, including wheat sheaves and a watering can. A bronze version of Winter from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is also included in the exhibition.


While in Rome, Houdon developed the artistic philosophy that would govern his work throughout his career. He believed that the role of the artist was to represent what he saw, truthfully but selectively, ennobling his subject by emphasizing what was most beautiful. Houdon returned to Paris in 1768 with plaster casts of many of his Roman works. Shown at the Salon Exhibition of 1769, they attracted the attention of French critics and launched his career in France.

  • Écorché (Figure of a Flayed Man, 1767) is Houdon's famous life-sized sculpture of a man with the skin stripped off, revealing the muscles with great anatomical precision. The sculptor often visited the Hospital of Saint-Louis des Français in Rome, where a surgeon instructed him on anatomy using human cadavers. Completed by Houdon as a study for a statue of Saint John the Baptist, Écorché caused an immediate sensation. The director of the French Academy in Rome asked for a cast of the figure for use in art classes. It is one of the most celebrated anatomical models in the history of sculpture, and casts of it are still studied in modern studio art classes. The exhibition boasts the original plaster Écorché, marking the first time since 1767 that the sculpture has ever been loaned by its owner, the French Academy in Rome.
  • Morpheus (1777) is a marble representation of the mythical god of sleep, sculpted by Houdon as his reception piece to enter the French Academy. The subject—a winged youth reclining gracefully, garlanded by poppies—differed from works by previous artists, who had always depicted Sleep as an old, exhausted man. Morpheus is on loan from the Louvre.


Houdon was a sculptor of remarkable breadth and skill who adapted to the demands of rapidly changing political and social trends without compromising the integrity of his art. He portrayed many of the most important men and women of the time of the French Revolution and the Empire.

  • Napoléon Bonaparte (1806) is inscribed "executed from life at Saint-Cloud, August 1806." Houdon had won the unusual favor of having the warrior emperor of France personally pose for him in the midst of a year of military turbulence. The Journal de Paris, in September of that year, declared that the now-elderly Houdon had achieved a "striking likeness" of Napoleon. Houdon created not only this terracotta bust, which arises bare-chested from a herm in Roman style, but also companion busts of Napoléon (1808) and Josephine (1808) in contemporary dress (also featured in this exhibition). This terracotta bust is on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France.

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Thea M. Page
Getty Communications Dept.

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