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Jean-Antoine Houdon

Date: October 29, 2003


Houdon Defined Our Image of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Voltaire, Diderot, and Other Figures of the Enlightenment

Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment
At the Getty Center November 4, 2003-January 25, 2004

LOS ANGELES-Friend and associate of princes, statesmen, and the great intellectuals of his day, Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) is widely acknowledged as the greatest portrait sculptor of the 18th century. The Getty Center's winter Premiere Presentation, Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, November 4, 2003 through January 25, 2004, is the first major international exhibition of the great French sculptor's work.

On display are 70 Houdon sculptures created in marble, bronze, terracotta, and plaster. They have been brought together for the first time in nearly two centuries, demonstrating the remarkable degree of insight and physical accuracy that the sculptor incorporated into his art. The exhibition also marks the first time Houdon's magnificent bust of Marie-Sébastien-Charles-François Fontaine de Biré will be seen by the public in more than 200 years. Recently acquired by the Getty, the newly rediscovered bust was last exhibited in 1785. Focusing on Houdon's key fully documented sculptures, the exhibition features vivid portraits of the prominent intellectual, political, and military figures of the Enlightenment—including leaders of the American Revolution—as well as charming portraits of children and works depicting allegorical and mythological subjects.

"Houdon's talents as a sculptor brought unparalleled sensitivity and invention to the sculpted portrait," says Deborah Gribbon, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and vice president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. "He created iconic images of the most notable figures of his day. His portrayals bring to life the Enlightenment, a momentous era that changed the way people thought of themselves and their potential to change the world."

Houdon's busts and statues, full of vitality and brimming with personality, have helped shape the modern-day view of such Enlightenment heroes as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and many others. The exhibition focuses on Houdon's ambition to create a "gallery of great men" in the tradition of ancient Rome and the Renaissance, and makes clear his central position and influence in the European art world of the late 1700s.

From the work that first won Houdon his fame, Écorché (1767), to vital and realistic busts such as Benjamin Franklin (1779) and Thomas Jefferson (1789), to his mythological subjects such as Morpheus (1777) and Diana (1782), and later works like Napoléon Bonaparte (1806), Houdon's finest sculptures are presented in all their expressive power and luminous realism.

The Getty Center's presentation will include an entire room devoted to Houdon's realistic and engaging depictions of children. Busts of Houdon's young subjects will be installed at a child-friendly height, allowing kids to encounter these portrait sculptures face to face.

Houdon's artworks were installed at the Getty Center using a sophisticated stabilization system. Developed by the Getty, the system secures the sculptures and guards against damage, even from major emergencies such as an earthquake. Museum experts worked with a professor of civil engineering at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, to identify works in the exhibition that might benefit from this extra protection. These pieces were stabilized using custom base isolators—pedestals equipped with ball bearings and recoil springs to absorb shocks. In addition, special bronze clips were fashioned to secure all the sculptures to their bases. The Getty leads the way in the research and development of safeguard systems for art, including emergency preparedness procedures for times of war or natural disasters.

The Getty exhibition brings together Houdon sculptures from the Louvre in Paris; the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Hermitage in St. Petersburg; the National Museum of Stockholm; the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon; the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in California; and nearly 40 others around the world.

The Houdon exhibition comes to the Getty after being on view at the National Gallery of Art. Following the Getty showing, it will travel to the Musée national du Château de Versailles from March 1 through May 30, 2004. Guest curator for the exhibition is Anne L. Poulet, director of the Frick Collection in New York, and curator emerita of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment
By Anne L. Poulet with Guilhem Scherf, Ulrike D. Mathies, Christoph Frank, Claude Vandalle, Dean Walker, and Monique Barbier.
This 384-page exhibition catalog includes 140 color illustrations and 203 black-and-white illustrations.
(Cloth: $85)
Available in the Getty Museum Bookstore or by calling 310-440-7059.


Discover fascinating details in Houdon's portraits on the exhibition's interactive Web site, which will soon be available at


Casting Characters: Portraits and Studies of Heads
November 4, 2003–February 1, 2004
Artists throughout history were fascinated with the endless variety of human types, as seen in the drawings of portraits, caricatures, and expressive heads featured in this exhibition. Whether these drawn faces were destined to become portraits or figures in a narrative composition, artists attempted to create characters and personalities in the study of vivid facial expression. This exhibition showcases the breadth of the Getty Museum's collection, with examples that span the 16th through 19th centuries. The exhibition features a number of recent acquisitions, including Jean-Étienne Liotard's Portrait of a Lady, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's Head of a Man Looking Up, and Paul Gauguin's Head of a Tahitian Woman.

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The exhibition is organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; and the Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, and l'Etablissement public du musée et du domaine national de Versailles. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Note to Editors: Images available upon request. For more information, the public can call 310-440-7300 or visit


Thea M. Page
Getty Communications Dept.

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Grant Program. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs are based at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

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