The portrait busts by the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) are among the greatest of all time. His restrained yet graceful figures are classical with traces of the rococo style.
Jean Antoine Houdon was born on March 20, 1741, at Versailles, in the house of a rich nobleman for whom his father worked as caretaker; his mother's family were peasants and gardeners. In 1749 his father became caretaker of a newly established government art academy, where Houdon grew up. From the age of 15 he began to study under Michel Ange Slodtz, one of the finest sculptors in France. Later, when Houdon won a fellowship to the French Academy, his teachers included the painter Carle Vanloo and François Dandré Bardon, the historian of ancient Rome.
In 1764 Houdon won a fellowship to the French Academy in Rome, where he studied until 1768. In this city with its abundant ancient ruins, where the French rococo style seemed remote and new evidence of Roman civilization was just then being uncovered in excavations, he set the main direction of his art.
Houdon also studied anatomy in Rome. Working under the direction of a surgeon, he learned the components of the body directly by dissecting corpses. The strong current of realism in Houdon's art is nowhere more apparent than in the anatomical statue called L'Écorché, or The Flayed Man (1767). There are endless copies. In his day no art school was complete without a bronze casting of this figure.
Houdon left one masterpiece in Rome, a colossal marble St. Bruno for the Carthusian monks of S. Maria degli Angeli (1767). The saint's eyes are closed, and his head is bent in prayer. But his motionless body stands straight, and straighter still hang the folds of his loose robe, like the fluting of a Doric column, relieved only (but typically) by the gentle symmetrical arcs of cape, sleeves, and hood. This figure was Houdon's answer to the graceful, lightly swaying, rococo statue of the same saint that Slodtz had made for St. Peter's some 20 years before.
Houdon returned to Paris in 1768. The sculpture he brought with him he exhibited at the Salon the following year. The critics liked his work, and his career seemed well launched, but the really big commissions, the ones for the King, somehow failed to arrive. Instead Houdon found his patrons among foreigners, the wealthy bourgeoisie, and the intellectuals.
Through the recommendations of the Encyclopedist Denis Diderot and the literary critic Baron Melchior von Grimm, both of whom admired his work, Houdon soon began to develop an international clientele. An introduction from Baron Grimm won Houdon a commission in 1771 to do a funeral monument for one of the dukes of Saxe-Gotha. In the years that followed, he made busts and medallions of almost all the members of the duke's family. Eventually his patronage extended across Europe, including (besides France) Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and Russia.
In 1778 Houdon joined the Masonic Lodge of the Nine Sisters in Paris. His fellow members included the writer Voltaire, the astronomer Lalande, the naturalist Lacépède, the Russian nobleman Count Stroganoff, and the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin.
The large seated marble statue of Voltaire (1781) is Houdon's most famous work. The aged philosopher, draped in loose robes to disassociate him from any specific time or place, leans forward in his chair and turns as if about to speak. His withered fragile body seems to vibrate with life, as if the erosion of the flesh lets the spirit shine out brighter. Across the face a sardonic smile is breaking; deep shadows give the eyes extraordinary intensity. In almost all of Houdon's portraits the eyes seem to sparkle, and they look out at us with disconcerting intensity.
Frederick the Great bought two of Houdon's busts of his friend Voltaire. Stanislas Poniatowski, the last king of Poland, made a collection of plaster casts of Houdon's portraits of great men: Jean Jacques Rosseau, Alexander the Great, Molière, and Voltaire. Acting on the advice of Baron Grimm, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, acquired two of Houdon's most famous sculptures: a graceful marble statue, Diana as Goddess of the Hunt (1780), and a variant of Houdon's magnificent marble statue of Voltaire.
Houdon's first connections with America came through his friendship with Benjamin Franklin, of whom he executed a number of portraits. The most famous version (1778) shows an unpretentious old man, simply dressed, wrinkled and rather bald, but also contemplative, benevolent, and wise. Three years later, probably at the suggestion of Franklin, Houdon was asked to do a bust of John Paul Jones.
In 1781 the state of Virginia commissioned Houdon to do a bust of Lafayette to be given to the city of Paris in gratitude for Lafayette's help during the Revolutionary War. Four years later, when the state of Virginia wanted a commemorative statue of Washington, they called on Houdon again. This time it was Jefferson, then American ambassador to France, who handled the negotiations. In 1785 Houdon sailed for America—the first European sculptor to go there. He spent a fortnight at Mount Vernon, where he took a life mask of Washington and made a series of clay studies, and then returned to France. The marble statue, showing the general dressed as an 18th-century gentleman, stands in the Virginia State Capitol at Richmond. Other portraits Houdon made of famous Americans include busts of Jefferson (1789) and Robert Fulton (1803).
Houdon did not marry until 1786, when he was 45 years old. He had waited so long because he had taken on the responsibility of supporting many of his relatives, all of them poor. His marriage was not entirely a happy one, but from it came three daughters in whom he took unending pride. Their portraits exist in many versions: Sabine, age 4, for example, her serious child's face enframed by cascades of long, luxuriant curls; and Claudine, age 15 months, looking upward, wide-eyed and radiant.
The latter part of Houdon's life was not very happy. The Revolutionary period from 1789 to 1800 was especially difficult. Coming himself from a family that was extremely poor, Houdon was an enthusiastic supporter of the new government and its Declaration of the Rights of Man. But because of his associations with the old regime, he was suspected of being a counterrevolutionary. Besides, the new art dictator, Jacques Louis David, opposed him even to the point of having his studio searched. Inevitably Houdon was cut off from official patronage. One disappointment followed another as each successive commission eluded him. Worst of all was his failure to be asked to execute the memorial the government planned for Rousseau, whose writings had provided so much of the inspiration for the Revolution. Here being passed over was especially bitter, because Houdon alone possessed a death mask of the philosopher, which he had made immediately after Rousseau's death.
In 1800 the Napoleonic era dawned, but for Houdon there was little improvement. While 15 years earlier he had been thought of as the greatest sculptor in Europe, now he was considered out of date. Neoclassicism was all the rage. Houdon was still respected—he was one of the first artists to be made (in 1803) a cavalier of the newly created French Legion of Honor. But there was little demand for his art.
In 1814 he stopped working altogether. Two years later, when the new government finally offered him a commission to do a statue, he refused. In 1823 his wife died. He himself lived on for 5 more years, but only as a shell. Arterial sclerosis was causing progressive damage to his brain. In a touching passage Augustin Jal, who had known Houdon for a long time, described his last visit to the art exhibition held at the Louvre in 1827: "What is he doing here, this little old man, moving along quickly with short steps, dragging his feet? Let us greet him. He lifts his hat, showing us a head that is completely bald. He speaks but what he says is garbled. The mind that was once so strong is now weak. In this octogenarian child the body has survived but not the spirit." Death came the following year on July 15.
Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle, Memoirs of the Life and Works of Jean Antoine Houdon (1911), is useful for its illustrations, but the text, largely anecdotal, is incomplete and outdated. A special study is H. H. Arnason, Sculpture by Houdon (1964), with beautiful illustrations. For background see Michel Laclotte, ed., French Art from 1350 to 1850 (1965).