Houdon, Jean-Antoine

born March 20, 1741, Versailles, Fr.
died July 15, 1828, Paris

French sculptor.

He studied with Jean-Baptiste Pigalle in Paris and in 1761 won the Prix de Rome. In Rome (1764–68) he achieved immediate fame with an anatomical study of a standing man (с 1767), casts of which were widely used in art academies. He became a member of the Royal Academy in Paris (1777) with his reclining Morpheus. He produced numerous religious and mythological works that are definitive expressions of the decorative 18th-century Rococo style of sculpture. His greatest strength was in capturing the individuality of his portrait subjects, including such luminaries as Denis Diderot, Catherine II the Great, Benjamin Franklin, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Voltaire. In the U.S. he made a marble statue of George Washington (1788). The vividness of physiognomy and character in his busts places him among the greatest portrait sculptors in history.

"Diana," bronze sculpture by Houdon, c. 1777; in the Louvre, Paris

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Art Resource/EB Inc.

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▪ French sculptor
born March 20, 1741, Versailles, Fr.
died July 15, 1828, Paris

      French sculptor whose religious and mythological works are definitive expressions of the 18th-century Rococo style of sculpture. Elements of classicism and naturalism are also evident in his work, and the vividness with which he expressed both physiognomy and character places him among history's greatest portrait sculptors.

      Houdon began sculpting at age nine and underwent the long training prescribed by the Académie Royale. In 1761 he won the Prix de Rome, and while in Rome (1764–68) he established his reputation with a large marble statue of St. Bruno (1767) and an anatomical study of a flayed man, L'Écorché (1767), which brought him immediate fame and served later as the basis for replicas widely used for instruction.

      In 1770, two years after his return to Paris, he presented a reclining figure, Morpheus (marble version, 1777), as his reception piece for membership in the Académie Royale. He earned his livelihood, however, through portraiture; his sitters included Denis Diderot (Diderot, Denis), Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (Catherine II), and Benjamin Franklin (Franklin, Benjamin).

 Houdon created four different busts of Voltaire in addition to the renowned seated figure at the Comédie-Française, for which the sculptor made first studies shortly before the death of the aged philosopher in 1778. Five weeks later, on hearing of the death of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Rousseau, Jean-Jacques), Houdon hastened to the philosopher's home at Ermenonville and took a cast of the dead man's face, from which he developed the bronze bust that is now in the Louvre. In 1785 Houdon crossed the Atlantic to carry out a commission for a statue of George Washington (Washington, George). Several weeks spent at Washington's home at Mount Vernon were sufficient for him to complete his studies, which he took back to France. The marble statue, signed and dated 1788, was set up in the Virginia state capitol at Richmond in 1796.

      Houdon modeled his sculptures in clay, although subsequent versions might be of marble, bronze, or plaster. A skilled technician in all of these mediums, Houdon either took full charge of repetitions or limited himself to finishing touches upon his assistants' work. He preferred retaining the toolmarks in his sculptures rather than polishing them out, choosing to suggest a sense of freshness in execution that accorded with his concern for a characteristic pose and for the effect of a direct and vivid glance.

 The most celebrated of Houdon's mythological works is his supple, elegant statue of Diana, first shown in 1777, although not at the Salon—possibly to avoid questions of propriety because of the artist's frank treatment of the life-size undraped figure. At the Salon of 1791 Houdon exhibited busts of the marquis de Lafayette (Lafayette, Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier, marquis de), Benjamin Franklin, the count de Mirabeau (Mirabeau, Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, comte de), the banker Jacques Necker (Necker, Jacques), and the astronomer J.-S. Bailly (Bailly, Jean-Sylvain). Houdon's prestige continued during the turbulence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. After the downfall of the French Empire in 1815, however, he passed out of vogue for a time.

Additional Reading
Anne L. Poulet et al., Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment (2003), an exhibition catalogue; H.H. Arnason, The Sculptures of Houdon (1975); Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle, Memoirs of the Life and Works of Jean-Antoine Houdon, the Sculptor of Voltaire and of Washington (1911).

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Universalium. 2010.

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