Jean Antoine Houdon
Biography of Neoclassical Realist French Sculptor.

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Voltaire Seated (1781)
By Jean Antoine Houdon, one of the
greatest neoclassical sculptors.

Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)

A major figure in Neoclassical sculpture, the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon was famous for his statues and portrait busts of key figures in modern history. His best known works of sculpture are studies of Voltaire, George Washington, and Napoleon. While not especially celebrated in his lifetime, he has since become the most famous French sculptor of the 18th-century. In addition to his portrait busts, he is noted for his statue of the Ecorche (1767, Institut Gotha), originally created as a model for St John the Baptist (1767, S Maria degli Angeli, Rome) replicas of which have been employed by the French Academy of Fine Arts, and others, for teaching anatomy to student artists. While Houdon experimented with various styles including Mannerism and Rococo art, his characteristic style of sculpture is unpretentious classicism, or sober realism.

La Frileuse (Winter) (1787)
Bronze statue
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

SCULPTURE (c.1600-1850)
Baroque/Rococo Sculptors
Rococo Artists
Francois Girardon (1628-1715)
Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721)
Balthasar Permoser (1651-1732)
Andreas Schluter (1664-1714)
Louis-Francois Roubiliac (1695-1762)
Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-1785)
Etienne Maurice Falconet (1716-1791)
Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823)
John Flaxman (1755-1826)
Antonio Canova (1757-1822)
Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844)

For the origins of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

For the world's top works, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Early Career and Training

Born in Versailles in 1741, Houdon's father was a concierge at the Ecole Royale des Eleves Proteges, so by all accounts he grew up at the feet of the Academy. In 1761 he won the Prix de Rome, a highly prestigious award which allowed him to study works of classical antiquity in Rome. Although he studied the best of Italian Renaissance sculpture from masters such as Donatello and Michelangelo, as well as the great exponents of Baroque sculpture, like Bernini, he was not greatly influenced. He did however produce some notable marble and clay anatomical model studies during his stay, which have served as a guide to artists ever since. He also executed a statue of Saint Bruno for the church of Santa Maria in Rome (1766), which shows a combination of Roman realism and Greek idealism. Working in various mediums, marble, plaster, bronze, terracotta and various types of stone, the young sculptor returned to Paris determined to become the leading portrait artist of his day. And while influenced by the Neoclassical art of the Eternal City, he took a more pragmatic approach to portraiture when he arrived in France.

For a guide: Neoclassical artists.

For a list of the world's most
talented 3-D artists, see:
Greatest Sculptors.

Portrait Sculptures of the Rich and Famous

At first Houdon courted commissions from the nobility in France and Germany, but these were soon eclipsed by the real stars of the time, notable literary, philosophers and political figures. Always alert to the rising sources of power, Houdon managed to persuade most to sit for him. Notable busts include: the marble bust of Diderot (1771, Seymour Collection, New Haven); full-length seated statue of Voltaire (1781, Comedie Francaise, Paris); bust of George Washington (1784, Mount Vernon, Virginia); bust of George Washington (1789-1808, Louvre, Paris); bust of Mirabeau (1800, Versailles Chateau); bust of Napoleon (1806, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon); bust of Thomas Jefferson (1789, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) and George Washington again in 1788 (State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia). Houdon exhibited works most years at the Paris Salon, including busts of many of the glamorous singers and actors of the Parisian stage. He also sculpted beautiful sensitive works of children, and it was noted that rarely had such physiognomic accuracy been so brilliantly attained.


New Sculptural Techniques

However, not all notaries succumbed to Houdon's charm. The artist Jean-Jacques Rousseau refused to sit for the sculptor. But when Rousseau died, Houdon was the obvious choice to make his death mask, and the mask in turn was used to carve a bust sculpture. According to one contemporary, Rousseau's eyes were so piercing that "they seem to penetrate into the most hidden innermost folds of the human heart!" Houdon's ability to create realistic eyes partly explained his success. Audiences were awed by their realism and life. He created a new sculpting technique by first cutting out the entire iris, then boring a deeper hole for the pupil, leaving a small fragment of fine marble overhanging the iris. The effect was a vivacious, mobile expression which was unrivalled in the history of either portrait painting or sculpture.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to judge artists like the French neoclassical sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Most Famous Portraits/Busts

The intellectual, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire sat for several portraits on his return from 30 years in exile. It is by these portraits that the world has a mental picture of Voltaire. In a few sittings, Houdon managed to grasp the expression that captivated contemporaries - a weary face, toothless mouth, deep lines and a compressed smile. Houdon brought the same skill to his portraits of the founders of the United States of America. His portrait of Thomas Jefferson served as the source for the Jefferson dollar, minted in 1903. Jefferson wanted to recognise the great work of George Washington and commissioned Houdon to produce a likeness. A stickler for accuracy, Houdon travelled to the States to study his subject in person. Houdon's marble bust of Washington (1784, Mount Vernon, Virginia) was perhaps one of the most important sculptures of his career. He created another two.

Other Sculptures

These include: Bust of the Artist's Wife (c.1770, Louvre, Paris); bust of the Comtesse de Sabran (c.1785, Neues Palais, Potsdam); Denis Diderot (1771, Louvre); Diana (c.1776, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon); General Dumouriez (1792, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Angers); Louise Brongniart (1777, Louvre); Madame de Serilly (1782, Wallace Collection, London); Peasant Girl of Frascati (1774, Musee Cognacq-Jay, Paris); Robert Fulton (c.1803, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and others.

Houdon became a member of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1771 and a professor in 1778. During the French Revolution, perceived as a bourgeois, he fell out of favour. However, he managed to avoid imprisonment and even went on to create a portrait of Bonaparte (1806). Houdon died in Paris in 1828.

• For more about French classical sculpture, see: Homepage.

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