Houdon, Jean Antoine
Artist name Houdon, Jean Antoine
Artist occupation: sculptor
Geographical data: France
Date of birth: 1741.03.20
Place of birth: Versailles
Date of death: 1828.07.15
Place of death: Paris
Place(s) cited: Rome; Paris
French Sculptor. He was the foremost French sculptor of the second half of the 18th century and one of the outstanding portrait sculptors in the history of art. Although he created a number of works on Classical themes, he is best known for his remarkably vivid busts and statues of his famous contemporaries, many of which exist in several versions.
1. Paris and Rome, to 1768.
2. Paris and Gotha, 1768-79.
3. From the Salon of 1779 to the French Revolution.
4. After 1789.
Houdon's father was concierge to the Comte de Lamotte, whose Paris hôtel housed the Ecole Royale des Elèves Protégés. This newly established institution trained the winners of the Grand Prix of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture before they were sent to the Académie de France in Rome. It was his proximity to some of the best artists in France that encouraged Houdon's vocation. He trained in the studios of René-Michel Slodtz, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (ii) and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, and won the Académie's third prize for sculpture in 1756 and the Grand Prix (Prix de Rome) in 1761. He subsequently spent three years at the Ecole des Elèves Protégés before leaving for Rome in 1764.
Surviving works from Houdon's years in Rome attest to the variety of his interests. Like all students at the Académie de France he was obliged to make copies of antique sculptures. His plaster bust of a Vestal (Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein) is a severe composition with the head covered with a veil. He made a marble version of this work in 1788 (Paris, Louvre) and continued to be inspired by its source, the statue of a Vestal (or Pandora) in the Museo Capitolino in Rome, in a number of reductions produced throughout his career (e.g. bronze version, exh. Salon 1777; untraced). His bust of a Peasant Girl of Frascati (plaster version, Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein; later marble versions, Paris, Mus. Cognacq-Jay and St Petersburg, Hermitage) is a finely idealized head after the Antique. The plaster statuette of a Priest of the Lupercalia (Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein) is reminiscent of Bernini's statue of Apollo in the group Apollo and Daphne (Rome, Gal. Borghese). A commission for a statue of St John the Baptist for S Maria degli Angeli (plaster; Rome, Gal. Borghese) was the occasion for the production of Houdon's famous statue of a Flayed Man or Ecorché au bras tendu (plaster version, Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein; later and modified bronze version, Paris, Ecole N. Sup. Beaux Arts.). It bears witness to Houdon's other great source of inspiration-study from nature. A statue of St Bruno, also for S Maria degli Angeli (marble; in situ), was clearly a response to René-Michel Slodtz's St Bruno (1744) in St Peter's. Where Slodtz's statue is dynamic, almost agitated, in character, Houdon's is sober, an image of contemplation and introspection, in which the asceticism of the face is emphasized by the striking vertical pleats of the saint's habit
Paris and Gotha, 1768-79.
Houdon returned to Paris in 1768 and was approved (agréé) by the Académie Royale on presentation of a recumbent statue of Morpheus, god of dreams. He exhibited a monumental plaster version of this ambitious work at the 1771 Salon (Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein) and was received (reçu) as a full member of the Académie in 1777 on presentation of a smaller marble version (Paris, Louvre). The 1771 Salon was also the first occasion when Houdon showed portraits of identified sitters, among them a terracotta bust of Denis Diderot. The writer is depicted lightly idealized in the antique manner, with short hair and no draperies, his lips slightly parted. In this bust Houdon experimented with a new manner of treating the eyes, perhaps inspired by Bernini, to which he remained faithful for the rest of his career: a small isthmus of marble left within the excavated socket to catch the light represents the sparkle of the pupil.
In 1771 and again in 1773 Houdon travelled to Gotha in Saxony, where the Francophile Herzog and Herzogin were among the first collectors of his sculpture. In 1773 he showed at the Paris Salon profile medallion portraits all'antica of Ernest Ludwig II, Herzog von Saxe-Gotha and of Maria Charlotte, Herzogin von Saxe-Gotha (bronzed plaster; Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein). At the same Salon he also exhibited a characterful bust, made after drawings, of another important collector of his works, Catherine the Great (marble version, St Petersburg, Hermitage; plaster version, Schwerin, Staatl. Mus.). Russian patronage was to be important to Houdon. In particular he received commissions for four funerary monuments for members of his family from Prince Dmitry Alekseyevitch Galitzin, Russian Ambassador to France. Two of these were executed in marble (St Petersburg, Mus. Sculp., and Moscow, Don Monastery Cemetery) and were shown at the 1773 Salon. A third exists only as a terracotta model (exh. Salon 1777; Paris, Louvre). The two marbles are in the form of Neo-classical stelae with mourning figures in relief and anticipate the design of Houdon's monument for the Heart of Victor Charpentier, Comte d'Ennery. The terracotta represents a programmatic composition of the kind advocated by Diderot, and maybe conceived as a small cenotaph, made for personal reflection-such as a Vanity-rather than a model for a large monument, never, in fact, executed.
The great series of Houdon's portrait busts began in earnest with his exhibits at the Salons of 1775 and 1777, when he showed works that are among his most successful, both from the point of view of psychological penetration and in the exceptional mastery of his handling. They included busts of the Garde des Sceaux, the Marquis de Miromesnil (marble versions, London, V&A, and New York, Frick), of the Contrôleur Général des Finances, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (marble; Lantheuil, Calvados, Château), of the composer Willibald von Gluck (plaster; Weimar, Thüring. Landesbib.) and the singer Sophie Arnould (marble; Paris, Louvre), as well as Houdon's four marble masterpieces, the busts of the Comtesse de Cayla (New York, Frick), the Baronne de la Houze (San Marino, CA, Huntington A.G.) and Louis XVI's aunts Mme Victoire (London, Wallace) and Mme Adélaïde (Paris, Louvre). Also noteworthy were the terracotta busts of the children of the architect Alexandre-Théodore Brongniart (Paris, Louvre). Houdon later made portraits of his own children at different ages, such as those of Sabine Houdon (plaster; Paris, Louvre).
If the Salons of 1775 and 1777 established Houdon as a portrait sculptor without rivals, he nevertheless continued to work also on a monumental scale. In 1776 he executed for the Herzog von Saxe-Gotha a large plaster statue of Diana the Huntress (Gotha, Schloss Friedenstein). In this, the goddess is depicted as if running forward, her bow in her hand. It is a reinterpretation of the art of antiquity in which Houdon, while choosing to depict the figure completely nude, also chose to show its anatomical details without idealization. Diana is given apparent movement by a slight twist to the torso, which gives the figure both its dynamism and its sensuality. The statue exists in a number of other large-scale versions: a marble of 1780 (Lisbon, Mus. Gulbenkian), a terracotta of c. 1781 (New York, Frick) and two bronzes cast by Houdon himself, one of 1782 (San Marino, CA, Huntington A.G.) and the other of 1790.
From the Salon of 1779 to the French Revolution.
At the Salon of 1779 Houdon inaugurated his impressive gallery of portraits of famous men, modelled both from life and posthumously. This was a theme that he continued up to his last Salon in 1814, and places him firmly within the historicist current of the age of Louis XVI. Houdon's originality (he was always keen to exploit the commercial possibilities of his works) lay in creating different bust types of his illustrious subjects. Thus Voltaire, Rousseau, D'Alembert, Franklin, Washington and others were depicted in contemporary costume and hairstyles, but also with their hair dressed in the Roman manner and their shoulders naked or covered with antique drapery.
Also in 1779 Houdon received his only official commission from the Bâtiments du Roi, a statue in period costume of the 17th-century soldier the Maréchal de Tourville (marble; Versailles, Château). This was intended as part of the series of statues of Illustrious Frenchmen designed to decorate the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, Paris. The statue of Tourville was exhibited at the 1781 Salon together with one of Houdon's greatest masterpieces, his statue of Voltaire Seated. The latter was a private commission from the writer's niece Mme Denis. It exists in a number of versions, including the original plaster containing Voltaire's heart (Paris, Bib. N.), two marbles, shown at the Salon (Paris, Mus. Comédie Fr.), and a variant made for Catherine the Great (St Petersburg, Hermitage). The pose of the Voltaire statue, which shows him seated in a Louis XVI-style armchair, is related to the concept of the Illustrious Frenchmen. But the imprecise nature of the costume, a sort of dressing-gown that implies Classical drapery, and the head shown wigless but decorated with a philosopher's headband, suggest a heroization responding, but with a greater care for 'decency', to Pigalle's infamous statue of Voltaire Nude (1776; Paris, Louvre).
Such was Houdon's celebrity by this time that Thomas Jefferson, Ambassador of the United States to France, suggested to him a scheme for a monumental statue of George Washington for the Capitol at Richmond, VA. Hoping to execute a bronze equestrian statue, the apogee of the sculptor's art, Houdon went to the USA in 1785. There he executed a bust portrait of Washington taken from life but lightly idealized all'antica (terracotta; Mount Vernon, VA). Unfortunately, Washington refused to be represented in the heroic antique mode and Houdon had to content himself with making a marble standing statue showing him in contemporary costume (Richmond, VA, Capitol), which he signed in 1788. The only Classical reference is the plough behind the figure of Washington, an allusion to the retirement of Cincinnatus.
Houdon, who by the late 1780s had portrayed the king, the royal family and the high aristocracy as well as the men of the Enlightenment, continued his activity unabated during the early years of the Revolution. He executed busts of such political figures as Lafayette, Necker, Barnave, Bailly, Mirabeau and Dumouriez, which exist in a number of versions. Nevertheless, later he was in less demand. It is significant that he was not involved in the new sculptural decorations of the Panthéon, Paris, and he failed in his ambition to execute a monument in honour of Rousseau. He did execute a number of important works under the Empire, including a herm bust of Napoleon as Emperor (terracotta, 1806; Dijon, Mus. B.-A.), a statue of Cicero (plaster, 1804; Paris, Bib. N.) for the chamber of the Senate, and monumental marble statues of Général Joubert (c. 1812; Versailles, Château) and Voltaire (c. 1812; Paris, Panthéon), the latter this time depicted standing.
Houdon was an artist of remarkable range and calibre who dominated with ease the sculptors of his generation. His output covers all the genres, except perhaps that of the terracotta model for the consumption of private collectors. Even this taste was catered for late in his career with the half-nude female statuettes he made on the theme of Winter ('La Frileuse', Paris, Louvre). He executed portraits from life and posthumously, sometimes, as in the case of his busts of Rousseau and Mirabeau, using death masks. He produced outdoor statuary, such as his fountain for the Duc d'Orléans's park at the Plaine Monceau. This consisted of a marble figure of a Bather (New York, Met.) on to whose shoulders water was poured by a lead Negress (destr. 1790s). There was also sculpture for interior settings, including marble female statues representing Winter and Summer (c. 1783-5; Montpellier, Mus. Fabre) made for the rich collector Girardot de Marigny, as well as decorative low reliefs, such as the one made for Ste Geneviève, Paris (untraced). He was a superb handler of marble-perhaps only Augustin Pajou's works show a comparable finesse of touch-commercially shrewd in the production of plaster versions of his works (and equally so in the diffusion throughout Europe of copies of his portraits of the Parisian élite), and also an expert bronze-founder in the best French tradition. Although he failed in his ambition to execute an equestrian statue, he did produce bronze versions of a number of his statues, including Winter ('L'Hiver', 1787; New York, Met.), Diana the Huntress and its pendant of Apollo (1790; Lisbon, Mus. Gulbenkian) and the Ecorché, as well as superb bronzes of his busts, such as that of Rousseau (1778; Paris, Louvre). It was of this last activity that he was most proud. In a memoir written in 1794 Houdon summed up his career thus: 'I have given myself over to only two studies, which have filled my whole life … anatomy and the casting of statues'.
G. Giacometti: La Vie et l'oeuvre de Houdon, 2 vols (Paris, 1928)
W. Sauerländer: Jean-Antoine Houdon: Voltaire (Stuttgart, 1963)
L. Réau: Houdon, 2 vols (Paris, 1964)
H. H. Arnason: The Sculptures of Houdon (London, 1975) [with extensive bibliog.]