Versailles 1741–1828 Paris
Jean-Antoine Houdon was the foremost sculptor in late eighteenth-century France; his work combines the sobriety of Neo-classicism with the panache of an artist who has been to Rome and seen Bernini (1598–1680). He is now best known for his portraits of the leading lights of his time from Voltaire to George Washington. Although a sculptor who worked in the monochrome media of marble, bronze and terracotta, Houdon’s portraits were considered so lifelike that it was said you could tell the color of the sitter’s eyes. In common with most of his most successful contemporaries, Houdon studied at the Académie Royale, with sculptors, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne (1704–78) and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714–85), winning the Prix de Rome in 1761. He left for Rome in 1764 where he made his now famous monumental Flayed Man (bronze version, École nationale supérieure des beaux arts, Paris), the result of his close study of anatomy with a surgeon in Rome, preparatory for a St John (Galleria Borghese, Rome). Houdon was influenced by the virtuosity and expressiveness of Bernini but was already developing a more sober style which was in tune with the drift towards classicism in enlightened French circles.
Returning to Paris in 1768, Houdon began to exhibit at the salon in 1771. There, he showed portraits, notably one of Denis Diderot in which the sitter is depicted in the antique manner with short hair and no draperies and we see for the first time his technique of leaving a small isthmus in the pupil of the eye to suggest a sparkle of light. In the ensuing decade, Houdon consolidated his reputation with commissions for the Francophile Herzog Ludwig II of Saxe—Gotha (Gotha remains an important repository of works by Houdon) and Russians including Catherine the Great. During this time Houdon made a series of neo-classical funerary reliefs but his most memorable creations were a series of portraits of the Marquis de Miromesnil (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), the Comtesse du Cayla (Frick Collection, New York) and Madame Adélaïde, aunt of Louis XVI. Perhaps because of his close association with Enlightenment figures, Houdon never found Royal favor. His portraits are characterized by an unusually lively characterization as well as technical perfection regardless of medium. They were exhibited to acclaim in the Salons of 1775 and 1777. At the same time, he sculpted a life-size Diana the Huntress, shown naked and striding forward, a combination of dynamism and sensuality of which versions are in the Frick Collection, New York (terracotta, 1781) and the Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, CA (bronze, 1782).
Between 1775 and 1812 Houdon continued to execute a remarkable series of portraits, focusing on heroes of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution. Some of his sitters were portrayed posthumously, such as Voltaire and Rousseau (who had refused to be portrayed in his lifetime) some from life notably General Lafayette (Capitol, Richmond), hero of the American war of Independence, the first President, George Washington (Capitol, Richmond) and the Emperor Napoleon (musée national des chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon). Houdon’s honest gravitas was especially admired by Americans and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Fulton all sat for him. At the same time, Houdon sculpted the occasional allegorical piece, famously Winter and Summer and Le Baiser Donné of 1778. However, it is for his portrait busts, executed in marble, bronze, plaster and terracotta, an incomparable record of the celebrities of his time, that his reputation rests. It is only fitting that his last Salon entry, in 1812 was another portrait of Voltaire (Le Panthéon, Paris).
Top Auction Results for Jean-Antoine Houdon
Bust of Benjamin Franklin
Sold for $2,917,500
New York, Sotheby’s, 5 December 1996, Jean-Antoine Houdon: A Marble Bust of Benjamin Franklin, lot 78
Bust of Thomas Jefferson
Sold for $2,860,000
New York, Christie’s, 29 May 1987, Important American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries, lot 8
Bust of Robert Fulton
Sold for $880,000
New York, Christie’s, 1 December 1989, Important American Pictures & Sculptures, lot 12