Jean-Antoine Houdon

Jean-Antoine Houdon

French, 1741-1828

Artist Biography

The sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was born in Versailles, March 25, 1741. Houdon is best-known for his sculpted portrait busts, which make up the majority of his oeuvre, but he also created historical, mythological, and religious works, mainly in terra cotta, bronze, and marble.
Houdon's father served as concierge to the Comte de Lamotte, whose Paris hôtel housed the École Royale des Elèves Protégés, the school that trained the winners of the Grand Prix of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Scultpure. It was this early proximity to France's best artists inspired him to pursue a career in the arts. Houdon trained in the studios of Rene-Michel Soldtz, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, and went on to win the Académie's third prize for sculpture in 1756, when he was only fifteen years old. In 1761, at the age of twenty, Houdon won the Académie's Prix de Rome. He followed these successes by returning to the École Royale des Elèves Protégés, this time as a student himself.
Finishing his studies, Houdon visited Rome until 1768. During this time, he produced copies of antique, classical sculptures and created religiously-themed works. He also sculpted L'Écorché au bras tendu or The Flayed Man (1766-1767), a bronze anatomical sculpture of a man, which would become his first noted work and also serves as evidence of Houdon's interest in study from nature. Houdon returned to Paris in 1768.
Houdon was approved for membership in the Académie in 1771, after his exhibition at the Académie's Salon of a monumental plaster statue of Morpheus, the ancient Greek god of dreams. In 1777, Houdon created a smaller, marble version of Morpheus, which earned him a professorship with the Académie. He would continue to exhibit regularly at the Salons from 1769 until 1814. Also during this time, Houdon made trips to Gotha in Saxony, where Francophile art collectors became the first collectors of his works.
The mid-1770s also saw the rise of Houdon's fame as a portrait sculptor, as he exhibited numerous portrait busts, mainly of members of the French aristocracy. As a portraitist, Houdon developed a modern technique of drilling the pupils of the eyes of his figures, intensifying their gazes and creating a stylistic trait that would make his sculpture singular and easily identifiable.
Beginning in 1779, Houdon began his tradition of creating portrait busts of famous men. A neoclassicist, Houdon sometimes posed his subjects in classical, Roman costumes or added classical allusions to portraits done in a more contemporary style. Houdon's subjects during this time include Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington. 1779 was also the year that Houdon received his only official, governmental commission: a statue of the Maréchal de Tourville, which currently resides at the Château de Versailles. This period also saw the creation of Voltaire Seated, one of Houdon's most famous works.
In 1785, Houdon traveled to the United States at the invitation of Thomas Jefferson. There, Houdon executed a terracotta portrait bust of George Washington as well as a marble, full length portrait of the first President, completed in 1788.
In 1786, Houdon married. Madame Houdon would become another of his subjects, as would their three daughters: Sabine, born in 1787; Anne-Ange, born in 1788; and Claudine, born in 1790. His series of four busts of Sabine at different ages is perhaps the best-known of his family portraits. Houdon's portrait of Sabine at Age Four is the most widely-known and ubiquitous from this series.
With the French Revolution in 1789, Houdon turned from Enlightenment figures and members of the royal family and aristocracy to figures of the Revolution, including Lafayette, Bailly, and Mirabeau for his subjects. Houdon's popularity waned slightly during the Revolutionary period, though he would regain favor during the Empire, when he would be commissioned to create classical portraits as well as the noted Napoleon as Emperor.
Houdon continued to sculpt mythological figures and portraits until his death in Paris on July 15, 1828.

  • sculpture
  • French

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