Summary of Jean-Antoine Houdon
Houdon was the preeminent sculptor of the age of French Enlightenment. He left his signature on this most turbulent period in French social and political history by sculpting "living" portraits of visitors from foreign courts and governments, many of France's leading thinkers, and glamorous singers and actors of the Parisian stage. Houdon worked comfortably in marble, bronze, plaster and clay, on busts and figures that see him routinely aligned with the school of Neoclassicism. His style owed a debt to the Renaissance masters like Donatello and Michelangelo, and the great Baroque sculptor, Bernini, but he also fostered a career-spanning commitment to a refined realism that supported his general aversion to idealism.
- Houdon, with the Italian Antonio Canova, emerged as the leading sculptor of eighteenth and nineteenth century Neoclassical movement. Whereas Canova mostly produced works on a mythical theme, Houdon is better remembered for his portraits of modern democratic thinkers. Between them, the two men revitalized the craft of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.
- Early in his career, Houdon produced what would become one of the most widely reproduced sculpted works in history; a figure that has been used ever since in art academies and ateliers to teach students human anatomy and cast drawings. The figure introduced to the world the Frenchman's lifelong concern for physiognomic accuracy in the muscles, bones and exterior covering of the human body.
- Houdon's busts were distinguishable by his subjects' gaze. Audiences were transfixed by the way he modelled the eyes in a way that seemed to bring the sculptured figures to life. He mastered a technique which involved carving a depression in his sitter's iris, and modeling a concave that highlighted the eye's pupil with a small fragment of marble overhanging the iris. These realistic features raised the bar for contemporary and future generations of sculptors.
- Complementing his busts, Houdon produced a number of statutes to which he brought a modern twist. Houdon had demonstrated through works like Diana (mythological), Winter (allegorical) and his monument to George Washington (in modern dress), that the progressive ideas of the Age of Enlightenment could impact on the classical arts too.
- Houdon was a consummate technician who preferred to model in clay, although subsequent versions of an original cast would typically be rendered in either marble, bronze, or plaster. He often took full charge of his own repetitions, or he might put final touches to his assistants' work. In either case, Houdon demonstrated his preference for naturalism by leaving toolmark traces in his sculptures (rather than polishing them out). It was a trait that celebrated artisanship and brought a touch of character to the normally idealistic Neoclassical style.
Biography of Jean-Antoine Houdon
For Houdon patriotism and sculpture went hand-in-hand; the true "art of the sculptor", he maintained, was to "render almost imperishable the image of those who have contributed either to the glory or the happiness of their country".
Important Art by Jean-Antoine Houdon
Houdon's L'Ecorché is a life-size sculpture of a flayed man. A striking anatomical figure, his entire muscular system is exposed as he stands with left foot forward and right leg slightly bent; his right hand is raised up and reaching out in an almost healing gesture. In describing the impact of this work, art historian Anne L. Poulet states, "Houdon's figure of an Ecorché is one his earliest, most famous, and most widely reproduced works".
The first version of L'Ecorché was made in 1767 while Houdon was a student in Rome and was the basis for a sculpture of Saint John the Baptist (a separate sculpture he completed in the same year). This version is more refined, with the right arm raised more dramatically and the figure freed from the tree trunk base against which he was originally rested. It also provides a splendid example of the Ancient Greek influence on the Neoclassical style which Houdon usually adopted; here with the contrapposto stance of the figure as well as arms raised that are reminiscent of the classic works Lysippos's Apoxyomenos (330 BC) and Polykleitos's Doryphoros (450-440 BC).
Evidence of Houdon's keen interest in human anatomy is in abundance here. Actively seeking training in this field, his fellow student Johann Christian von Mannlich explained how the two young men went, "to Saint-Louis des Français where M. Séguier, professor of surgery, gave us a lesson in anatomy on cadavers for which the king paid. We were the only people from the academy to follow this course, and we profited all the more for it". The work was enthusiastically received and became used as a model for other students at his school.
More importantly, the work had a lasting impact on Houdon's own career and, as Poulet explains, "his preoccupation with the accurate observation and depiction of the bones and muscles as well as the exterior surface of the human body eventually led him to use life and death masks for his closely observed portraits".
Diderot, a personal friend of Houdon's, was a key figure of the Enlightenment - a philosopher, playwright and novelist who, as editor of the Encyclopédie (a renowned project that was to be a summary of "all knowledge") questioned the very authority of the Catholic Church. While Houdon rendered several busts of Diderot, the author Guilhem Scherf observed that he remained "the only great intellectual of the Enlightenment in Houdon's portrait gallery to have been depicted according to a single typology (bare head, nude upper torso)".
The second of Houdon's Diderot busts (the first, in terracotta, was exhibited at the Salon of 1771) is an early instance of the artist's strong support and patronage from Russia. The bust was commissioned by the former Russian ambassador to France, Dmitrii Alekseevich Golitsyn, and, as curator Johanna Hecht states, it would prove to be "a critical milestone" in the young sculptor's career. As she says, the "prominence of the influential subject, the prestige of the patron, and the artistic power of the bust itself brought him to the attention of a wide circle inside France and at foreign courts - a power elite that formed his base of support in the absence of crown commissions".
This bust is a palpable demonstration of Houdon's deft artistic handling and his ability to encapsulate his models' aura. As Valérie Montalbetti, curator at the Louvre museum, observed, for the eyes Houdon "hollows out the iris, then digs the pupil even deeper, leaving a small relief element at the edge to capture the light [with] the resulting play of light and shadow [giving] the illusion of life". The treatment of the hair, meanwhile, "is also typical of the artist [who] models it like a dense and moving mass". She adds that Diderot's lips are "slightly open, as if he were conversing, a reminder of the brilliant orator he was" and that, finally, the "rotation of the head gives the impression that he has just turned to [engage] his interlocutor". Montalbetti suggests that these features combine to create the overall "impression of immediacy" and that the portrait "thus reconciles the timelessness of the thinker with the vivacity of a mind open to the world".
Diana the Huntress was one of Houdon's most celebrated mythological works. It was the first sculpture Houdon ever cast in bronze and offered further proof to an enthusiastic public of Houdon's unique place within the medium of sculpture. As Poulet describes it, Houdon "depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt and of the moon, completely nude, running forward, with her weight balanced on her left foot. Her hair is drawn up loosely on top of her head, on which is placed a crescent moon, and she carries a bow in her left hand and an arrow in her right".
Poulet suggests, moreover, that Houdon's "representation of Diana the huntress as a nude was unusual", and the result was "a daring blend of the traditional representation of Diana nude at her bath with that of Diana the huntress, who was usually depicted clothed, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance". She adds, however, that what makes Houdon's Diana "one of the major masterpieces of the period" was the way he "transformed these received ideas into a sculpture of cool beauty and originality and of great technical sophistication". While he had already demonstrated his skill for capturing the essence of his sitters, with Diana he showed that he could also make supple and elegant figural renderings that were more modern in their approach and for which he sculptured, not from real life, but from the history of antiquity and from his own imagination.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jean-Antoine Houdon
- Memoirs of the Life and Works of Jean Antoine Houdon: The Sculptor of Voltaire and of WashingtonOur PickBy Charles Henry Hart and Edward Biddle
- Houdon at the Louvre: Masterworks of the EnlightenmentBy Guilhem Scherf
- Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the EnlightenmentOur PickBy Anne L. Poulet
- Sculptures of HoudonBy H. H. Arnason
- The Story of ArtBy E. H. Gombrich
- Our First President, in Three DimensionsOur PickBy Catesby Leigh / The Wall Street Journal / February 19, 2011
- Diderot (1713 - 1784), Le Louvre: Department of Sculptures: France, 17th and 18th centuriesBy Valérie Montalbetti
- Jean-Antoine HoudonBy Johanna Hecht / Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art / October 2008
- Bust of Naopleon1By Francesca Sandrini / Naopleon.org / March 2004
- Sculpture of Houdon and Clodion: Reflections of AntiquityOur PickOn April 3, 2014, art historian Anne L. Poulet gave a lecture at the Frick Museum on the art of French Neoclassical sculptors Jean-Antoine Houdon and Claude Michel Clodion
- The Houdon Bust of George WashingtonIn this video the associate curator at Mount Vernon, Amanda Issac, presents a detailed examination of Jean-Antoine Houdon's bust of George Washington
- Winter: Beauty and BeliefIn this video curator Jim Draper and educator Jackie Terrassa of The Metropolitan Museum of Art provide an in-depth look at Jean-Antoine Houdon's Winter (1787).