Houdon’s work combines the sobriety of Neo-classicism with the panache of an artist who has been to Rome and seen Bernini. 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.
Books on Jean-Antoine Houdon
Anne L. Poulet, ed., Jean-Antoine Houdon, Sculptor of the Enlightenment, exh. cat., Washington D.C. 2003.
Bernadette Fort, ed., Les Salons des “Mémoires secrets” 1767-1787, Paris, 1999.
H. Harvard Arnason, The Sculptures of Houdon, New York, 1975.
Charles Henry Hart, Memoirs of the Life and Works of Jean Antoine Houdon; the Sculptor of Voltaire and of Washington, Philadelphia, 1911.