1902 Encyclopedia > Jean Antoine Houdon

Jean Antoine Houdon
French sculptor

JEAN ANTOINE HOUDON, (1740-1828), was the most distinguished sculptor produced by France in the latter half of the 18th century. He was born at Versailles in 1740, and at the age of nineteen, having learnt all that he could from Michel Ange Slodtz and Pigalle, Houdon carried off the prix de Rome and left France for Italy, where he spent the next ten years of his life. His brilliant talent, which seems to have been formed by the influence of that world of statues with which Louis XIV. peopled the gardens of Versailles rather than by the lessons of his masters, delighted Clement XIV., who, on seeing the St Bruno executed by Houdon for the church of St Maria degli Angeli, said " he would speak, were it not that the rules of his order impose silence." In Italy Houdon had lived in the presence of that second Renaissance with which the name of Winckelman i k for ever associated, and the direct and simple treatment of the Morpheus which he sent to the Salon of 1771 bore witness to its influence. This work procured him his "agrégation" to the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, of which he was made a full member in 1775. Between these dates Houdon had not been idle ; busts of Catharine IL, Diderot, and Prince Galitzin were remarked at the Salon of 1773, and at that of 1775 he produced, not only his Morpheus in marble, but busts of Turgot, Gluck, and Sophie Arnould, together with his well-known marble relief, " Grive suspendue par les pattes." He took also an active part in the teaching of the academy, and executed for the instruction of his pupils the celebrated Écorché still in use. To every Salon Houdon was a chief contributor ; most of the leading men of the day were his sitters ; his busts of D'Alembert, Prince Henry of Prussia, Gerbier, Buffon (for Catharine of Russia), and Mirabeau are amongst the most remarkable portraits of modern times; and in 1778, when the news of Rousseau's death reached him, Houdon started at once for Ermenonville, and there took a cast of the dead man's face, from which he produced the grand and lifelike head at present in the Louvre. The celebrated draped statue of Voltaire, now in the vestibule of the Théâtre Français, was exhibited at the Salon of 1781, to which Houdon also sent a statue of Marshal de Tourville, commissioned by the king, and the Diana executed for Catharine II. This work was refused ; the jury alleged that a statue of Diana demanded drapery ; without drapery, they said, the goddess became a " suivante de Vénus," and not even the proud and frank chastity of the attitude and expression could save the Diana of Houdon (a bronze reproduction of which is now in the Louvre) from insult. Whether Houdon felt annoyance at this folly does not appear ; but three years later he very readily accepted an invitation to go to America, there to carry out a statue of Washington. With Franklin, whose bust he had recently executed, Houdon left France in 1785, and, staying some time with Washington at Philadelphia, he modelled the bust, with which he decided to go back to Paris, there to complete the statue destined for the assembly hall of the State of Virginia. After his return to his native country Houdon executed for the king of Prussia, as a companion to a statue of Summer, La Frileuse, a naif embodiment of shivering cold, which is one of his best as well as one of his best-known works. The Revolution interrupted the busy flow of commissions, and Houdon took up a half-forgotten project for a statue of St Scholastica, which had long been put on one side in a corner of his studio. He was immediately denounced to the convention, and his life was only saved by his instant and ingenious adaptation of St Scholastica into an embodiment of Philosophy. Under Napoleon, Houdon received little employment ; he was, however, commissioned to execute the colossal reliefs intended for the decoration of the column of the " Grand Army" at Boulogne (but which ultimately found a different destination) ; he also produced a statue of Cicero for the senate, and various busts, amongst which may be cited those of Marshal Ney, of Josephine, and of Napoleon him-self, by whom Houdon was rewarded with the legion of honour. After the fall of the first empire Houdon suddenly aged; he lost his memory, and slept away the closing years of his life. He died at Paris in 1828.

The most striking characteristic of his work is the life by which it is animated, and which is the result of marvellous skill in execu-tion and keenness in observation. He was, in all he did, great. His bust of Voltaire is deservedly one of the most famous in the whole range of modern sculpture, and his genial reading of Rous-seau—a splendid yet brute virility tempered with the gift of tears —is a masterpiece of insight into character. But Houdon's power was no less triumphant in rendering the beauty of youth and the beauty of beautiful women. His Diana proved that he could pene-trate the secret of an ideal of noble womanhood ; his heads of young girls have been compared with the graceful children of his contem-porary Greuze, but the innocent candour of Houdon's work is entirely free from the self-consciousness which disturbs the charm of La Cruche Cassée and her companions. Finally, Houdon can-not be claimed, like Greuze, as representing the popular tendencies of the society to which he belonged ; for, whereas Greuze, like most men, bore the stamp of his time on ail he did, Houdon was one of those rare spirits who, doing the work of their own time, set their own seal thereto.

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