Birthplace: Versailles, France
Location of death: Paris, France
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France
Race or Ethnicity: White
Executive summary: French Rococo sculptor
French sculptor, born at Versailles on the 18th of March 1740. At the age of twelve he entered the École Royale de Sculpture, and at twenty, having learned all that he could from Michel Ange Slodtz and Pigalle, he 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 Pope 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 Winckelmann is 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 Catherine the Great, 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 (in which the marks of smallpox in the face were reproduced with striking effect) and Sophie Arnould as Iphigeneia (now in the Wallace Collection, London), 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 remarkable portraits; 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 now in the Louvre. In 1779 his bust of Molière, at the Théâtre Français, won universal praise, and the celebrated draped statue of Voltaire, in the vestibule of the same theatre, 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 the Great. 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 in the Louvre) from insult. Three years later he went to America, there to carry out a statue of George Washington. With Benjamin Franklin, whose bust he had recently executed, Houdon left France in 1785, and, staying some time with Washington at Mount Vernon, he modelled the bust, with which he decided to go back to Paris, there to complete the statue destined for the capitol 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. 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, of whom in 1806 he made a nude statue now at Dijon, 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 (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 Michel Ney, of Josephine and of Napoleon himself, by whom Houdon was rewarded with the legion of honor. He died at Paris on the 16th of July 1828.
University: École Royale de Sculpture
Prix de Rome 1861
French Legion of Honor
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