French Neoclassical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was one of the best portrait sculptors of all time. Houdon was born in Versailles in 1741, the son of the concierge of the Royal Academy. At the age of twelve he enrolled in the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture where he was a student of sculptor Michel-Ange Slodtz. He won a Grand Prix de Rome, a scholarship provided by the King of France for art students to study at the Académie de France in Rome. Houdon remained in Italy for ten years, and completed a statue of St. Bruno for the church of St. Maria degli Angeli. The artist returned to Paris and submitted the sculpture Morpheus to the French Salon in 1771. That same year, Houdon was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1778, he became a Professor at the Academy. During the French Revolution, he was censored because of his association with Louis XVI—whose portrait he sculpted, and for whose gardens at Versailles he created numerous statues–but he was not imprisoned. During the Consulate (1799-1804), and the Empire (1804-1814), when Napoléon Bonaparte took power, Houdon regained his former status. He executed portrait busts of Napoleon and his wife Josephine, and was awarded the Légion d’honneur. He also produced busts of the writer La Fontaine, the playwright Molière, the composer Gluck, philosophers such as Diderot and Voltaire, as well as many performers from the Parisian stage. Jean-Jacques Rousseau refused to sit for the artist; yet when Rousseau died, Houdon was chosen to make the death mask, which served as the source for a bust of the author. Houdon’s special mastery was in the modeling of lips and eyes. He was the first sculptor in the history of art to discover how to render the way eyes capture the light.
Houdon lent his artistry to the cause of the American experiment in self-government. In 1785, at the invitation of Benjamin Franklin, then America’s Minister to France, Houdon traveled to Virginia, where he spent several weeks at Mount Vernon to model George Washington, four years prior to his election as President of the United States. Houdon made wet-clay life models and a plaster life mask, which later were used, not only by Houdon, but for many other sculptures of Washington. Among these are the standing figure in the state capitol building in Richmond commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly; a statue in the Vermont State House depicting him in a toga as the Roman Consul Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, and various versions of portrait busts. Houdon completed portraits of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as well. Jefferson was serving as American Minister to France when he sat for Houdon. The resulting marble was the source of the presidential portrait on the 1801 Indian Peace Medal, for the Jefferson dollar minted in 1903, and for the nickel first issued in 1938 and still in circulation today. Houdon died in Paris in 1828, and is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery.