Today on Museum Quick Bites we’re celebrating Presidents’ Day with an up close and personal look at Jean-Antoine Houdon’s terracotta bust of George Washington. Sculpted in the late 1780s, Houdon portrays a pensive, post-Revolutionary War Washington. Houdon’s goal was to depict Washington as a noble, Roman statesman, hence the toga he added to the sculpture. But for a man who eschewed pomp and displays of ego, who would go on to insist on serving only two terms in office, Washington balked at these lofty portrayals.
George Washington (late 1780s) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Detroit Institute of Arts (on loan from Le Musée du Louvre), Photo by cjverb (2020)
Despite Washington’s displeasure, Houdon’s sculpture received high praise. Notice the details Houdon has incorporated into his work, Washington’s coarse, swept-back hair, steely gaze, and somber expression. He strikes me as unfussy, determined, brooding, and no doubt weary after the grueling war.
Close ups of George Washington (late 1780s) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Detroit Institute of Arts (on loan from Le Musée du Louvre), Photos by cjverb (2020)
Fun Founder Fact #1: George Washington (1723-1799) took the oath of office as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789 on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. He served two terms and retired to Mount Vernon in 1797. He died unexpectedly of a throat infection two years later at the age of 67. Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays (Feb. 22nd and 12th respectively) were the inspiration for Presidents’ Day, which is celebrated annually on the third Monday in February.
Inauguration of George Washington (1789), image from Makers of the World’s History and Their Grand Achievements, Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) was born in Versailles, France under the reign of King Louis XV (1710-1774). His father worked as a servant to a high ranking government official. When Houdon was a year old, his family moved to Paris and his father took a position as the concierge at the École des Élèves Protégés, an elite prep school. As a child, Houdon roamed the halls, snuck into classrooms, and stole clay so he could mimic the students’ artwork. Houdon was officially enrolled in the school at age 15, and within five years won the prestigious Prix de Rome. His grand prize was a scholarship to study art at the Académie de France in Rome.
Left: L’Ecorché (Flayed Man; 1767) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Photo by Adoc, Wikimedia Commons
Right: Jean-Antoine Houdon (1808) by Rembrandt Peale, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Wikimedia Commons
In 1768, at age 27, Houdon returned to Paris and set up shop. His reputation as a master sculptor quickly grew and soon a who’s who of Europe’s aristocracy began banging on his door and demanding portrait busts. A little more than a decade later, Houdon was approached by the new American Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to create a portrait statue of George Washington. Houdon agreed and in 1785 sailed to the new country with the outgoing American Minister, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).
Left: Benjamin Franklin (late 1778) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Detroit Institute of Arts (on loan from Le Musée du Louvre), Photo by cjverb (2020)
Right: Portrait of Voltaire, Seated (1781) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, LA County Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons
The two men bid adieu in Philadelphia and Houdon made the trek south to George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. He arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night with luggage, three assistants, and a cache of art supplies in tow. The famed sculptor then proceeded to shadow Washington, taking meticulous measurements and persuading his host to endure the application of a plaster life mask. Having ingratiated himself into the household, Houdon even attended the wedding of Washington’s niece. After two weeks Houdon packed up his gear and precious life mask and departed, gifting his host with a clay portrait bust.
Right: George Washington (late 1780s) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Virginia State Capital, Photo by Albert Herring, Wikimedia Commons
Center: George Washington (late 1780s) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, National Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons
Left: George Washington (late 1780s) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Le Musée du Louvre, Photo by Daderot
Houdon returned to Paris and went to work sculpting several portrait busts and a full-size statue of Washington dressed in his military uniform and standing before his plow. Washington insisted on this more realistic, non-toga version which highlights his two professions, (i.e., farmer and military leader). Houdon’s meticulous prep work paid off. His renditions of George Washington are considered the most accurate portrayal of the founder. However, it was more than that for Houdon, he wanted his work to not only accurately resemble his subjects, but to also convey their personality.
Within a year of his return to Paris, Houdon married Marie-Ange Cecile Langlois (1765-1823) and the couple eventually had three daughters. In 1789, the French Revolution (1789-1799) broke out and Houdon was careful to distance himself from his aristocratic patrons. He began teaching and sculpting heroes of the revolution, including Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821). In 1828, Houdon died at the age of 87. He is buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. If you’d like to view more of his magnificent work, click on this Jean-Antoine Houdon link, courtesy of The Art Story.
Fun Founder Fact #2: Houdon’s life mask of Washington, is on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Click on this George Washington Life Mask link to learn more about the painstaking process of creating a life mask. *Spoiler alert* Straws were inserted up Washington’s nose so he could breathe while the plaster dried.
George Washington Life Mask (1785) by Jean-Antoine Houdon, Morgan Library & Museum, Photo by Mike Peel, Wikimedia Commons
That wraps up our celebration of Presidents’ Day. I’ll be back next week with more Museum Quick Bites. Until then be safe, be kind, and take care! 🙂
Cover photo by Tumisu, courtesy of Pixabay.
Britannica: Jean-Antoine Houdon
Detroit Institute of Arts: Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Portraits of Americans in the Age of Enlightenment
Khan Academy: Houdon & Washington
Metropolitan Museum of Art: Jean-Antoine Houdon
Mount Vernon: Jean-Antoine Houdon
National Gallery of Art: George Washington (1786-1793)
TheArtStory: Jean-Antoine Houdon
The Morgan Library & Museum: George Washington Life Mask
The White House: George Washington