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Houdon's Great Men

Houdon Gallery View
Rotunda gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1928, showing installation of inaugural Houdon exhibition. Photo by Lynn Rosenthal.

The exhibition begins in the Museum’s beautiful rotunda gallery, conceived as a space for the display of sculpture, which was inaugurated in 1928 with an exhibition of Houdon's portraits of American patriots—with Franklin prominent among them.

Today, Houdon's bust of Franklin is joined by his portrayals of the Enlightenment thinkers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire and his retrospective portrait of the seventeenth-century poet Molière, all completed in the period 1778–79. The enthusiastic reception given these portraits when exhibited with the Franklin at the French Royal Academy’s Salon of 1779 confirmed the sculptor’s reputation.

The variety of approaches employed by Houdon in realizing these portraits demonstrate the artist’s ability to synthesize different sources in creating vital, naturalistic renderings that capture the inner lives of those portrayed. He worked from sittings and measurements for Voltaire, a death mask for Rousseau, and prints or paintings for Molière.

Detail of Bust of Moliere,
Detail of Bust of Molière, 1778
Jean-Antoine Houdon.
Plaster with terracotta color. Princeton University Library, New Jersey: Rare Books and Special Collections.
Gift of Miss Caroline Morgan, in memory of her brother, Junius Spencer Morgan, Class of 1888.

A letter sent by Houdon in 1783, which is included in this exhibition, suggests he had not formally met Franklin until five years after the portrait was completed, indicating that it was realized without formal posing sessions. The sculptor must have created the portrait from close observation of Franklin at meetings of the Masonic lodge to which they both belonged. The three finest versions of the sculptor's brilliant characterization of Franklin are presented in the center of this gallery, allowing visitors to make a fascinating comparison. Created at the height of his powers as an artist, Houdon's renderings of these great men hold a prominent place in our imagination; their success in bringing to life these figures embodies the genius of both the sculptor and his subjects.