November 04, 2003

Houdon and the Enlightenment



Jean-Antoine Houdon is considered the greatest portrait sculptor of the Enlightenment. Spanning much of the 18th century, the Enlightenment embodied a euphoric sense of unstoppable progress and the rational and scientific approach to social, cultural, political, and economic issues. Also called the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment was a period of intense intellectual exchange that marked the emergence of the modern world.

In Paris, Enlightenment ideas gained popularity in the city’s cosmopolitan salons and soon spread. Grounded in the scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th century, including the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the Enlightenment embraced reason as the avenue to truth. Scholars enthusiastically studied and wrote about the world around them, leading to a flowering of new ideas and a burst of inventions, among them the steam engine and the hot-air balloon.

This explosion of interest in the sciences led to major publications that codified the vast knowledge accumulated, the most famous being the multi-volume Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot. Philosophers, including Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, explored issues of morality, education, religious tolerance, and freedom of speech. Their thinking contributed to the enormous social, political, and judicial reforms brought about at the time of the French Revolution. In the United States, the period coincided with the emergence of a new country and constitution, inspired by Enlightenment proponents such as George Washington, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.

The Enlightenment’s interest in the individual was the backdrop for Houdon’s work. His scientific study of anatomy, his use of life and death masks to create accurate likenesses, and his emphasis on capturing not only the physical appearance of his sitters but also the essence of their character all reflected the spirit of the Enlightenment. As part of the goal to educate and transform rulers into enlightened monarchs, French intellectuals of the Enlightenment actively promoted Houdon’s progressive work at foreign courts. Catherine II of Russia and Frederick II of Prussia, for example, both acquired busts of Voltaire.

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Thea M. Page
Getty Communications Dept.

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