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Work Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, known as; 1694-1778), writer

Department of Sculptures: France, 17th and 18th centuries

Voltaire (1694-1778)

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
France, 17th and 18th centuries

Author(s):
Montalbetti Valérie

"One of the finest attributes of the very difficult art of statuary is to preserve shapes accurately and render nearly imperishable the image of the men who have brought their country glory or happiness." Houdon's definition applies perfectly to his portrait of Voltaire, who was a veritable icon of the Enlightenment. He reproduced it many times, but Voltaire never lost his sardonic smile or the twinkle in his eye.

Voltaire and Houdon

Voltaire symbolizes the spirit of the Enlightenment par excellence. These days he is known as a philosopher and a champion of tolerance, but he was also a famous playwright, poet, and historian. After twenty years in exile in Ferney (Switzerland), he returned to Paris in February 1778, at the age of eighty-three and in poor health, and was given a triumphal welcome. When he attended a performance of his play Irene at the Comédie-Française, his statue was crowned with laurels and the patriarch was given a standing ovation. Houdon, who had not met him before, managed several sittings before Voltaire died on 30 May 1778. Of the many busts made of Voltaire, only the bare-headed one by Houdon wholly pleased the great man. Houdon also molded Voltaire's funerary mask.
He used all this material to produce several types of bust, two of which are represented in the Louvre, and reproduced them in various media (marble, bronze, terracotta, plaster).

Voltaire in a Wig

This bust shows the philosopher in contemporary clothing and wearing a wig, which is incidentally rather outmoded. It portrays a man rooted in his times, prepared to fight for his ideas, such as the rehabilitation of the unjustly condemned Protestant Calas. Houdon tried to capture Voltaire's physical appearance and psychological presence, but did not seek to idealize him. He made no attempt to mask the signs of age: the rings under his eyes, the wrinkles and deep folds on his cheeks, the impression of withered skin . . . But the portrait radiates with intelligence and mischief: the eyes twinkling under the bulging brow and the compressed lips suggest ironic wit. The Louvre's marble bust comes from the sale after the sculptor's death in 1828. In another version, Voltaire's jacket is swathed in draperies (Comédie-Française).

Voltaire Bare-headed

Another type of bust uses the iconography initiated for Diderot. Bare-headed, with neither jacket nor drapery, with the torso cut off, he is shown in the manner of the ancient philosophers, giving an impression of timelessness. The old man's fragility is more apparent. The wrinkles on his face are deeper. There are no clothes to hide the stringy tendons in his neck. His bald head suggests a skull. But his eyes and lips have lost none of their vivacity: behind the domed forehead, the philosopher's mind is just as sharp. The bust in the Louvre, a gift from Countess Biver, is of outstanding quality which proves it was executed by Houdon himself. The marble has been worked with great delicacy, particularly noticeable in the rendering of a few wisps of hair on his temples. The Louvre also has a lost-wax bronze cast of the same type of bust.
A third type of bust, with the philosopher's scarf wrapped around his head, is derived from the seated statue of Voltaire sculpted for the Comédie Française (in situ). On the pedestal there are two low-relief masks symbolizing tragedy and comedy.
Although Voltaire was represented by the greatest artists, painters or sculptors, Houdon's portrait dominates as the quintessential image not only of the writer but of the philosophic spirit of the 18th century.

Bibliography

Réau Louis, Houdon, sa vie et son oeuvre, Paris, 1964, I, p. 355-360.
Arnason H. H., The Sculptures of Houdon, Londres, 1975, p. 49-53.
Benoît Jérémie, "Voltaire de Jean-Antoine Houdon", in Nouvelles acquisitions du département des sculptures (1980-1983), musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1984, p. 68-69.
Jean-Antoine Houdon, Sculpteur des Lumières, Washington, Los Angeles, Versailles, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 2004, p. 152-172.

Technical description

  • Jean-Antoine HOUDON (Versailles, 1741 - Paris, 1828)

    Voltaire (1694-1778)

    1778

  • Marble

    H. 0.48 m; W. 0.44 m; D. 0.35 m

  • Entered the Louvre in 1906

    R.F. 1426

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Galerie des "Grands Hommes"
    Room 29

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