The portraits of Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1741–1828), capture the character of the men and women who defined the Enlightenment, a period of revolutionary political and social change in France and America. The Enlightenment challenged traditional beliefs about the world and led to extraordinary efforts to transform it. Houdon's genius lay in his ability to evoke these new ideas in three-dimensional media. His startlingly lifelike portraits of leading figures of the day—including Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Louis XVI, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Napoleon—vividly recall the Enlightenment.
Born in Versailles in 1741, Houdon was educated in Paris and Rome under French royal sponsorship. His classical training included studies in ancient art and anatomy, in which he showed an unusual interest and talent. Houdon established his reputation with portrait busts that were lauded for their beauty and technical sophistication. During the tumultuous years leading up to the French Revolution, Houdon executed some of his finest, most compelling work. Although formal portraiture was his mainstay, Houdon was also recognized for the innovation, intimacy, and naturalism of his busts of children, and his sensual mythological and allegorical figures.