National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Voltaire Jean-Antoine Houdon (artist)
French, 1741 - 1828
Voltaire, 1778
overall: 36.5 x 21.3 x 21.3 cm (14 3/8 x 8 3/8 x 8 3/8 in.)
Chester Dale Collection
On View
From the Tour: 18th-Century France — Chardin and Portraiture
Object 11 of 11

When Voltaire (1694-1778) returned to Paris in February 1778 from decades of exile in Switzerland, he was met with tumultuous welcome in the streets of Paris. Crowds pulled his carriage and surrounded his house, clamoring for a glimpse of this skeptical philosophe, who was a playwright, novelist, historian, satirist, champion of the oppressed—and the century's greatest wit. He was eighty-four years old, and the exertion killed him before the end of May.

During those few months Voltaire sat several times for Houdon, who portrayed him in busts and as a seated figure, in classical drapery and contemporary dress. Voltaire became Houdon's most popular subject and one of his most compelling characterizations. This version, which is the simplest, seems also the closest to life. Its realism—sagging skin and bald head—has the austere truth of portrait busts from republican Rome. This conception was probably the basis for other interpretations. Voltaire's expression seems to change as the light, or our point of view, shifts. By turns he is wise or sarcastic, understanding or impatient, engaged or introspective. But always, his features, especially his eyes, are animated by intelligence and wit. Houdon developed an effective way to capture the depth and glint of an eye in stone. Within the hollow iris, spokes radiate from a deeply drilled pupil, and just under the lid, Houdon left a tiny peg of stone to suggest the reflection of light.

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