Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778) returned from exile in Switzerland to Paris in February 1778. A clamorous welcome awaited the eighty-four-year-old genius, admired by his contemporaries as a playwright, historian, poet, novelist, political and social commentator, and eloquent champion of human rights against oppression and intolerance. This portrait is one result of the encounter, on that last visit to Paris, between a brilliant intellectual and an artist of exalted stature. Voltaire sat for Houdon several times before the exertion and excitement of his journey took their toll; he died on 30 May 1778.
In a few sittings, Houdon grasped the expression that captivated contemporaries. The weary face, with its sagging neck and toothless mouth, nevertheless radiates intense mental and spiritual vitality. Penetrating observation, mocking humor, and sorrow show in the lined eyes, lifted brows, and compressed smile. Voltaire's face epitomizes the quality so often implied in eighteenth-century portraiture -- quick, biting wit.
Voltaire proved Houdon's most popular subject, both for his own sake and for the artist's satisfying characterization. Houdon produced famous seated statues of the writer (today at the Comédie Française, Paris, and the Hermitage, St. Petersburg), and from his studio came dozens of busts.
on truncations, proper right: HOUDON. 1778.
Madame Denis de Dompierre, niece of the artist, Château d'Hornoy, near Amiens; by descent in her family; by inheritance to Madame Léonie de Dompierre d'Hornoy-de Glos, Château d'Hornoy; (Jonce I. McGurk, New York); Percy A. Rockefeller, New York; (his estate sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 20 November 1947, no. 25); Chester Dale [1883-1962], New York; bequest 1963 to NGA.
- The Chester Dale Bequest, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1965, unnumbered checklist.
- Nineteenth-Century Sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1974, unnumbered checklist.
- Réau, Louis. Houdon: Sa vie et son oeuvre. Paris, 1964: 44, no. 202, repro.
- Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Paintings & Sculpture of the French School in the Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 144, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 159.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 140, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 303, repro.
- Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1994: 110, repro.
- Norman Herz, Katherine A. Holbrow and Shelley G. Sturman. "Marble Sculture in the National Gallery of Art: a Provenance Study." In Max Schvoerer, ed. Archéomatériaux: marbres et autres roches: ASMOSIA IV, Bordeaux, France 9-13 october 1995: actes de la IVème Conférence international de l’Association pour l’étude des marbres et autres roches utilizes dans le passé. Talence, 1999: 101-110.
- Scherf, Guilhem. Houdon 1741-1828: Statues, portraits, sculptés... Paris, 2006: 70, 75.