Houdon's career coincided with an extremely turbulent period in French and American history, spanning two revolutions, the Directoire, and the empire under Napoleon. His images of the key figures of the time provide fascinating insights into history as well as the history of portraiture.
Born at Versailles in 1741, Houdon received the best academic education available to a young sculptor and won the Prix de Rome in 1761. While in Italy he showed an unusual interest in anatomical studies, creating his famous figure of L'Ecorché, or flayed man, during his stay at the Académie de France. Although trained to work for the French court, Houdon became the preferred sculptor of leaders of the Enlightenment, especially Frédéric Melchior Grimm (1728-1807) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784). Through them he received commissions from foreign patrons. He traveled to the German court of Saxe-Gotha twice in the early 1770s and later worked for the court of Catherine II of Russia.
It was, however, with his famous bust of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) (1771), exhibited at the Salon of 1771, that Houdon's career as a portrait sculptor was launched. He was to portray most of the great intellectual, military, and political figures of the Enlightenment in France and in the United States. He was to revolutionize portraiture, rendering his sitters with a remarkable degree of physical accuracy (often using either life or death masks) and with extraordinary psychological insight. Houdon's real genius lay in his capacity to show the individual as a whole.