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.