In the autumn of 1785, the great French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) crossed the Atlantic to take a likeness, along with the necessary measurements, for a life-size marble statue of George Washington commissioned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson, the American minister in Paris, had recommended Houdon to Virginia governor Benjamin Harrison. The Frenchman’s real ambition, however, was to make an equestrian statue of the hero of the American Revolution. This would allow him to vie with Étienne-Maurice Falconet, sculptor of the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great in St. Petersburg (1782), for immortal fame.
During a two-week stay at Mount Vernon, Houdon modelled a bust of Washington and made a life-mask. He and his three assistants returned to Paris with the mask (now in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York) as well as molds of the bust, which remained at Mount Vernon. Houdon’s equestrian ambition went unfulfilled. But his statue of Washington, which was installed in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Richmond in 1796, is a masterpiece of monumental sculpture, richly complemented by the Mount Vernon bust. The various Houdon portrait busts of Washington, not to mention the head on the statue, all derive from this bust and the life-mask.
The bust presented here displays the features of high quality casting characteristic of one of the most prestigious mid-nineteenth century Paris bronze foundries. Starting in partnership in 1838 Ferdinand Barbedienne (1810-1892) profitably utilized a process invented by his business partner Achille Collas of accurately downsizing monumental sculptures to more manageable sizes by mechanic reduction. The first cast using ‘reduction mecanique’ was of the Venus de Milo. Other classical and celebrated subjects followed and as a testament to the assured quality of their output, living artists, such as Rude, Barye, and Mene were having their work cast by the partnership from 1843.
Washington was a statesman, soldier, and surveyor. He was also the Commander-in-chief the Army from June 1775 to December 1783 then again from July 1798 to December 1798. He was elected the first President of the United States and served in that role from April 1789 until March 1797.
Houdon worked in the Neoclassical style and is considered to be the most famous sculptor of the latter half of the 18th century in France. Famous for his busts and portrait statues of inventors, philosophers, and political figures of the Enlightenment, he also created sculptures of other famous Americans, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson