Height 45 cm
Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.
The bust acquired by the Liebieghaus with financial aid from the Kulturstiftung der Länder, the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung and the Städelscher Museums-Verein e. V. depicts the great philosopher, writer, educator and natural scientist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Executed in 1780 by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) the sculpture is one of the most important portraits of Rousseau. The French scholar and writer is considered the key intellectual harbinger of the French Revolution and had a major influence on education and political theory of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Executed at the peak of Houdon’s career, the Rousseau bust is convincing above all by virtue of its remarkable vibrancy and verisimilitude. It shows the famous philosopher in the antique-style herm form quite popular at the time. He is wrapped in a toga and wears a headband Houdon referred to as the “ribbon of immortality” in his hair. The high quality of the Liebieghaus acquisition is manifest in the artist’s shrewd penetration of his sitter’s physiognomy but also in his masterful treatment of the surface. No other sculptor of Houdon’s time knew how to capture their model’s facial features and character as well.
Jean-Antoine Houdon is one of the most important French artists of the eighteenth century. As an exemplary sculptor of the Enlightenment and the most successful portrait sculptor of his day, he eternalized untitled patrons, French and American proponents of the Enlightenment, but also rulers, for example Catherine II, Louis XVI and Napoleon I, as well as courtiers such as Madame Adélaïde or Prince Henry of Prussia. Houdon had often expressed his desire to portray Rousseau. The two never met – the well-known philosopher and writer refused to sit for a portrait.
Rousseau died on 2 July 1778 at Ermenonville, the manor of Marquis René-Louis de Girardin near Paris. That very night, the marquis sent an express letter to Houdon asking him to come to Ermenonville and make a mask of the dead man’s face so as to preserve his features for posterity. With the aid of the death mask, but undoubtedly also on the basis of already existing portraits, Houdon succeeded in creating a true-to-life likeness of the famous philosopher.