Houdon and Voltaire


Dear Artist,

I’m laptopping you from beside a life-sized statue of Voltaire by Houdon. It’s in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Variations of the piece exist in other places around the world, so seeing it again is like meeting up with an old friend. Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) was well known for his plasters, marbles and bronzes of the titled and talented. When the popular philosopher of the 18th Century Enlightenment was 84, Houdon managed to get him in for one last sitting. Voltaire soon after died, and Houdon produced this masterwork.

Voltaire, half smiling, appears to be looking at his thoughts — perhaps at the tragicomic failings and follies of humanity. His eyes twinkle with wisdom, wit and intelligent doubt. The upper lids are sliced with mannerist lashes, giving the eyes a disarmingly real, almost wet, look. His toothless mouth appears about to speak. He was, after all, the man who said:

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.
The secret of the arts is to correct nature.
Man is free at the moment he wishes to be.
The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude.
Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.
Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.
Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.

As for Houdon, he too was a man of simplicity, high spirits and openness of mind. A witty conversationalist and raconteur, he’d go anywhere at any time for a mask of life or death. He knew everyone — princes, dukes, kings, queens, philosophers, composers, authors, architects, popes and painters. He even knew the gods, goddesses and saints, and found time to sculpt Jefferson, Washington and Franklin.

The last time I saw this Voltaire, he was all in gold in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I always see simplicity and directness. Houdon was an “easy worker,” light on his feet and casual with his tools. Life affirmation and spontaneity were his religion. A statue of St. Bruno caused Clement XIV to make the well-known remark, “He would even speak, did not the Rule of his Order compel silence.”

Best regards,


PS: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” (François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, 1694-1778)

Esoterica: Houdon was invited to America by Benjamin Franklin to make a portrait sculpture of George Washington. Washington sat for clay and plaster masks at Mount Vernon in 1785. These models served for many commissions, including the standing figure at the Virginia Legislative Building in Richmond. Numerous variations of Washington were produced: as a General in uniform, in the classical manner showing chest musculature, and as Roman Consul Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus wearing a toga. Houdon, too, was a bit of a wag.


Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)


François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire This was Houdon’s last statue of Voltaire. It’s actually a work in plaster, a medium often thought inferior to marble. In Houdon’s hands it is lively and casual.


François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire To ‘understand more,’ Houdon made multiple life masks and busts of many of his subjects, often at differing times and fortunes. Voltaire and Houdon were mutually in admiration of one another.


François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire ‘The real proof is in Houdon’s treatment of eyes: nobody has ever matched him for the ability to create the illusion of the organs of sight, the delicate, watery orbs which convey soul.’ (Sculptor Lawrence Bechtel)











George Washington
The Washington statue in The Virginia State Capitol. This was the likeness that was trusted by so many subsequent painters and illustrators – Leyendecker, Rockwell, etc., as well as the US Postal Service.


George Washington
Some of Houdon’s busts were created directly from life or death masks. Observant and curious, Houdon worked the details to build character. In sculpture, so much is dependent on illusion.




The Reputation of plaster
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA


François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire
by Jean-Antoine Houdon

Taking my grandson last week to the sculpture rooms of the National Gallery of Art I was surprised to see so many plaster works. As you mentioned, not as highly thought of as marble (or bronze?), and maybe I had not looked at all the materials while enjoying the sculpture before. There’s nothing like taking someone new or uninitiated to see things better yourself. I had previously thought that both plaster and terra cotta would eventually disintegrate, but there were many beautiful plaster and terra cotta sculptures that were very old and not falling in to dust. The Houdon sculpture of a Voltaire bust we have at the NGA is marble and on a small black pedestal. He is smiling and with that twinkle in his eye. Most sculptured eyes are flat with a hole for the pupil but Houdon’s show a definite likable personality.



Marquise Du Châtelet and Voltaire
by Sandy Davison, Lansing, MichiganI, USA


“Spirit and Intimacy in Nature”
plein air pastel painting
by Sandy Davison

Voltaire was “supported” financially, and otherwise, by a famous scientist who wrote the first translation of Newton’s Physics into French — one which is still considered worthy and used for reference. The Marquise Du Châtelet was also a mathematician and philosopher who, through great wealth, connections and power, was able to remain removed from most social restrictions. Voltaire considered her to be smarter than he and relied on her through much of his life for financial help as well as insulation against indiscretions both political and personal.


Voltaire asked for ‘more light’
by Anonymous

It was not just Houdon and other enlightened ones of the Enlightenment that Voltaire inspired. He was a major figure in knocking down the ignorance and prejudice that came with the French status quo, both Empire and Republic… Free thought, belief in democratic systems, separation of church and state as well as humanistic idealism worked for the founders of the USA as well. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and George Washington saw in Voltaire the potential for freedom of oppression that would be necessary to build in the new world. On his death bed, Voltaire asked that his curtains be opened. His last words were, “More light, more light.”


A realized intention
by Philip Mix, Victoria, BC, Canada


oil painting, 32 x 40 inches
by Philip Mix

It may be that we are seduced by content, detail perhaps, but surely it is something else. A charcoal drawing by Monet of a woman walking in a long skirt captured it completely. No detail, soft edges, nothing really to say why it works but an almost ghost-like presence of intent radiates from this small insignificant sketch. I saw it thirty-five years ago. I never forgot the experience — it set me on a course of research. Vincent’s boats — I looked for them too when I was in that part of France. Of course, they’re gone, but they weren’t even really there, were they? Not as Vincent saw them. He instilled an intent. Thirty-five years later, I’ve lost the brashness of my youth, I’ve seen my limitations, but every once in awhile a painting soars beyond me with more than its content, beyond, to a beautifully realized intention. If I can see it in someone else’s work, perhaps it awaits within me to communicate it too.


Observational skills connect us with all
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA


“Fall Creek Dam”
acrylic on panel, 8.5 x 32.5 inches
by Tiit Raid

Our educational system does not teach observational skills. It teaches us to identify things and to name them, to spell and write and solve math problems, and to memorize facts. These are all necessary skills of course, and they have their place. But if that is all we teach, we will never learn to make a complete connection with the world around us, and consequently with ourselves.


Knowledge of drawing important
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA

I have taught thousands of art students, grades 6 through 12, how to draw. Drawing is primarily about what one knows. It involves language and vocabulary, axioms and rules. I save the expressive side of art until the second semester of instruction. The foundation of line, shape, form, value, etc., informs the expression of personal visions, and makes these expressions much more communicative.


Confidence, confusion, sunlight and fog
by Bev Alldridge

I am a novice hobbyist painter and am enjoying the learning process immensely and feeling proud as I realize my work is improving. I love the fact that I can see progress and am in awe of what is there to be seen, if we only learn to look with an artist’s eye. I find learning to paint is very much like a walk through patches of sunlight and then into patches of fog, into sunlight and into fog, etc. While I am in the sunlight, I am confident of the skills, I have acquired, but as I begin to learn something new, or react to something I’ve read (like here!), that temporary confusion which can result from change is not unlike wandering into the patch of fog. I have enough experience to accept that I should enjoy my time in the fog as that too is a learning opportunity, and that before long I will emerge into the sunlight again. A lovely journey!


Forming wonders
by Treza Bordinat, Encinitas, CA, USA


by Treza Bordinat

I do find myself rather envious of those who have just made their first bit of something that enchants them! I know that is sometimes our first inkling of the real possibility that something truly spectacular could someday form from our own hands. It seems that when we reach the point where we know we are truly working our way into something really good, we fall silent. We get reclusive. We hug it to ourselves and pray. So why are we like this? Why do we hide it away? Does that new consciousness somehow make us truly focus on our own mortality? Does it finally make us aware of how finite our days are? Do we subconsciously feel that if we ever “get there” that that will be our end? Or does it just make us realize that “later” may already be here? Whatever it is, I think part of the reason we are so utterly certain we have “found our calling” is because the days become far too short to ever accomplish all we would love to create! As perfectionists and optimists, we are so certain that there is always better work coming. As realists and humans, we are always positive there is something we could do better next time. As shown historically, we are known for our work only becoming really valuable after we die. Why? Is that really the only “Later”? How could/ should/ would we learn to enjoy the fruit of our talents right here, right now? I would love to know. It is a simple talent most of us really do not seem to possess!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Houdon and Voltaire



From: Greg Rapier — Jan 18, 2008

I have been trying to get my art to a point where I can do it full time. I’ve tryed painting pet portraits and putting them in a flyer and placing the flyers in my vets office as well as 200 other vets offices. On responce. I have business cards that I hand out hundreds of them. I do automotive art and place ads on race tracts web site. I have sold a few that way and even was commissioned to do oil paintings of the different class champions that were given to them as part of their award. I do oil paintings of hotrods and have set up at cars shows. Everyone flips over my work but no sales. I have started painting oil paintings of classic cars and hope that maybe I can find a market there but not so far. I have done portraits for my co workers and have sold around 20 or so and have some other co workers saying they will have me do one for them. But as most artists know if everyone that said they will have me paint for them did we would have to paint 24/7. I am closing in on 60 years old and would like to get my career as an artist off the ground before I am in the ground. I almost wish I couldn’t paint well. That least then I would know why I can’t get it going. But I know that I can paint very good but that seems not to be what it takes to make it. Why is it someone can take worms dip them in paint and let them loss on a canvas and people can’t buy enough of those paintings. Or let an Elephant paint with it’s trunk and people go crazy over that. I may be wrong but to me thats not art. Maybe people don’t see quality and talant and thought and skill and craftmenship as having value anymore. I am starting to belive that maybe there isn’t room for real art and people value cheap prints and can’t see the value of fine art over and original hand painted oil painting or watercolor. I hope thats not the truth but it sure is looking like that to me. I have a web site with 90 or so pictures of my artwork. Some are from back in the 80s and that go up to some painted this year. Take a look and you tell me. Is my work good or am I wasting my time trying to make it as an artist. I leave it up to you.

From: Margo Buccini — Jan 18, 2008

Thank you for sharing with us the experience of your alma mater. Your talent as an artist was inborn, but that answers the question of your curiosity, enthusiasm and passion for art. Creativity needs to be nurtured and cultivated. Painting is a process, not a destination, and the more one can absorb, digest and utilize, the more exciting and quixotic the journey. Thanks again. Margo Buccini

From: Joy Gush — Jan 18, 2008

I have painted scenes of nature since 1960s. It was of great use to me as a secretary in a large Corporate office in the Seagram Building where I had to have salary check to pay my rent, to hang my paintings in all the offices for the comments about my artwork. When it came time to close the NYC branch, the lawyer who took over our lease bought all my paintings! Wherever I went, offices got more of my paintings on loan. In the 1980s I found a gallery whose owner replaced all the paintings he had with what I brought to him, and they sold well. I know my work was loved. In the last three years, nothing sold — the art market in the US has been in a recession. Whatever I hear a person would love to have in a painting, I paint it, as a gift. If we do not use our talent, we lose it. I thrive on the comments of my work while the recipient loves the painting I have supplied for their home and family’s enjoyment for years to come. Universal Love will pay me when I have a need.

From: Anne McClure — Jan 18, 2008

I’m not sure if you knew a special and wonderful artist friend of mine of over 25 years who was an instructor at Art Center named Donald “Putt” Putman but it is with heavy heart that I tell you he died on Nov. 23rd this past year. He painted with a group of us every Friday, critiqued our work giving valuable bits of knowledge and was a treasure to the art world. He will be sorely missed.

From: David Stewart — Jan 18, 2008

To Greg Rapier, above: Gee, Greg, if you want people to contact you or look at your art, maybe you should include an EMAIL ADDRESS and a WEBSITE URL in your post! If you are this negligent in your marketing efforts as well, it would be small wonder that you are not very successful, even if you are the most talented artist alive! I notice too, that you are all over the place, both in your Rant above and in the subjects of your art – it is unfocused. And learning to spell correctly would lend you some credence as a professional as well. The long and the short of it is this: If you want to change conditions in your life for the better, YOU have to take responsibility for it, not blame your failures on people’s tastes or painting elephants. Keep reading Robert’s letters, and read others as well: I’ve found Alyson Stanfield’s Artbizcoach.com newsletter to be particularly useful.

From: Lily McDougall — Jan 18, 2008

To Greg: I decided to take a look at your web site. I would have to say that, at this point, you are not ready to make it as an artist. You are painting in a realistic style, and yet there is no attention paid to lost and found edges, your knowledge of tonal values is weak, and your approach to your subject matter is ordinary. Not to be unkind, but it is not enough to simply capture a likeness. My advice to you is to take classes or attend workshops with well known artists. Or look at books of paintings by artists you admire and try to figure out why they are successful. We can learn at any age if we are willing to admit that we have a lot to learn.

From: Wes — Jan 18, 2008

Greg, I’m on the same side as Lily here. You’re paintings are good, but they don’t jump off the page. There’s something that you’re missing. Increasing your knowledge of the craft to give you that extra push you need to get your paintings off the ground. On a closing note, maybe you’re doing too much of everything. Focus on what you enjoy doing the most instead of trying to be good at everything. P.S. I enjoyed your automotive paintings.

From: Jan Yeb — Jan 19, 2008

Greg, I don’t know if it’s too late for comments. I feel for you and hope that you don’t lose heart. You obviously enjoy the art world. If I may critique your work…….I like your portraitry best, of all your topics (I include the cars in this category for purposes of this writing). One thing I observed in all of your work is that there is some lack of depth and intrigue. I wondered why I found that to be so and came to the conclusion that it was ‘SHADING’. There are almost no shadows shown anywhere. I think your work would improve dramatically if you played with the light. That’s my 2 cents’ worth. Keep painting for without it guys like you and me (same age as you) might as well roll over and….. Last point, (nothing to do with your artistic abilities): as pointed out by David Stewart, correct your spelling and writing for, rightly or not, your level of professionalism is judged by these too! Bonne Chance, mon ami.

From: Greg Rapier — Jan 19, 2008

Thank you all for your comments. They are valued by me and even though it’s not plesant to hear it is what I have been looking for.Honesty is some times difficult to find. I work for Gallo winery on the swing shift and because I have to commute over 64 miles one way my job uses up 12 hour everyday. Because I’m so tired and worn out at the end of the day I didn’t take the time to write my post that I should of. In rereading my posting I can see why people would think I was ranting. That wasn’t my goal and I apologies for that. Because of the hours I work I can’t get into any art groups and have never had many friends that know and understand art. I very much appreciate everyone taking the time to check out my work and for the criticism and pointers. I have thick skin and can take it. I have six of Quinten Gregory’s videos and a few books by other artist’s. I feel that the comment about not shading enough is a very good point. I think I need to put more contrast in my work. My desire is to become a better artist and to gain the respect of other artist. I hope this time my writing is a little more structured and is void of rants. The only contact I have with the artist’s world is this web site. I feel that I have made a good move to put myself out there and this has been a positive learning experience. Although it’s has been painful it has been good and I have grown because of it.

From: Geri Acosta — Jan 19, 2008

To Anne Mcclure: Thank you for the information about Donald “Putt” Putman’s passing. It has been many years. He was a generous teacher and fine painter. Us artists have a special bond with each other, don’t we!

From: Val Norberry — Jan 19, 2008

I’d appreciate a comment from someone concerning something that I must admit shocked me, shocked my “gut”. (I thought I was past being shocked in that I type ER reports and everything and am privy to more than most). A “student” of mine came back to class to me and showed me what she worked on. It was a try at a replica of a postcard I had done. I tried hard NOT to groan. Oh, I wanted to pull her outside and have her draw from nature, but alas, it is winter in Michigan and she is just starting, I believe, in art, also at over age 60. So I sucked it in and just re-directed her to coloring a picture I had inked in, with WC pencils, and we conversed pleasantly as we both worked. I think where I may be screwing up is I am showing her “how good I am” so as to command some sort of respect. Anyway, I need to be other directed and show her how good she is. She did do a pastel of another color painting and I told her I really liked her interpretation of it. What is easy for me to forget is all the copying I did as a kid and adolescent before I ever got to plein air. Not all my stuff is plein air. I did bring fake flowers, silk, still lifes, but we didn’t get to them. I showed her my mobile WC pencil make-up travel kit and encouraged her to copy that idea. Your comments are appreciated and welcomed.

From: Tatjana M-P — Jan 21, 2008

Val, I wonder if your student is an adult or a child. I believe that artists can teach adult artists, but children require professional teachers who understand the development process and psychology. Otherwise, damage can be done. My 2c.

From: Val Norberry — Jan 29, 2008

Yes, Tatjana: Those ladies are all over 55 years old. They really seem to enjoy discussing real estate and grandchildren (and their diagnoses) more than art. I felt rude interrupting them to give them the lesson several times this past Monday. I showed 2 new gals my portfolio (one of them) at end of class and my student I’ve had 2 times before (3rd time this last time) said “Now we’d like to copy THAT ONE”, as she pointed to a watercolor yellow lily. I told her it was watercolor (we’re exploring WC pencil) and she said that was alright, they’d do it. Guess I’ll make them all Bk and wt light copies to color. Guess I’ll bring a still life also.







The Flying Beetle

automotive art
by Judy Wray, East Brunswick, NJ, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Becky McMahon of Surrey, BC, Canada who wrote, “I’ve always loved the bust of Voltaire; he looks like he would have had a great sense of humour.”

And also Pepper Hume of Spring, TX, USA who wrote, “All forms of art are transactions. The artist puts forth the art object, but ‘art’ doesn’t happen until a viewer responds to it.”

And also Sandra Bos of Cookeville, TN, USA who wrote, “I love to paint the human figure, from real life, and I’ve decided that’s what I love the most, and what makes my heart go ‘boom- boom- boom.'”




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