The Influence of Jean-Antoine Houdon: The Sculptor of Founding Fathers
When researching American coinage, the name Jean-Antoine Houdon appears several times as inspiration for the designs featured on the Jefferson Nickel, Franklin Half Dollar, and the Washington Quarter. But who was Houdon and why was he so influential among Founding Fathers?
Born in 1741 in Versailles, Jean-Antoine Houdon would go on to become one of the great neo-classical artists of his time. By 11 years old he was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and won the Prix de Rome art scholarship by the time he was 20. His works included busts of famous French authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moliere, and Voltaire.
While a member of a Masonic lodge, Houdon met several American revolutionaries including Benjamin Franklin. In that time, around 1778, Houdon produced his bust of Benjamin Franklin. Unlike other men at the time, Franklin wore a simple suit and did not powder his hair. These elements fascinated Houdon and other artists, leading to many sculptures and paintings of Frankling during his time in France. But it was Houdon’s keen eye that drew many admirers.
After George Washington’s presidency ended, the Governor of Virginia wished to commission a full statue of the first American president to display at the Virginia State Capitol. Houdon was selected after his stunning work on busts of both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. In 1785, Houdon traveled from France to Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, to make a life mask of his subject. The artist followed Washington about his grounds, making sketches and smaller models to work from. When he left Mount Vernon, Houdon gifted a clay version of the final bust to Washington, which he kept in his office until he passed. Family members recounted that Houdon’s bust of Washington was the most accurate depiction of him.
At George Washington’s behest, Houdon was to depict him in modern garb. This element made Washington stand out among Houdon’s works, so much so that when Washington was to be added to American coinage, the design contest specifically stated that the obverse must “bear a head of Washington based on the Houdon bust at Mount Vernon.”
While it was John Flanagan’s design that was chosen, he made several artistic choices, such as including a powdered wig with ponytail. The new obverse design that graces the 2022 quarter comes from Laura Gardin Fraser, who also based her design off of Houdon’s bust at Mount Vernon.
Even though he did not participate in the design process of American coinage, Jean-Antoine Houdon should be known for his influence in numismatics even to this day. Rare Collectibles TV offers stunning examples of the Washington Quarter, Franklin Half Dollar, and Jefferson Nickel from their inception up to modern day examples.