Houdon’s father worked as a servant at the Ecole Royale des Elèves protégés – the school were artists trained before going to Rome to study at the royal academy – so he was exposed to art since a very young age. Having won the Prix de Rome in 1761, he was in Italy in 1764–1768.
In Rome he studied anatomy on dissected bodies, a practice that had been almost completely abandoned since the times of Michelangelo. His scientific approach and great knowledge of human anatomy helped his reputation among the great minds of the enlightenment like Diderot and Voltaire who would become his sitters and supporters, and greatly enhanced his skills as a portrait artist.
The influence of his roman sojourn can also be felt in the classicising vein that characterises Houdon’s approach to sculpture, both in the measured restraint of his forms and in the choice of themes inspired by antiquity.
As well as for private patrons, Houdon worked for the court: portraits of two of the Louis XV’s daughters, Mme Victoire (S25) and Mme Adelaïde, were commissioned in 1777.
Houdon was extremely prolific and produced multiple copies of his most successful models, often in other materials or with variants to satisfy an ever-increasing demand. Thanks to this market-oriented approach, by the end of the eighteenth century he was the most popular sculptor not only in France, but all over Europe, Russia and the United States.