Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828)
Life Mask of George Washington, 1785
H. 12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm)
The Morgan Library & Museum, New York
The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
In 1784, through the intercession of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who were in Paris, the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon was commissioned to carve a full-length marble statue of George Washington for the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. Houdon traveled to America, and stayed for a fortnight at Mount Vernon, in October 1785. While there, he created a terracotta bust of Washington and executed a life mask of him. Years later, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eleanor Parke “Nelly” Custis Lewis, recalled this scene from her childhood:
[I] found the General extended on his back on a large table, a sheet over him, except his face, on which Houdon was engaged in putting on plaster to form the cast. Quills were in the nostrils. I was very much alarmed until I was told it was a bust, a likeness of the General, & would not injure him.
Houdon traveled back to Paris with the life mask, possibly this exemplar, to use for his marble sculpture, which was completed in 1792 and unveiled in Richmond in 1796.