François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), known as Voltaire, is one of the greatest figures of French literature. He was expected to pursue a legal career but was more interested in writing and quickly made a name for himself in intellectual circles.
He was chiefly known as a satirist and, as a critic of the Church and State, was imprisoned in the Bastille several times. He fled to England in 1726-9 and after his return to France, he continued to direct his energies against the authorities. His output took many forms including poetry, drama, philosophy and fiction.
The French sculptor, Houdon was a child prodigy, entering the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris at the age of eleven. After a period in Italy, where he sculpted many religious statues, he began to specialise in portraiture and his sitters included Denis Diderot, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and George Washington. The work he produced during this period reveals him as perhaps the greatest portrait sculptor of the period.
In 1778, Houdon made a quick informal sketch of Voltaire which was the basis for a life-size marble sculpture, presented to the Comédie Française. This copy of the original work was produced by the Ferdinand Barbedienne Foundry.