Born in Versailles, Houdon won the Prix de Rome in 1761 but was not greatly influenced by ancient and Renaissance art in Rome. His stay in the city is marked by two characteristic and important productions: the superb écorché  (1767), an anatomical model which has served as a guide to all artists since his day, and the statue of Saint Bruno in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome. After ten years stay in Italy, Houdon returned to Paris. Houdon became a member of the Académie de peinture et de sculpture in 1771, and a professor in 1778.
Houdon's portrait sculpture of Washington was the result of a specific invitation by Benjamin Franklin to cross the Atlantic specifically to visit Mount Vernon, so that Washington could model for him. Washington sat for wet clay life models and a plaster life mask in 1785. These models served for many commissions of Washington, including the standing figure commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly, for the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. Numerous variations of the Washington bust were produced, portraying him variously as a general in uniform, in the classical manner showing chest musculature, and as Roman Consul Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus clad in a toga. A cast of the latter is located in the Vermont State House.