Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828), pupil to Slodtz, winner of the Rome Prize (prix de Rome) in 1761 had a long career rich in political and aesthetic transformations. He was the portraitist of the great men of his day (Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin) rather than of court personalities. His Belisarius, sent to the Academy of Toulouse, dates from 1773. It is one of the first representations of a theme favoured later by the neoclassical artists.
Belisarius describes the fate of an old Byzantine general, covered in glory, who was then blinded on the orders of the emperor Justinian (subject drawn from a philosophical novel by Marmontel published in 1767). Forgotten by all, faced with the arbitrary nature of power, he was obliged to become a beggar to survive. The comparison with Peyron’s masterpiece exhibited in the same room is instructive. Without seeking any picturesque effect, Houdon summons a realistic portrait of an old blind man with an expression of nobility and suffering of great dignity.