This impressive bust is after Houdon's celebrated marble dated 1790 and now in the collections at Versailles. It is one of the sculptor's grandest representations of the ancien régime. However, like the busts of two of Louis XVI's aunts, the 'Filles de France,' Mme Adélaïde and Mme Victoire, it shows that Houdon, no matter how elevated the status of the sitter, portrayed with sometimes devastating accuracy, both the humanity and flaws of his subjects. Louis XVI was thirty-three years old when the 1787 bust was sculpted by Houdon. 'To get an idea of his personality,' his brother the comte d'Artois said, 'imagine lubricated balls of ivory that you struggle in vain to keep together.'
In 1778, members of the stock exchange had written to the comte d'Angivillier, the Minister of Arts under Louis XVI, to request the marble for the bust of the king they would commission from Houdon. However, years passed with no progress. And in a letter of 15 November 1784, Houdon reminded d'Angivillier of the audience he had requested with the King and wrote that he had received a visit from the King's personal valet, M. Thierry 'whom I had not had the honor of knowing and to whom I replied, when he asked me if I had already done the bust of His Majesty, that I was hired three years ago to do it for an orgnization and was still waiting to be provided with the opportunity to see the King' (see L. Réau, Houdon: sa vie et son oeuvre, Paris, 1964, vol. I, p. 73).
It was eventually finished and unveiled at the Salon of 1787. As Réau notes, it was the plaster version which was first exhibited at the 1787 Salon and that the marble version was only unveiled at the Bourse in 1789. C. Vandalle notes that the marble version is the bust that was exhibited at the Salon of 1787 (see Jean-Antoine Houdon: Sculptor of the Enlightenment, exh. cat. Chicago, 2003, p. 279). Two other confirmed replicas in marble were made of this bust. Houdon provided one for the Hôtel de Ville, Paris in 1790 and the Hôtel de Ville, Strasbourg, in 1791 (see L. Réau, Houdon: sa vie et son oeuvre, Paris, 1964, p. 303-305). Both were destroyed, one in 1792 and the other during the bombardment of Strasbourg during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Political events immediately after 1790 eliminated any further demands for additional copies.
As C. Vandalle notes, there were plaster casts of the Versailles bust done in the Louvre workshops in 1889 and listed in a sales catalogue beginning in 1893 (op cit., p. 282). A copy was shown at the Musée de sculpture comparée, palais du Trocadéro (see F. Rionnet, L'Atelier de moulage du musée du Louvre (1794-1928), Paris, 1996, p. 267 no. 1125). With the return of the Bourbons to power, it is possible the current plaster version was produced from Houdon's workshop before the artist's death in 1828, however, it is difficult to determine when exactly during the 19th century this present version was cast.