Monday, 14 September 2015

The "Triumph of Voltaire"

Even the reverential guide who showed us round at Ferney had to admit that Voltaire was no connoisseur of painting!  Most of the pictures in the chateau are mediocre reproductions of 17th-century mythological scenes which no-one could work up the motivation to pillage or sell.  Among the few originals is this monstrosity which nicely illustrates both Voltaire's lack of artistic discernment and his penchant for naive self-advertisement.  It is huge and truly horrible.....

The picture is the work of one Alexandre Duplessis, an otherwise little known artist. He came from Bourg-en-Bresse and later worked in Lyon where he died in 1797. In July 1775 Voltaire commended his work to François Tronchin in glowing terms, describing him as "formed by Rubens".  He confirmed that the painter wanted to paint for him a canvas with "ninety-one figures". A payment to Duplessis of 60 livres duly appears in the chateau account book for 25th January 1776.

Madame de Genlis recounts in her Memoirs that in the summer of 1775 she paid a visit to Ferney accompanied by the German painter Joseph-Mathias Ott.  Ott was scandalised to find an original Correggio relegated to an antechamber whilst this picture - a ridiculous enseigne à bière said Madame de Genlis - enjoyed pride of place in Voltaire's salon. The picture was "entirely the invention" of a talentless local painter from Geneva who had presented it to Voltaire; but how, Madame de Genlis wondered, could Voltaire have had the bad taste to display it so pompously for all to see?

Evidently Voltaire's sense of the ridiculous was beginning to desert him in old age!
Unfortunately, the composition was given greater currency by the appearance of an engraved version.  This proclaimed proudly that it was "Invented, drawn and engraved by Duplessis, painter and engraver of History, after an original he painted  himself in the cabinet of M. de Voltaire".  The rubric lovingly explains the details of the scene:

First, Voltaire's achievement as a playwright is lauded. Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, surrounded by the other Muses, presents Voltaire to Apollo to receive the Crown of Immortality. Behind her Urania, the Muse of Astronomy instructs Clio, Muse of History, to place his bust in the temple of Memory.  Clio shows the genies (presumably the little fat cherubs) the empty space in the Colonnade where it is to go; they hurry to place the bust there and to adorn it with garlands.  The leading cherub points out the place,  between the Ancient dramatists Sophocles and Euripides on the one hand and the great Moderns Racine and Corneille on the other.

Other parts of the tableau commemorate Voltaire's contribution to the cause of toleration. To the right of Apollo a personification of France presents Voltaire to his protégés whilst Russia and Prussia look on encouragingly.  Among the group can be recognised Mlle Corneille, the Calas family, plus Sirven and his wife. Above them the chariot of Apollo arrives, preceded by Aurore scattering roses. In the foreground Tolerance, a woman dressed in white to symbolise benevolence, holds a Caduceus or staff, emblem of Peace.  A young girl and several little children, one of whom has a wounded hand, clutch her skirts for fear of the ugly red monster behind them.  Holding a book and equipped with Mask, Dagger and Torch, this is clearly l'Infame - Fanaticism, Hypocrisy, Intolerance, Persecution - temporarily laid low.  The spirit of Philosophy lends a restraining hand, whilst the light of her torch sends Ignorance and Stupidity, with his ass's ears, scurrying for cover.

Voltaire disliked criticism. In the bottom right the three Furies lay into a hapless collection of his adversaries. The unfortunate gentleman  getting the drumming from the switch of snakes is identified as l'Ami***  -  would this be Fréron?  I'm not sure.

Voltaire chez lui:  Ferney 1758-1778  Editions Cabedita, 1999. p.94-9.


  1. Dear sir, I would like to ask for your permission to use your photo of this painting, with credit to you, of course, on my educational website devoted to Francisco de Miranda, who also visited Voltaire's home, but in 1788. Excellent article, by the way!

  2. Sure - no problem. There are lots of reproductions of this painting available on the internet.

    1. Thank you very much. My apologies for calling you 'Sir'.

      FYI, Miranda hated this painting too. It is hanging once again where it was when he visited, in the stairwell.

      Here's the piece I am publishing on Miranda's annotations of his visit:

      Have a nice day..!