Friday 27 December 2013

Not just a Revolution for the young.....

A National Guardsman and his wife by Rémy-Furcy Descarsin (1746-1793)
73cm x 90.5 cm.  Oil.
Signed "Descarsin, painter to Monsieur, brother of the King 1791"
Musée de la Révolution Française, Vizille

This lovely painting was acquired by the Musée de la Révolution Française, Vizille in 2004, having recently come up for public auction.  A piece of political propaganda certainly, but as an unpatronising portait of two ordinary people, it shows the legacy of the Revolution at its best.

Of the painter, Rémy-Furcy Descarsin,  little is known.  He was active in Paris and failed to gain entry to the Academy of Painting in 1789 when he submitted a self-portrait. Apparently he had two musical sisters.  He styled himself painter to the comte de Provence, dating the painting  to before the latter's successful flight from Paris in June 1791.  The title is a bit puzzling; clearly the man is too old to be an active National Guardsman. In fact the uniform is purely symbolic. The subjects were an old couple from Nantes, who were the recipients of charitable attention from the local Jacobins.  Here is a contemporary account from the Annales Nantaises 

2nd February 1791
A married couple, aged more than a hundred ("plus que centenaires") from the former diocese of Angers, named René Dogereau or Degro, and Perrine Trouillard, were living near the former Hermitage, in a state of abandonment and distress.  The Amis de la Constitution, who had heard about them though their inquiries after recommendations for public charity, awarded to these old people a pension which would continue to to be paid to whichever of the two remained living.  To give them an idea of the Revolution, which they could not expect to enjoy for long, they dressed them up in clothes in the three national colours.  The Compagnie des Adolescents then fetched them and took them to the Theatre, to performances of The Family Supper  and The Three Farmers which were put on in their benefit.  Dogereau, had been a wine grower, a ferryman and finally a caulker of boats.  He died a short time ago but his wife is still alive and still has the use of her senses. p.581-582.

Annales Nantaises,by  Michel Guimar, published in Year III of the Republic

For a discussion of the painting, see :

Monday 23 December 2013

Fouquier-Tinville at Christmas

Légendes de Noël 

A very merry Christmas!

The following is an abridged translation of a story from G. Lenotre's Légendes de Noël, a series of Christmas tales set in the Revolution and Empire, first published in 1910.

Lenotre (Louis Léon Théodore Gosselin) was a great historian and unusual for his time in his willingness to extend sympathies to both sides of the Revolutionary struggle. In this story, he finds humanity in one of the most hated figures of the Terror, the Public Prosecutor Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville.

I have been unable to trace the comte de Courville, but Lenotre's view of Fouquier-Tinville is certainly based on details fully documented elsewhere in his work. Accurate too is the description of Séraphin's famous silhouette theatre which operated in the Palais-Royal, to patriotic enthusiasm, throughout the darkest days of the Revolution.

In the time of the Terror, a passerby at night who walked along the quai de l’Horloge, under the walls of the Palais de Justice, would quicken his step and, take care, out of instinct, not to raise his head.  In one of the windows next to the towers of the Conciergerie, a light burned from dawn to dusk which, as far as it could be seen, made the people of Paris tremble in fear.

 This light illuminated the cell where worked, day and night, Antoine-Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor, the feared magistrate who furnished the Revolutionary Tribunal with its required quota of accused and the guillotine with its daily harvest of heads. The life of this man, whose tragic name weighed over Paris like the legendary sword over the head of Damocles, was one of crushing labour.  He slept three or four hours a day, rarely more.  For twenty hours at a stretch, he prepared the work of the death-machine, a colossal task which he would entrust to no-one else.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Stop press: Robespierre reconstructed!

What do you know?!  Robespierre and his death mask have made the headlines!  Mulhouse-based facial reconstruction expert, Philippe Froesch used advanced FBI techniques to create this image from a plaster copy of the Tussaud mask, now in the Museum of Natural History in Aix-en-Provence. 

Monday 16 December 2013

A monument in honour of the Bourbons

Earlier this year I went to an exhibition at the Sir John Soane Museum, "Northern Vision: Master Drawings from the Tchoban Foundation" (June-September 2013).  There were all sorts of great architectural fantasies - the peach was a design for a truly mega 1930s Palace of Soviets.  Also included were a couple of noteworthy 18th-century French confections. The first is a drawing submitted for the 1772 Grand Prix of the Academy of Architecture by Louis-Jean Desprez (1743-1804) for a "Monument in honour of the Bourbons":  unsurprisingly it didn't win. (How the Revolutionaries would have enjoyed tearing this down if it had ever been built!)

Commemorative Monument in Honour of the Bourbons 1772
Pen, Indian ink, brown ink, applied to a sketch in black chalk
Signed Desprez invenit on the base, in pen and brown ink
Copyright: Tchoban Foundation
Image courtesy of Sir John Soane Museum

"This highly complex drawing was produced by Desprez for the 1772 Grand Prix of the French Academy of Architecture. Here, he has designed a monument based on a circular temple or tholos. The architecture is richly adorned with symbols and allegorical statues evocative of the Bourbon dynasty, including fleur-de lis, suns, Gallicroosters and the intertwined initials ‘L’ and ‘H’ representing the current Bourbon monarch Louis XVI and the founder of the dynasty Henri IV.
The capitals of the temple’s columns are based on those of the ‘French Order’ developed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and used in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Perhaps because of this overly complex decorative scheme,Desprez failed to win the Grand Prix with this submission. He left France in 1784 to enter the service of the King of Sweden, Gustave III."

The second offering is a Hercules by Ennemond Alexandre Petitot (1727-1801) intended to adorn the Napoleonic Cisalpine Republic.  It is probably as well that this neo-classical delight never made it past the drawingboard - it would have been 83 feet tall!

 Hercules of Gaul, or the Victorious French People
in the image of Hercules (1800-01);
Ennemond Alexandre Petitot (1727-1801).
Copyright: Tchoban Foundation.
Image courtesy of Sir John Soane Museum.
"Although born and trained as an architect in France, Petitot worked mainly in Italy. Having won the Grand Prix of the Academy of Architecture in 1745, at the age of eighteen, he took up a residency in Rome the following year, where he joined the ranks of French ‘Piranesians’, such as Clérisseau, Vien, Challe and Le Lorrain. In 1753 he entered the service of the Duke of Parma and founded the Academy of Fine Arts there. This drawing probably relates to a plan for a new district of Milan, which between 1797 and 1802 was the capital of the Cisalpine Republic – a short-lived French client state founded byNapoleon. Hercules of Gaul was a particularly popular subject during the French Revolution. Petitot based his figure on a well-known antique statue but with the addition of the French cockerel."

Notice and notes from the Exhibition:

Sunday 15 December 2013

Aviary of Madame Helvétius

The Aviary of Madame Helvetius is a mawkishly sentimental little fable published in 1809 as part of a set of "Instructional narratives" for little girls, by Jean-Nicolas Bouilly (1763-1842), who is remembered today chiefly as the librettist of Beethoven's Fidelio. In the story, a tame pigeon is sent to Madame bearing an anonymous begging letter; she trustingly obliges and has her money returned in due course, to outpourings of uplifting emotion, by a pretty member  of the "deserving poor" .  As far as I know Bouilly had no personal connection and is merely echoing Madame H's well-known kindness and fondness for birds. 

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Last glimpses of Madame Helvétius

The house in Auteuil

Plaque on the site of the house
There are no surviving pictures of Madame Helvétius's house, then 24 Grande rue d’Auteuil, a country property nestling close to the Bois de Bologne between the royal Château of Coq (now demolished)  and the village of Auteuil.  The immense estate of the comtesse du Boufflers - now the exclusive Villa Montmorency compound, home to politicians and film stars -  was just over the way.

The property was described in the deeds of sale as consisting of the house, which bordered the road, and a small pavilion, situated at the bottom of a park of two arpents in length.(An "arpent" was 78 yards, so, depending on width, we are envisaging an acre or two).

Built in about 1720, the main body of the house was flanked by two straight wings and included an elegant peristyle.  A pretty iron gate led onto a courtyard containing a well and aviaries for Madame's many birds. 

Antoine Guillois, writing in 1894, gives a detailed description of the interior culled from the memoirs of Ambroise Firmin-Didot and other local residents who were children at the time. Visitors entering by the coach entrance, found themselves on the ground floor where there was a kitchen, larder and greenhouse and a bathroom with a window onto the road. On the first floor, reached via a fine wrought iron staircase, was a spacious dining room with views onto both the road and courtyard, a grand salon which could accommodate up to fifty people, and two smaller reception rooms. 

 Guillois's youthful observers seemed to have been oddly preoccupied with details of furnishings - in the dining room: oak sideboard, table and side tables, five cane armchairs, chair covered with tapestry, gilded console and a  marble  basin mounted on the wall;  in the mirrored salon:  chiffonier with marble top, tables, settees with feather cushions and a whole assortment of other chairs and sofas upholstered in blue and white, plus a daybed with a blue damask cover; on the fireplace an enormous display of flowers in a blue porcelain bowl.

 Across from the salon, the mistress's bedroom boasted more fine quality furniture and hangings of blue velvet and taffeta French window gave out onto the terrace which commanded a view of the garden and which was shaded by a magnificent acacia with profuse blossom.  It was here every morning that Madame would come to feed the birds. Rhododendrons, hortensias, roses and other plants flourished under the care of her chief gardener Richard. The pavilion in which La Roche and Cabanis lodged was approached by an avenue of lime trees and consisted of two bedrooms, a dining room and kitchen plus a salon with a central dome. There was also a small vegetable garden where the various children who frequented the house were given their own little plots to tend.

Franklin relics from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The Dresden china cups and saucers were a present from Madame Helvetius.
According to Guillois, Madame's linen and tablewhere were those of a "modest bourgeoise"

Madame Helvétius during the Revolution

In the dying years of the Ancien Régime, the void at Auteuil left by Franklin's departure was filled by a new generation of habitués, the poet Antoine Roucher, author of a vast and almost unreadable poem The Months, André Chenier, an intimate friend of Cabanis, Volney, the liberal nobles Destutt de Tracy and  Eymar, and Condorcet, who in early 1789 brought his young wife to be presented to Madame.  These men greeted the  bright dawn of Revolution with uniform enthusiasm, with the exception only of the abbé Morellet, who, as a consequence, broke with Cabanis and La Roche and  moved out with his furniture to a house in the valley of Montmorency at Cernay.  Volney, Sieyès, Chamfort and La Chaise, the deputy for Brivé, now took up almost permanent residence.  Cabanis, arriving from Paris on 15th July, was introduced to Mirabeau and became his close collaborator.

In the Revolution's first years of liberal promise, the gentle abbé La Roche, true to his antique exemplars, abandoned his leisured life of book collecting to enter the public arena. He was elected mayor of Auteuil ("the fat Mayor" quipped Cabanis) and later, though never having exercised ecclesiastical functions, took on the role of constitutional priest to protect the refractory incumbant and his flock.  Both he and Cabanis featured prominently in a civic festival at Auteuil on 3 July 1791 in which a stone from the Bastille was installed in the Church (in which Madame's property entitled her to a private pew). It was La Roche who pronounced the opening discourse inviting the inhabitants of the village to "live as brothers and remain united to resist the chains of slavery." 

The Church of Notre-Dame, Auteuil, rebuilt in the late 19th century
A year later, on 5 August 1792, a second fête inaugurated, on a piece of ground next to Madame Helvétius's house, a new Town Hall in the style of a Grecian temple, containing busts of Rousseau, Voltaire, Franklin, Helvétius himself and Mirabeau.  In the list of patriotic contributions Madame pledged 4,500 livres; Cabanis 1,200 and La Roche 900. André Chenier meanwhile saw his play Charles IX performed to acclaim before an audience which included Mirabeau, Danton, Desmoulins and Fabre d'Eglantine.  Cabanis attended the dying Mirabeau as his physician but still returned faithfully to Madame Helvétius, herself ill and anxious if he was absent. He and La Roche now allied themselves closely with Condorcet, who in September 1792 established himself nearby at 2 Grande rue.  

Marc Louis Arlaud,
 Portrait of Pierre-Jean-Georges
The Terror brought proscription and arrest.  Roucher was imprisoned, as were Chamfort, Ginguené and Volney, and Condorcet was forced into hiding. In Auteuil itself Destutt de Tracy and the abbé La Roche were both detained, La Roche arrested in November 1793 and held first in the Abbaye, then in the Carmes prison and released only after the death of Robespierre.  D'Andlau, Madame Helvétius's son-in-law, was briefly arrested and subsequently emigrated, although her daughters were protected, declared daughters of the Nation, in memory of their father. 

 Although personally safe, the elderly lady was deeply affected by events of the Terror and talked constantly of her friends that had disappeared and that she hoped to see again.  On one occasion, obliged to go to Paris to visit her daughter who was sick, she fainted on the Place de la Revolution. Cabanis dedicated his Mélanges de littérature to her, composed, he said, to distract her from the mournful preoccupations left by the terrible experience of the Revolution. 

At the height of the Terror, she had apparently hidden a considerable amount of money in the park, but forgotten its whereabouts. The sale deeds carried a clause stipulating what to do if it was ever recovered (which it never was).

After Thermidor  the life of the salon recovered, and its surviving members  -   Destutt de Tracy, Cabanis, Volney, Garat, Ginguené, Daunou - formed the core of the so-called "Idéologues",  leading lights in the reconstruction of intellectual institutions under the Directory and Empire. In May 1795 Cabanis married Charlotte-Felicité de Grouchy, sister of Madame Condorcet and the couple came to live in the pavillion.  Bonaparte himself visited and commented on the smallness of the park, to which Madame Helvétius famously replied,  "You cannot know General, how much happiness is to be found in three arpents of land".

Death and burial

"Notre Dame d'Auteuil" died on 13th August 1800 at the age of 81. She had retained her habit of rising early and had contracted a chest infection at the end of winter, which neither Cabanis nor his colleague Pierre de Roussel could cure.  In her final days, she had with her Cabanis, his wife and two daughters, La Roche and Jean-Antoine-Cauvin Gallois, the Tribune and friend of Cabanis, who had lived with her since 1793.  According to her wishes she was buried at the end of her park in a vault constructed on the right side of the pavillon. Helen Maria Williams recalled that "she always spoke with calmness of death, and pointed out to me the spot in her garden where her remains were to be deposited".  Her burial, without formal religious ceremony, is described by her grandson Jean-Antoine-Claude-Adrien de Mun in a letter to  Mme de Staël, dated 31st August 1800; he  mentions neither the vault nor the the pavillion, but confirms that the coffin was placed in a tomb dug in her garden in accordance with her wishes.

Tomb of Madame Helvétius, who lies next
 to heart of Cabanis in the Auteuil cemetery
Although she left the property to her granddaughters Madame willed enjoyment of the house to Cabanis and La Roche in the hope that they would continue to live there and watch over her ashes.  This was not to be. The latter, a member of the corps législatif since 1799 retired to Orville in the Pas-de-Calais in 1803 where he died in 1806. Cabanis unexpectedly died in May 1808, his body transported to the Pantheon but his heart buried in the garden next to Madame Helvétius. In 1817, when the property left the family definitively, her remains were transferred to the nearby cemetery. After a first monument was destroyed in the bombardment of 1871, it was not until 1892 that a replacement tombstone was finally erected by public subscription.

In modern Paris, no trace survives of the house.  An anonymous apartment block occupies the site, now 59 rue d'Auteuil

59 rue d'Auteuil today
"Drama of 59 rue d'Auteuil"
École Normale Israelite
which occupied the site
 from the 1870s

The property was rented from 1808 by Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, the American-born physicist, who had married Lavoisier's widow. It then changed hands several times before being bought in 1854 by Prince Pierre-Napoléon Bonaparte, whose father Lucien Bonaparte had once frequented Madame's salon; the "drama of 59 rue d'Auteuil" brought brief notoriety when Bonaparte was challenged to a duel and, refusing, short dead his opponent's emissary.  During the Commune the Fédérés briefly established a headquarters in the house but, learning that it had belonged to Bonaparte, decided to burn it down instead.  In July 1877 the small pavilion used by Morellet and Cabanis was also demolished.  In latter times the site was occupied by the École Normale Israelite Orientale.


Antoine Guillois, Le salon de  Mme Helvétius (1892)
M. Guillois was the great-grandson of Antoine Roucher and seems to be the main source of  factual information on day-to-day life chez Madame Helvétius.

Helen Maria Williams, "Death of Madame Helvétius" in Sketches of the State of Manners and Opinions in the French Republic, Vol. 2 (1801) [Available on Google Books]
Guy de la Prade, L'illustre société d'Auteuil 1772-1830, ou, La fascination de la liberté (1989)
[Free extracts on Google Books include a good chapter on the Revolution in Auteuil]

Details of 59 rue d'Auteuil in a website devoted to the 16th arrondissement :

The cemetery at Auteuil:  

Note of 23/09/2015

I recently came across this anonymous terracotta bust of Mme Helvétius.  It was Lot 48 in the sale of the Collection Paul Rousseau held in Toulon on 24 March 2012.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Madame Helvétius's cats

Jean Jacques Bachelier, White angora cat chasing a butterfly
Musée Lambinet
As a cat-lover I have a soft spot for Madame Helvétius, who counted among her considerable menagerie, as well as numerous chickens, pigeons and canaries, "twenty Angoras". The cats were apparently bedecked in fur-lined sateen jackets from September to June, though it seems unlikely Madame could have wrestled more than a few favourites into this costume: if only we had a picture! The names of some of them - Aza, Le Noir, Courtois, Musette, Pompon  - are recorded: Ben Franklin complained lightheartedly to Cabanis that Madame was an ingrate for not granting him one of her nights, which she always spent solely in the company of Pompon (or "Poupon" as Franklin has it).  (p.61) 

Thursday 5 December 2013

Citoyenne Mignot, "amie de Couthon".

Couthon from a 19th engraving
Georges Couthon was the object of a weirdly obsessive adulation from one of his female admirers which throws an interesting light on the relationships between Revolutionaries and the highly charged emotional atmosphere of the Year II.  The backdrop was Couthon's mission to his native Puy-de-Dome in September 1793, above all his triumphant return to Clermont-Ferrand in November 1793 following the surrender of Lyons.  At this moment of greatest triumph, Couthon was the object of much adoring attention, taken up in a flurry of escorts, dinners and receptions, surrounded by men vying to carry the him around and pursued, by all accounts, by a chorus of excited women.  Among them none was more strange than Suzanne Mignot, who, according to the Avergnat historian Francisque Mège, had plunged into extreme revolutionary politics as a result of a failed marriage and apparently saw in Couthon a kind of god of republicanism.  According to Mège Citoyenne Mignot was a believer in Mesmerism, through which she tried to cure the many infirmities of her idol. In order to be near him she become the close friend of his wife.  She followed Couthon and Mme.Couthon to Lyons, haunted them in their home at Clermont and later came to in Paris - she may indeed have lived in Passy, where Couthon is known to have had a residence. According to family tradition she eventually became completely insane and died in an asylum in Paris in about 1820.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Georges Couthon (and his dog!)

Georges-Auguste Couthon at the National Convention in 1793
Black chalk drawing
Metropolitan Museum New York, Acquired 1962

Suddenly the eighteenth century seems beset with dogs!  This sketch by Vivant Denon, now in the Metropolitan Museum, represents a rare portrait of Couthon. We are told he did indeed own a white pug, by name of Bramm, that seldom left his lap in the Convention (Cabanès, p.226). 

Sunday 1 December 2013

Death mask of Robespierre

Musée Carnavalet
Isn't it great?  I came across this completely deranged image in an e-version of an old French booBehind the scenes in the Terror by Hector Fleischmann ( English version 1914). There is no further comment or explanation.
Hutton Collection

Fleischmann is still regularly acknowledged as author of the most detailed study of Robespierre death masks, but frustratingly his little monograph is unobtainable, apart from a few snippets on Google Books. Apparently he was a sceptic:  "Many death masks of Robespierre exist, all false, reconstituted after the fact from portraits", summarises Antoine de Baecque, (p.167).   

It is surprisingly difficult to pin down what  Robespierre "death masks" actually existed.  Vivant Denon once owned one. The only two examples documented on the internet are in the Hutton Collection and a bronze in the Musée Carnavalet, both copies from Madame Tussaud's original mould. There is no clear  provenance accessible in either case.


Hector Fleischmann, Behind the scenes in the Terror (1914), plate.p.128.

_______,  Le masque mortuaire de Robespierre. Documents nouveaux pour servir d’intelligence et de conclusion à une polémique historique..., Paris, E. Leroux (1911) 26 p.

Hutton collection: Death mask, from the original in Tussaud Gallery, London.

 Portraits in plaster from the collection of Laurence Hutton (1894) p.75

Antoine de Baecque, Glory and terror : seven deaths under the French Revolution (2001)[Relevant passages are available in the preview on Amazon or Google Books].Reproduction of the Carnavalet head , p.144.

See also the discussion:

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Madame H. in "John Adams"

This is Madame Helvétius played by Judith Magre in the HBO TV mini-series John Adams, which was first broadcast in the States in 2008. The series was brilliant, but the portrait of Minette and her gathering is unkind, intended mainly as a dramatic device to highlight the discomfiture of the sober and Anglophone John Adams among the dissolute, sophisticated French.  I'm not quite sure why Madame H., who was a well-preserved woman in her early sixties, is made to look eighty; nor why everyone, including the men, are caked in quite so much make-up.

Here is the miserable Adams doing his best to shine at small talk with foreigners:

In a memorably comic scene, Adams inadvertently bursts in on Franklin playing chess in the bath with his hostess.

This bizarre event is not entirely apocryphal, though it did not involve Madame Helvétius, nor did it quite include a shared bath. Franklin reports in one of his letters that he and another neighbour, Claude-Guillaume Le Veillard, played chess together in the bathroom of Madame de Brillon while she looked on from the tub (presumably decently covered).

Cynics would say that Franklin enjoyed this over-intimacy with a much younger woman (she was still in her thirties). This impression is reinforced by Madame de Brillon's somewhat naive complaint to him that gossips had criticised the "sweet habit I have of sitting on your lap".  According Franklin's biographer, Anne-Claude Lopez , however, their relationship was spiritually intense but physically chaste, the cumulative impression of their correspondence being of an old philosopher enjoying the company of a romantic young woman. (And, after all, who are we to doubt the motivation of a Founding Father?!)


On John Adams, see

 For Franklin and Madame de Brillon: Anne-Claude Lopez, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (1990) p.29-35..[Relevant pages available on Google Books]

Monday 25 November 2013

Madame H. according to Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams by Benjamin Blythe, 1766

Abigail Adams in the HBO mini series John Adams

The correspondence of Abigail Adam's contains a memorable depiction of Madame Helvétius, who was one of the first  people Abigail met in 1784 when she and her daughter joined John Adams in France following the successful negotiation of the Treaty of Paris. The occasion was a dinner which took place chez Franklin on 1st September 1784.  The serious-minded Abigail was to say the least unimpressed by this untidily dressed and exuberant French lady!

The first mention is in a letter of 4th September 1784: 
""She was a Lady of Sixty years of age with whom I dined this week at Dr. Franklins.... "I could not judge of her conversation as I could not understand a word, but if it was in unison with her dress, and manners, I assure you that I consider myself fortunate that I did not". 

 More detailed description follows in a letter of 5th September :

This Lady I dined with at Dr. Franklings. She enterd the Room with a careless jaunty air. Upon seeing Ladies who were strangers to her, she bawled out ah Mon dieu! where is Frankling, why did you not tell me there were Ladies here? You must suppose her speaking all this in French. How said she I look? takeing hold of a dressing chimise made of tiffanny which She had on over a blew Lutestring, and which looked as much upon the decay as her Beauty, for she was once a handsome woman. Her Hair was fangled, over it she had a small straw hat with a dirty half gauze hankerchief round it, and a bit of dirtyer gauze than ever my maids wore was sewed on behind. She had a black gauze Skarf thrown over her shoulders. She ran out of the room. When she returnd, the Dr. enterd at one door she at the other, upon which she ran forward to him, caught him by the hand, helas Frankling, then gave him a double kiss one upon each cheek and an other upon his forehead. When we went into the room to dine she was placed between the Dr. and Mr. Adams. She carried on the chief of the conversation at dinner, frequently locking her hand into the Drs. and sometimes spreading her Arms upon the Backs of both the Gentlemans Chairs, then throwing her Arm carelessly upon the Drs. Neck.

I should have been greatly astonished at this conduct, if the good Doctor had not told me that in this Lady I should see a genuine French Woman, wholy free from affectation or stifness of behaviour and one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Drs. word, but I should have set her down for a very bad one altho Sixty years of age and a widow. I own I was highly disgusted and never wish for an acquaintance with any Ladies of this cast. 

After dinner she threw herself upon a settee where she shew more than her feet. She had a little Lap Dog who was next to the Dr. her favorite. This She kisst and when he wet the floor she wiped it up with her chimise. This is one of the Drs. most intimate Friends, with whom he dines once every week and She with him. She is rich and is my near Neighbour, but I have not yet visited her. Thus my dear you see that Manners differ exceedingly in different Countries. I hope however to find amongst the French Ladies manners more consistant with my Ideas of decency, or I shall be a mere recluse.

 Since she had met "but one French lady" and respected Franklin's views, Abigail  promised to reserve judgment. One must suppose she did indeed thaw a little; certainly the Adams venture much beyond Franklin's immediate circle during their time in Paris.

See  Adams family correspondence vol. 5.  In Massachusetts Historical Society digital editions:

Sunday 24 November 2013

Madame Helvétius and Ben Franklin

Madame Helvétius by Louis-Michel Van Loo
The Granger Collection, NYC 
Following the death of Helvétius and the marriage of her daughters, Madame Helvétius retired to a spacious house in Auteuil which she bought in 1772 from the artist Quentin La Tour. She lived here until her death in 1800 when, in accordance with her instructions, she was buried in her garden. "Minette" inherited her husband's circle of liberal-minded writers and celebrities and partly funded the creation of the influential Masonic "Lodge of the Nine Sisters" which held its initial meetings in her living room. 

To their mutual pleasure, her guests often included Benjamin Franklin who, during his eight-and-a-half year sojourn in Paris from 1776 to 1785, lodged within walking distance in nearby Passy.

Often portrayed as a glittering society gathering, the "Académie d'Auteuil" comes across rather as a comfortable circle of mutually supportive and, for the most part aging, friends. Two of them, the archetypal "literary abbés", André Morellet and Martin Lefevbre de la Roche, Helvétius's literary executor, actually lived on the premises, as did the much younger Pierre-Georges Cabanis, a doctor and poet, who was something of an adopted son. La Roche and Cabanis shared a small pavilion in the extensive garden. The three lived together, wrote La Roche, "without the slightest altercation"; they shared the same friend and she treated them all impartially. The pleasures of the table, philosophical small talk and plain badinage mingled pleasantly. Franklin himself, who enjoyed easy and courteous relations with women, was much charmed, attributed Madame Helvétius's popularity to her good humour and lack of pretension rather than her intellect - it was said she could spell no better than her numerous cats.  Although not considered conventionally beautiful, the vivacious sixty year old never lacked admirers.  The serious and socially awkward Turgot, who was a frequent guest, proposed to her in vain both before her marriage and after Helvétius's death in 1771. On catching sight of her the ever gallant nonagenarian Fontenelle once commented simply, "Oh to be seventy again..!"

Portrait of Franklin by  Charles-Amédée-Philippe Van Loo, 
owned by Madame Helvétius, and descended in the 
family of her daughter, the Marquise de Mun. 
Purchased by the American Philosophical Society in 1948.
In early 1780 Franklin himself proposed marriage. The seventy-four year old widower was not in any way serious - his good-humoured pursuit was merely an excuse to take time out from the pressing affairs of the American colonies for series of witty literary compliments. The most well-known, the "Elysian Fields", generally dated to January 1780, was published in April as part of a collection of French Bagatelles produced on the private printing press at PassyAccording to Morellet, Franklin composed the piece in jocular mood: Madame Helvétius received it one morning "after engaging him the whole previous day in a conversation full of mere foolishness". The existence of various versions suggests that it  circulated initially as an essay in French composition.  An English version was published in Volume III of Memoirs of the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin: 


Disappointed in his hopes of marriage, Franklin dreams of a visit to the Elysian Fields where where he finds to his surprise that Helvétius and Debbie Franklin have "formed a new Connexion":

Mortified at the barbarous resolution pronounced by you
so positively yesterday evening, that you would remain single
the rest of your life, as a compliment due to the memory of your hus-
band, I retired to my chamber. Throwing myself upon my bed, I dreamt
that I was dead and was transported to the Elysian Fields.

I was asked whether I wished to see any persons
 in particular ; to which I replied, that I wished to see the
 philosophers. " There are two who live here at hand in this
garden ; they are good neighbors, and very friendly towards
 one another. " - Who are they?" " Socrates and
Helvetius." "I esteem them both highly ; but let me see
 Helvetius first, because I understand a little French,
but not a word of Greek." I was conducted to him ; he
received me with much courtesy, having known me, he said,
by character, some time past. He asked me
 a thousand questions relative to the war, to the
present state of religion, of liberty, of the government
 in France. - "You do not inquire, then," said I, "after your dear friend,
Madame Helvetius ; yet she loves you
exceedingly ; I was in her company not more
 than an hour ago." "Ah," said he, "you make me
recur to my past happiness, which ought to be
forgotten in order to be happy here. For many
years I could think of nothing but her, though
 at length I am consoled. I have taken another
 wife, the most like her that I could find ;
she is not indeed altogether so handsome, but
 she has a great fund of wit and good sense,
and her whole study is to please me.
She is at this moment gone to fetch the best
nectar and ambrosia to regale me ; stay
here awhile and you will see her." " I
perceive," said I, " that your former friend
is more faithful to you than you are to her ; she
has had several good offers, but has refused them
 all. I will confess to you that I loved her
 extremely, but she was cruel to me, and
rejected me peremptorily for your sake." -  "I
pity you sincerely," said he, "for she is
an excellent woman, handsome and amiable. But
do not the Abbe de la R**** and the Abbe M****
visit her?" "Certainly they do; not one of
your friends has dropped her acquaintance." - "If
you had gained the Abbe M*** with a bribe of
good coffee and cream, perhaps you would have succeeded ;
for he is as deep a reasoner as Duns Scotus or St. Thomas ; he
arranges and methodizes his arguments
in such a manner that they are almost irresistible. Or, if
by a fine edition of some old classic, you had
gained the Abbe de la R**** to speak against you,
 that would have been still better ; as I always observed, that
 when he recommended anything to her, she had a great
inclination to do directly the contrary." As he finished
these words the new Madame Helvetius entered with the nectar, and
 I recognized her immediately as my former American friend,
Mrs. Franklin! I reclaimed her, but she answered me
 coldly; " I was a good wife to you for forty-nine years and
 four months - nearly half a century; let that
content you. I have formed a new connection here,
which will last to eternity."

Indignant at this refusal of my Eurydice, I immediately
resolved to quit those ungrateful shades,
and return to this good world again, to behold the sun
and you! Here I am - let us avenge ourselves!

The conceit is a little clumsy as is the final "let us avenge ourselves!", but Franklin depicts his cast with gentle humour:  Helvétius absorbed in military, religious and political questions;  Debbie Frankin bustling around to find the best nectar and ambrosia and the abbé Morellet relishing subtle arguments and large helpings of cream.

THE FLIES ("Les Mouches")

A second Bagatelle puts pay to any lingering doubts about Franklin's seriousness. It dates from end of 1780 when Franklin had been laid up for six weeks with gout and is, in effect, a thank you note for some housecleaning Madame Helvétius had organised.  It features a jolly chorus of pirouetting houseflies and translates loosely as follows: 
The "Flies of the Apartments of Mr. F[rankli]n" pay their respects to Madame Helvétius  and thank her for the protection she has given them.  They have long enjoyed the hospitality of  the Good Franklin, eating at his expense and finding in his emptied punchbow "sufficient quantity to inebriate a hundred of us flies".  They have merrily swirled around his rooms and consummated their little loves under his nose.  Their happiness would have been perfect had he not allowed  "our declared Enemies" the spiders, with their pitiless nets to remain at the top of his wainscoting.  But under Madame's orders "all these assassins with their habitations and their snares" have been swept away, and the flies can now enjoy Franklin's beneficence without fear. They have only one wish left, that their two patrons henceforth form a single household.

The insects buzz merrily with a suitable French accent; "Bizz izzzz ouizz a ouizzzz izzzzzzzz, etc."

It says much about the state of Franklin's accommodation that Madame Helvétius, who was notoriously relaxed in such matters, was driven to offer him domestic assistance!

Franklin's suit occasioned considerable good-humoured teasing from Madame's various "rivals" in his social circle, notably Madame de la Ferté, Madame Brillon and the comtesse de Forbach. His communications to all these ladies were affectionate and sometimes playfully flirtatious. In a bagatelle addressed to Madame de la Ferté, for instance, Franklin complained that  he had been deprived of "half a dozen of her affectionate, substantial and heartily applied Kisses".  It was in a letter to her that he enclosed a third ditty on the Helvétius household - not a romantic sally this time but a mock complaint that he and William Temple Franklin had been "bilked for breakfast",  trekking from Passy on the promise of brunch only to find their hostess had forgotten them and Morellet eaten all the available food.

Madame Helvétius remained a constant friend and a faithful correspondent. In a final touching letter, written two years after Franklin's return to Philadelphia, Minette looked forward to their reunion in the Elysian Fields:   "Very soon we will meet again,, with those whom we have loved, I husband and you a wife, but I believe that you, who have been a rascal, will find one more there, my dear Franklin....."

In lighter - but prescient - mood the abbé de la Roche reminisced on 27 July 1787 about a world soon to be lost forever: "We were so happy, were we not, when sitting all together around a good table; when we discussed ethics, politics, philosophy; when Notre Dame d'Auteuil led you on to flirt and the abbé Morellet, while fighting for the cream, set his arguments in magnificent sequence, so as to convince us of what we did not believe.  In those days we would gladly have renounced that other Paradise to keep the one we had, and live, just as we were, for all eternity."


Dorothy Medlin (1980)  "Benjamin's Franklin's Bagatelles for Madame Helvétius: some biographical and stylistic considerations", Early American Literature, Vol. 15(1), p.42-58.[JStor article]

Stacey Schiff, A great improvisationFranklin, France, and the birth of America (2005), p.229-236 [relevant extract available on Google Books]

For the landmarks of Franklin's stay in Paris: ParAmericana Paris Americana - blog on US French links.
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