Sunday 30 June 2013

Voltaire at the Musée Lambinet

The muncipal museum in Versailles, the Musée Lambinet, has many interesting exhibits.
This fine copy of Houdon's seated Voltaire was originally commissioned by
Louis-Philippe in 1836 for the French history galleries of the Château. (My photos) 

Saturday 29 June 2013

Diderot by Fragonard...or not?

This familiar and much reproduced Fragonard portrait, currently on display in the Louvre’s new Northern “annexe” at Lens,  is “Diderot” no longer.  According to the new label it is “The portrait of a man called “Meunier”, formerly wrongly identified as Denis Diderot”.  What is this all about?

The reconsideration

There is no direct evidence Diderot ever saw Fragonard’s painting, still less sat for it and the identification has occasionally been questioned over the years –for instance, in other portraits Diderot has brown eyes and in Fragonard’s they are blue.

The clinching evidence, however, appeared in June 2012 when a hitherto unseen Fragonard drawing was sold at public auction.  It consisted of a series of small pen and ink preliminary sketches for Fragonard’s 1769 fantasy portraits, of which the Diderot is one.  Many are labelled in Fragonard’s handwriting, and there it is, under the Diderot, the identifying tag “Meunier”.

Fragonard, 18 sketches for portraits. Pen and brown ink.
Private collection
Detail of the "Meunier" portrait sketch

The Fragonard expert Carole Blumenfeld has not been able to oblige us with a satisfying identity for “Meunier”.  The front running candidate is one Anne-Gabriel Meusnier de Querlon (1702-1780), author of some all-but-forgotten novels – hardly a worthy substitute for the great philosophe.  To make matters worse the only (other?) surviving image of Meunier/Meusnier is a very run-of-the-mill engraving.  Fragonard's fans have bowed before the evidence but remain unappeased.

Portraits and fantasies

One obvious question – and it has been much asked – is whether the fantasy portraits are portraits in the conventional sense at all?  The term is not Fragonard’s own – it was coined by an art historian in 1960.

(M. de la Bretèche)
 We know roughly the circumstances in which the pictures were painted. The first two are certainly portraits of sorts; as the newly discovered drawing confirms, they depict Fragonard’s patron the abbé de Saint-Non and his brother M. de la Bretèche. Notes on the backs claim they were completed in less than an hour, a feat possibly completed as a wager. But tellingly, although they remained in the family’s possession until the 20th century, they were never hung in the family portrait gallery.  The figures are in theatrical or possibly “Spanish” costume, which in itself removes the sitters from their everyday persona.. Several have titles suggesting stock types or moods,  “the Actor”, “the Warrior”, ”Music”, “Inspiration” and so on.

The Diderot is usually known as “the Writer”

 Greuze, Ange Laurent
 de La Live de Jully ,c.1759
Nat Gallery of Art Washingon

Mary Sheriff has suggested  that Fragonard’s oil sketches are not so much portraits of individuals as re-inventions of existing works of art. The painting entitled “Music” for example has more than a passing resemblance to a Greuze portrait of La Live de Jully at his harp. Others in the series show Fragonard reworking the same pose, perhaps again borrowed from another artist, with minor variations for the different sitters.
Variants on a theme:
"The Actor" (abbé de Saint-Non); "Inspiration";  "Portrait of a young artist"

The original of our picture has in fact always been obvious – it is Michel van Loo’s Diderot, exhibited in the Salon of 1767, just two years.earlier. Fragonard painted “Meunier”, but it is “Meunier” as “the Writer” and Fragonard found his archetypal depiction of the writer in a portrait of Diderot.
Here are the two paintings  in case there is any doubt:

Diderot by Michel van Loo, 1767.  Louvre
"The Writer" by Fragonard, 1769.

What would Diderot have thought?

Interestingly, Diderot himself criticised the Van Loo portrait in his Salon of 1767 for depicting him as too young, too affected and in a sumptuous attire altogether inappropriate for a philosopher. Evocatively describing how he imagined himself, Diderot wanted to be shown in a moment of reverie, his eyes looking afar, his mouth slightly open.  Fragonard’s “Writer”, rough, impressionistic, encapsulating its subject’s self-absorption seems to catch just such a mood.  It may not be “a portrait of Diderot” but it may be close to Diderot as he saw himself.


Discussion and photographs of the newly discovered Fragonard drawing can be found in The Art Tribune for 04/12/2012 and 20/07/2012.

See also:  Mary D. Sheriff, "Invention, Resemblance, and Fragonard's Portraits de Fantaisie" The Art Bulletin  Vol. 69, No. 1 (Mar., 1987), pp. 77-87.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Voltaire : dog lover?

I recently came across this photograph on Flickr which, sadly, forces me to revise my assumption that Voltaire was not a dog lover.

Collar of Voltaire's dog, Château de Ferney
 photo by Renaud CamusLe Jour ni l'Heure 6199

I also failed to notice the dog in this familiar picture  - probably the very mutt in question!

Voltaire's levée by Jean Huber, Musée Carnavalet
The similar picture in the Hermitage omits the dog

So how extensive were Voltaire's canine affections?

"Utopia for a dog"?

In Summer 2011 the Château of Ferney hosted a contemporary art exhibition entitled Utopie pour un chien  which was part of a "Monuments and animals" event held in various historic locations throughout France. The  installation art took inspiration from its surroundings - dogs, we are informed, were part of everyday life at Ferney, though in Voltaire's case mostly intellectual and literary life (Mme Denis had the lapdogs)

The exhibition notice manages to produce only two actual Voltaire references;  the letter to Rousseau of 30 August 1755 criticising the Discours sur  l'Inégalité in which Voltaire claims he is  too old to walk on all fours (like a dog) and his later reference to Rousseau as "that bastard of Diogenes's dog".  Neither of these is  a. Complimentary to dogs   b. Anything at all to do with real dogs.

More interesting is the mention of a gouache depicting doggy accessories destined for Mme Denis's apartment.  Unfortunately I haven't been able to trace this picture.

"Dog" in Questions on the Encyclopédie (1770)

This late piece contains the most widespread Voltaire "dog" quote on the internet:
"It seems as if nature had given the dog to man for his defence and pleasure; it is of all animals the most faithful; it is the best possible friend of man". 
The article waxes lyrical on canine sagacity, obedience and loyalty; there is also a section on the difference between a Spaniel and a greyhound which suggests an acquaintance with dogs. Even so it is more a hodgepodge of literary references and platitudes than the testament of a proselytising dog lover.

I guess the jury is out on Voltaire's enthusiasm for dogs; he clearly had them around, at least in old age, but they don't seem to have much exercised either his day-to-day preoccupations or his intellectual interest.  (Personally I prefer to believe the mutt belonged to Mme Denis)


Utopies pour un chien:
À la une - Actualités - Centre des monuments nationaux
This is what it says in French about "the dog": "Il fait partie du cadre de vie quotidien à Ferney. S’il est essentiellement intellectuel et littéraire du côté de Voltaire, il est surtout un compagnon fidèle chez sa nièce. C’est ce qu’atteste une gouache de l’époque montrant les accessoires mobiliers (coussin, niche d’intérieur) qui lui sont destinés dans l’appartement de Madame Denis".

Notice in the Tribune de Genève

Article "CHIEN" from Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, part 3 (1770)
Dictionnaire philosophique/Garnier (1878)/Chien - Wikisource

It seems as if nature had given the dog to man for his defence and pleasure; it is of all animals the most faithful; it is the best possible friend of man.
It appears that there are several species absolutely different. How can we believe that a greyhound comes originally from a spaniel? It has neither its hair, legs, shape, ears, voice, scent, nor instinct. A man who has never seen any dogs but barbets or spaniels, and who saw a greyhound for the first time, would take it rather for a dwarf horse than for an animal of the spaniel race. It is very likely that each race was always what it now is, with the exception of the mixture of a small number of them.
It is astonishing that, in the Jewish law, the dog was considered unclean, as well as the griffin, the hare, the pig, and the eel; there must have been some moral or physical reason for it, which we have not yet discovered.
That which is related of the sagacity, obedience, friendship, and courage of dogs, is as extraordinary as true. The military philosopher, Ulloa, assures us that in Peru the Spanish dogs recognize the men of the Indian race, pursue them, and tear them to pieces; and that the Peruvian dogs do the same with the Spaniards. This would seem to prove that each species of dogs still retained the hatred which was inspired in it at the time of the discovery, and that each race always fought for its master with the same valor and attachment.
Why, then, has the word “dog” become an injurious term? We say, for tenderness, my sparrow, my dove, my chicken; we even say my kitten, though this animal is famed for treachery; and, when we are angry, we call people dogs! The Turks, when not even angry, speak with horror and contempt of the Christian dogs. The English populace, when they see a man who, by his manner or dress, has the appearance of having been born on the banks of the Seine or of the Loire, commonly call him a French dog — a figure of rhetoric which is neither just to the dog nor polite to the man.
The delicate Homer introduces the divine Achilles telling the divine Agamemnon that he is as impudent as a dog — a classical justification of the English populace.

The most zealous friends of the dog must, however, confess that this animal carries audacity in its eyes; that some are morose; that they often bite strangers whom they take for their master’s enemies, as sentinels assail passengers who approach too near the counterscarp. These are probably the reasons which have rendered the epithet “dog” insulting; but we dare not decide.

Why was the dog adored and revered — as has been seen — by the Egyptians? Because the dog protects man. Plutarch tells us that after Cambyses had killed their bull Apis, and had had it roasted, no animal except the dog dared to eat the remains of the feast, so profound was the respect for Apis; the dog, not so scrupulous, swallowed the god without hesitation. The Egyptians, as may be imagined, were exceedingly scandalized at this want of reverence, and Anubis lost much of his credit.
The dog, however, still bears the honor of being always in the heavens, under the names of the great and little dog. We regularly record the dog-days.

But of all dogs, Cerberus has had the greatest reputation; he had three heads. We have remarked that, anciently, all went by threes — Isis, Osiris, and Orus, the three first Egyptian divinities; the three brother gods of the Greek world — Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto; the three Fates, the three Furies, the three Graces, the three judges of hell, and the three heads of this infernal dog.
We perceive here with grief that we have omitted the article on “Cats”; but we console ourselves by referring to their history. We will only remark that there are no cats in the heavens, as there are goats, crabs, bulls, rams, eagles, lions, fishes, hares, and dogs; but, in recompense, the cat has been consecrated, or revered, or adored, as partaking of divinity or saintship in several towns, and as altogether divine by no small number of women.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Jesuit beaux-esprits sample provincial life

Initial English translations of Bougeant's Amusement claimed enigmatically that he had been "exiled to La Flèche".  By the second edition he is "now confined at La Flèche on account of this work":  

But just what was this terrible Jesuit prison?

In fact it wasn't a prison at all, but the imposing College Henri IV in La Flèche on the River Loir  (a pleasant and architecturally impressive town then as it is today - it certainly deserves better than to be twinned with Chippenham).  The College counted among its former pupils no less a figure than  Descartes.  To be transferred to this provincial backwater was considered by sophisticated Parisian Jesuits to be an ignominious fate; "Quae maxima apud nos infamia est Pariis Flexiam mittor in exilium" wrote one of their number.

Gresset had already suffered a stint at La Flèche after complaints from Chancellor Chauvelin whose sister was Superior of the nuns of the Visitation lampooned in Ver-Vert.  In Gresset's case the punishment  was considerably softened by his promotion to the Chair of Rhetoric there.  He would soon be allowed to finish his theological studies in Paris, where, however, criticism of the Parlement in a subsequent poem finally forced his dismissal. (Gresset himself preferred to maintain he left the Jesuits voluntarily, having joined at too young an age to ensure a true vocation.)

View of the town of 
La Flèche
He left behind a poem Journey to La Flèche which makes it quite clear what the Jesuit beaux-esprits thought of life en province, with its "drinkable" wine, little concerts and petty gatheringsLa Flèche might be agreeable, writes Gresset,  if prisons could be pleasant:. 

La Fleche pourroit être aimable, 
S'il étoit de belles prisons ; 
Un climat assez agréable , 
De petits bois assez mignons , 
Un petit vin assez potable : 
De petits concerts assez bons ,
Un petit monde assez passable. 
La Fleche pourroit être aimable,
 S'il étoit de belles prisons.

The College at La Flèche today

The College in the 17th century

Bougeant thus had every cause to regret his humour when he was made to withdraw to  La Flèche and publically retract his unorthodox account of animal souls.  He was soon restored to Paris but henceforth restricted to strictly scholarly projects - a history of the Treaty of Westphalia and the three-volume  Exposition of Christian doctrine dubbed by some his "amusement théologique".  Gresset wrote an Epistle to Father Bougeant asking whether he was really  going to sacrifice happiness and esprit  for the boring immortality of the College patriarchs - the spirit of a "loveable sage" was not born for such fat, dull works

More unexpectedly, on Bougeant's death in 1743, the future Encyclopédiste d'Alembert lamented the loss to the Republic of Letters of a Jesuit "more enlightenened that his state would seem to permit" who had been confined to La Flèche and forced to "confection" a catechism which led to his premature demise, overwhelmed by disgust and boredom (Oeuvres complètes (1821) ii.26).


I haven't been able to find any English translations of Gresset's poems apart from Vers-Vert but there are plenty of French e-books.  There is also a text of a detailed life of Gresset written in 1894 by Jules Wogue

Pictures are from the article on La Flèche in

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Father Bougeant's Philosophical Amusement

Here is another literary confection penned by a Jesuit, this time the gloriously named Guillaume Hyacinthe Bougeant, whose  Amusement Philosophique sur le Langage des Bêtes was an instant best seller, translated  into both English and German.

The ostensible aim of Bougeant's ironic little essay was to demonstrate that "Beasts do speak and understand each other every whit as well and sometimes better than we do".  But the real issue was not so much the linguistic abilities of animals as whether or not they have souls. Ever since Descartes had famously claimed that animals are machines, this question had been a solemn theological debating point, replete with threats to Christian orthodoxy - but by the 1730s there was ever sign that controversy was running out of steam ...and dog-lovers were starting to prevail....

Philosophical Amusement upon the Language of Beasts (1739) 

Bougeant begins his philosophical confection with a rapid dismissal of prevailing theories of the animal soul. 

Descartes’s “animal-machine” is an easy target - could you ever love your watch as much as you love your dog? (Personally, I could: I hate dogs)

Boy with a black spaniel by
Francois Hubert Drouais, Met.Mus.

"I see a Dog hastening to me when I call him, caress me when I stroke him, tremble and run away when I rate him, obey me when I command him, and give all the outward Signs of many different Sentiments; of Joy and Sadness, of Grief and Pain, of Fear and Desire, of Passions of Love and Hatred. I immediately conclude from thence, that a Dog has in him a Principle of Knowledge and Sentiment, be it what it will. Though I should Use my utmost Endeavour, to beat it into my Head that he is meer Machine, and though all the Philosophers in the World should attempt to convince me of it, I feel myself hurried away by an inward Conviction, and by I know not what prevailing Force which persuades me to the contrary:……
Imagine to yourself a man who should love his Watch as we love a Dog, and caress it so as to think himself dearly beloved by it, and that when it points Twelve or One o'clock, it does it knowingly and out of Tenderness to him. Were Descartes's Opinion true, such would indeed be the Folly of all who believe that their Dogs have and Affection for them, and love them with Knowledge and what we call Sentiment". 

Now  for the Aristotelians – “the dark Principles of their unintelligible Philosophy” says our Jesuit, even though Aristotelianism was still standard philosophical fare in the Jesuit Colleges.   By conceding animals a “substantial and material form, distinct from matter”, the Peripatetics are really allowing them a spiritual soul and paving the way for doggy heaven –  ”They should have a paradise and a Hell appointed for them; Beasts should be a Kind of Men, or Men a Kind of Beasts; all which Consequences are unwarrantable by the Principles of Religion."

In good Christian mode, Bougeant is also dismissive of all those Eastern sages, so lovingly anatomised by Jesuit missionaries but even more rated by dodgy freethinkers

Mounted Ceramic Figures, Chinese porcelain,
French flowers and mounts, 1740-45, Getty Museum
"Let me pray you do one Thing. Go to the Indies, to China, orJapan, and there you will find Philosophers of the Heathen, Deist, or Atheist Kind, who will argue, if not with greater Capacity, at least with greater Freedom. One will tell you that God has created several Species of Spirits; some more perfect, such as the good and bad Genii ; some less perfect, which are Men; and others much more imperfect still, which are the Beasts. Another will tell you, that the Distinction of Spirit and Matter is chimerical and impossible to be demonstrated; that he sees no manner of Inconveniency in thinking that there is but one Substance, which you mall call by what name you please; that this Substance has in Beasts as well as Men an Organization, a Modification, a Motion, something, in short, what makes it think more or less perfectly. And these Philosophers acknowledging neither the Principles of the Christian Religion nor the Authority of the Church; you will be under the Necessity (in order to attack them in their Retrenchments) either to begin by making them Christians, or to go back to metaphysical Principles very difficult to be unravelled. But I hope you will spare yourself the Trouble of the Voyage, and chuse, as I myself do, to stick close to this greatest of Principles, viz. All these Systems are contrary to the Christian Religion; of course they are absolutely false".

Animals in the Garden of Eden -
 illustration from a  English refutation of Bougeant
How then to accord animals sensitivity and understanding without falling foul of Christian orthodoxy?  The Church, says Bougeant, teaches us that men are saved or condemned at the point of death, but tells us nothing about the fate of Fallen angels waiting Judgment Day. These, then, must be your animal souls, sentient but conveniently already lined up to fry!  ( Bougeant could be right - I always knew dogs were  diabolical...) It does not seem  to  worry the good Jesuit too much that his lady friend might be sharing her bed with a devil incarnate.

Dog on a cushion by Jean Rance

"How ! shall my little Bitch be a Devil that lies with me all Night and caresses me all Day ? I will never grant you that. And I say the same of my Parrot, added a young Lady; it is a charming Creature; but if I were persuaded it was a little Devil, I should no longer indure it. I conceive, said the Author, how great your Aversion to this System must be, and I excuse it: But, give yourself the trouble to reflect upon it, and you shall see that it is only the Result of a Prejudice which must be conquered by Reason. Do we love Beasts for their own Sakes ? No. As they are altogether Strangers to human Society, they can have no other Appointment but that of being useful or amusing. And what care we whether it be a Devil, or some other Being that serves and amuses us ? The Thought of it , far from shocking pleases me mightily. I with Gratitude admire the Goodness of the Creator, who gave me so many little Devils to serve and amuse me. If I am told that these poor Devils are doomed to suffer eternal Torments, I admire God's Decrees; but I have no manner of share in this dreadful Sentence. I leave the Execution of it to the Sovereign Judge, and notwithstanding this I live with my little Devils as I do with a Multitude of People of whom Religion informs me that a great Number shall be damned."

Bougeant says that he wanted merely to amuse and we should take him at his word.  At most he intended  to deflect ridicule from more po-faced ecclesastical debaters. 
Nonetheless,  it is easy to see how the "Amusement" rebounded on its author and failed to amuse either Cartesians (who were notoriously lacking in humour), theJesuit guardians of orthodoxy or even serious defenders of God's Master Plan for the World....but why  it was later to be promulgated approvingly by the Encyclopédistes.

(This site also includes the article "Beasts" from Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary -  Dr Johnson had cats, Rousseau had a dog, but I think Voltaire just liked to tease theologians.)

Saturday 8 June 2013

In search of Maximilien....again

Gérard. (Musée Carnavalet, Paris)

This, much reproduced drawing, was made from life by François Gérard at a session of the Convention.    Conjecturally, it was a study for the oil painting listed among Robespierre's possessions after his death, and destroyed by Simon Duplay in 1815.

The notes on the bottom suggest the colour scheme for a portrait:  "Green eyes, pale complexion; coat of green stripes, vest, blue stripes on white, cravat red stripes on white".

The pose and costume are temptingly similar to the Carnavalet portrait, though the facial features are different - his eyes engage the viewer with that telling soupcon of regret. 

Engraving by Gouault, Bibl.Nat.
Jordan, plate XVII

David Jordan reproduces this 19th-century copy which softens Robespierre's image still further. 


Jordan, David P. The Revolutionary career of Maximilien Robespierre, New York: The Free Press (1985) p.254-5.

Ver-Vert, or the Jesuit and the parrot

The Jesuits of eighteenth-century France were not quite the narrow minded anti-philosophes that later stereotypes would have us believe. 

Jean-Baptiste Gresset after he left the Jesuits
Painting in Versailles by Louis Tocqué

Jean-Baptiste Gresset was set to become one of their number -  a junior teacher of twenty-five,  on the road to becoming a full Jesuit  - when he caused a minor literary sensation with his poem Ver-Vert ou les voyages du perroquet de Nevers  in 1734.

The poem was too light of touch to be seriously anti-clerical but it certainly isn't too flattering towards the sisters of the Visitation in Nevers. In fact there is more than a hint of naughty-nun about it. 

Ver-Vert is quite well know - but here is a nice English translation I found.

Ver-Vert, or the Nunnery Parrot

Ver-Vert the parrot, indulged pet of the Visitandine nuns of Nevers, is both beautiful and innocent:

AT Nevers once, some time ago,
     The pet of certain sisters there,
     Flourished a parrot, one so fair,
So trained in all a bird can know,
     As to deserve a better fate —
     Did happiness on merit wait.
Ver-Vert, such was the parrot’s name,
     Young yet, and innocent of wrong,
Transplanted from some Indian stream,
     Was placed these cloistered nuns among.
Bright-hued was he, and gay, but sage;
Frank, as befitted childhood’s age,
     And free from evil thought or word:
     In short he was the very bird
To choose for such a sacred cage.

The pampered parrot enjoys free run (flight?) of the convent, including an ample share of sugary treats normally reserved for Father Confessor

Needs not to tell what love he won,
What cares received, from every nun;
How, next to the confessor, he
Reigned in each heart; and though it be
Sinful to weakness to succumb,
Ver-Vert, the bird, was first with some.
Advertisment for Chocolat Guérin-Boutron 
He shared in these serene retreats
The sirups, jellies, and the sweets
Made by the sisters to excite
The holy father’s appetite.
For him ’twas free to do or say
Whate’er he pleased — ’twas still his way.
No circle could be pleasant where
There was not in the midst Ver-Vert.
To whistle, chirrup, sing, and fly;
And all the while with modesty,
Just like a novice, timid yet
And ever fearful to forget,
Never, unquestioned, silence broke,
Yet answered all, though twenty spoke;
Just as great Cæsar, between whiles,
Wrote all at once five different styles.

He even gets to spend the night with young nubile nuns and share the secrets of their toilette

At night his pleasure was to roam
From one to other for a home;
Happy, too happy, was the nun
Whose cell his wayward choice had won.

Jacquand Claude, 1835
Musée de Bro
ution, Bourg-en-Bresse,
He wandered here and wandered there,
But, truth to say, ’twas very rare
That fancy led him to the cell
Where any ancient dame might dwell.
No, rather would his choice be laid
Where some young sister’s couch was made;
There would he sleep the long night through,
Till daylight broke and slumbers flew;
And then, so privileged and free,
The sister’s first toilet might see.
Toilet I say, but whisper low,
Somewhere I’ve read, but do not know,
Nun’s mirrors must be quite as true
As, ladies, is required of you;
And, just a fashion in the world
Must here be fringed and there be curled,
So also in the simple part
Of veils and bands there lies an art;
For that light throng of frivolous imps
     Who scale o’er walls and creep through bars,
Can give to stiffest veils and gimps
     A grace that satin never wears.

Being a parrot, he is a trifle loquacious, but his repertoire is suitably pious:

Of course, you guess, at such a school,
Ver-Vert, by parrot’s instinct-rule,
     Endowed with speech, his ladies took
For pattern; and, except at meat,
Le Perroquet au parloir - Vert-Vert
Jean Michel Moreau,1817 Pen & ink

When all the nuns in silence eat,
     Talked fast and long, and like a book.
He was not, mark, one of these light
And worldly birds, corrupted quite
By secular concerns, and who
Know mundane follies through and through;
     Ver-Vert was piously inclined;
A fair soul led by innocence,
Unsullied his intelligence,
     No rude words lingered in his mind.
But then he knew each canticle,
     Oremus, and the colloquies,
His Benedicite said well,
     The litany, and charities.
Instructed still, he grows more wise,
The pupil with the teacher vies;
He imitates their very tones,
The softened notes, the pious groans,
The long-drawn sighs, by which they prove
How they adore, and how they love;
 And knows at length — a holy part —
The breviary all by heart

The rot sets in when Ver-Vert is packed off  to visit the mother house at Nantes on a Loire boat in the dubious company of “a nurse, a monk, a Gascon pair,  three fair nymphs, two soldiers brave”,  At first he is shocked by their language, but he soon catches on:

     No Christian words are these he hears:
The bold dragoons with barrack slang
     Confused his head and turned his brain;
To unknown deities they sang
     In quite an unaccustomed strain.
The Gascons and the ladies three

Illustration from  La Gazette d'Orléans website
Conversed in language odd but free;
The boatmen all in chorus swore
Oaths never heard by him before.
And, sad and glum, Ver-Vert sat still
In silence, though against his will.

But presently the bird they spy,
And for their own diversion try
To make him talk. The monk begins
With some light questions on his sins;
 Ver-Vert looks up, and with a sigh.
“Ave!  my sister,” makes reply:
And as they roar with laughter long,
Suspects, somehow, he’s answered wrong.
Proud was his spirit, until then
Unchecked by scoff of vulgar men;
And so he could not brook to see
His words exposed to contumely.
Alas, with patience, Ver-Vert lost
     The first bloom of his innocence.
That gone, how little did it cost
     To curse the nuns and their pretence
To teach him French? Well might they laugh:
The nuns, he found, had left out half —
The half, too, most for beauty made,
The nervous tone, the dainty shade;
To learn this half — the better lore —
He speaks but little, thinks the more.

     At first the parrot, so far wise,
Perceives that all he learned before,
     The chants, the hymns, the languid sighs,
And all the language of the nuns,
Must be forgotten, and at once.
In two short days the task was done,
And soldier’s wit ’gainst prayer of nun,
So fresh, so bright, so pleasant seemed,
That in less time than could be dreamed
(Too soon youth lends itself to evil)
He cursed and swore like any devil.
     By steps, the proverb says, we go
From bad to worse, from sin to crime;
     Ver-Vert reversed the rule, and so
Served no novitiate’s tedious time.
219 Full-fledged professor of all sin,
Whate’er they said he marked within;
Ran their whole dictionary through.
And all the wicked language knew;
Till one day, at an oath suppressed,
He finished it, with swelling breast.
Loud was the praise, great the applause;

Ver-Vert duly arrives at Nantes but soon reveals his corruption:

      The sisters, charmed with such a bird,
Press round him, chattering all at once,
As is the way, I’m told, with nuns,
     That even thunder fell unheard.
Jean Michel Roudier,
L'arrivée the Ver-Vert chez les visitandines de Nantes
After 1847, Musée de la Loire Cosne
He during all the clatter sat,
Deigning no word, or this, or that.
Only with strange, libertine gaze,
     Rolling his eyes from nun to nun.
First scandal. Not without amaze,
     The holy ladies saw how one
So pious could so rudely stare.
Then came the prioress, and there
First questioned him. For answer all,
     Disdainfully he spread his wings,
Careless what horror might befall,
     And thus replied to these poor things,
“Gadzooks! Ods bodikins! What fools!”
At this infringement of the rules
Which mere politeness teaches, “Fie,
     My dearest brother,” one began.
In jeering tones he made reply,
Till cold her very life-blood ran.

Jean-François Millet,1839 (private collection)

“Great Heaven! Is this a sorcerer?
     Is this the saintly praying bird
They boast so much of at Nevers,
     Ver-Vert, of whom so much is heard?
Is this —”  Here Ver-Vert, sad to say,
Took up the tale in his new way.
He imitated first the young,
The novices, with chattering tongue;
Their babble and their little ways,
Their yawning fits at times of praise.
     Then turning to the ancient ones,
Whose virtues brought respect to Nantes,
He mocked at large their nasal chants,
     Their coughs, their grumblings, and their groans.
But worse did follow. Filled with rage,
He beat his wings and bit the cage;
He thundered sacrilegious words
Ne’er heard before from beak of birds;
All that he’d learned on board the ship
Flowed now from that corrupted lip;
Terms fraught with horrid blasphemy
(Mostly beginning with a d...)
Hovered about his impious beak —
The young nuns thought him talking Greek,
Till with an oath so full, so round.
     That even the youngest understood,
He ended. At the frightful sound
     Multivious fled the sisterhood,
All smitten with terrific panic,
Ran pell-mell from the imp satanic;
’Twas by a fall that Mother Ruth
Then lost her last remaining tooth.

Ver-Vert is sent smartly back to Nevers  where the nuns deliberate his punishment

File:Sainte-Marie Nevers.jpg
Chapelle Saint-Marie, Nevers
Once part of the Visitandine convent
No good he has to say. They vote. 
     Two sibyls write the fatal word 
Of death; and two, more kindly taught, 
     Propose to send him back again 
To the profane place whence he came, 
     Brought by a Brahman — but in vain: 
The rest resolve, with common sense, 
Two months of total abstinence, 
Three of retreat, of silence four; 
Garden and biscuits, board and bed, 
And play shall be prohibited. 
Nor this the whole; in all the space 
Should he not see a pretty face. 
A gaoler harsh, a guardian grim, 
With greatest care they chose for him, 
The oldest, ugliest, sourest nun, 
An ape in veils, a skeleton, 
Bent double with her eighty years; 
She’d move the hardest sinner’s tears

Poor Ver-Vert! The parrot, suitably penitent, is finally released from his prison

Imprisonment of Ver-Vert 
François-Marius Granet (1775-1849)
 Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence

So passed Ver-Vert his term; in spite
     Of all his gaoler’s jealous care,
The sisters gave him some delight,
And now and then improved his fare
But chained and caged, in dungeon fast,
Bitter the sweetest almonds taste.
Taught by his sufferings to be wise,
Touched, maybe, by their tearful eyes,
The contrite parrot tries to turn
     Repentant thoughts from things of ill;
Tries holiness again to learn
     Recovers soon his ancient skill,
And talks like any pious dean.
     Sure the conversion is not feigned,
The ancient conclave meet again,
     And to his prison put an end.
Oh! happy day, when Ver-Vert, free,
Returns his sisters’ pet to be!

Sadly this is not a tale with a happy ending – no sooner is Ver-Vert restored to favour than he succombs fatally to to a surfeit of sugary indulgence

A festival, a day of joy,
Wit no vexation, no annoy,
 Death of Ver-Vert
Louis Charles Auguste Couder, c.1830
Museum of Beauvais
Each moment given up to mirth,
     And all by love together bound!
But ah! the fleeting joy of earth
     Too soon is untrustworthy found:
The songs, and chants, and cheerful hours,
The dormitory wreathed with flowers,
Full liberty, a tumult sweet,
     And nothing, nothing that could tell
Of sorrow hiding ’neath their feet,
     Of death advancing to their cell.
Passing too quick from diet rude,
From plain dry bread to richer food,
With sugar tempted, crammed with sweets,
Tempted with almonds and such meats,
Poor Ver-Vert feels his roses change
Into the cypress dark and strange.
He droops, he sinks. In vain they try
     By every art to stave off fate.
Their very love makes Ver-Vert worse;
     Their cares his death accelerate.
Victim of love, of love he tires,
And with a few last words expires.
These last words, faint and hard to hear,
Vain consolation, pious were.


English translation of Ver-Vert:
 From The World’s Wit and Humor, Volume X, French — Rutebœuf to Balzac; The Review of Reviews Company; New York; 1906; pp. 213-225.

The unacknowledged pictures are all taken from the "Gresset" pages on Harry van Boxtel's truly awesome Parrot Museum website

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