Monday 29 July 2013

A portrait of Adrienne Lecouvreur

Louis de Fontaine (fl. Paris 1723-1757)
Portrait of Adrienne Lecouvreur, 1724
Oil on canvas 16 x 12½ in. (40.2 x 31.7 cm.)

This modestly dressed and respectable-looking young woman is none other than Adrienne Lecouvreur, the most celebrated French actress of her age. The portrait, by  Louis de Fontaine, was sold at auction in Versailles in April of this year.  Up until now it was known only from engravings.

Adrienne Lecouvreur was born into modest circumstances on the 5th April 1692 at Damery, near Epernay and brought up in Paris by her father who was a hatter by trade. Having been on stage, as part of an amateur group then with various provincial troupes, since the age of fourteen, she was received into the Comédie Française in 1717. For thirteen years she was the acknowledged  “Queen of Tragedy” and achieved enormous popularity; she was said to have played no fewer than 1,184 times in a hundred roles, of which she created twenty-two.  Her success was attributed at the time to her abandonment of the traditional quasi-operatic style of delivery in favour of an emotional intensity which was “simple, noble and natural”.

 It was her romance with the flamboyantly reckless Marechal de Saxe, whom Adrienne met in 1721 (three years before the portrait was painted), that brought about the mysterious and much chronicled events surrounding her death. It was widely rumoured that she had been poisoned by her rival, the Duchesse de Bouillon, dying on the 20th March 1730.

Engraving by G F Schmidt after Fontaine
This is the most well-known of several


There are references to two sales, one at Christie's in London in 2007 and one in Versailles in 2013.  It is not made clear, but they must surely be of the same painting.  In London it made only £1,875 which seems a bit of a bargain for such a significant portrait.

Arcadja Auction Results

Christie's sale: 

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Marat in Austria

There have been some pretty crazy pastiches of David's Death of Marat, but this creation on Lake Constance in 2011 will take some beating.  Note it was 24 metres high!

Lake Stage Festival Theatre,
Bregenz, Austria
Summer Festival 2011,
“André Chénier”, opera by Umberto Giordano

"Director Keith Warner & set designer David Fielding have chosen “The Death of Marat”, an iconic painting by the revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David, as the symbol & inspiration for their staging of “André Chénier”. It is the first time that a historical painting has served as the basis for a Bregenz stage set, which towers 24 metres high above Lake Constance. Set against the background of the French Revolution, the opera “André Chénier”, which premiered at “La Scala Milan” in 1896, is a historical drama of sharp perceptivity & a human tragedy of devastating intensity; appealing both as a passionate love story & as a historical thriller"

Sunday 21 July 2013

Important chairs 1 - the chair in which Voltaire died

Voltaire probably did not actually expire in this chair, now on display in the Musée Carnavalet,  but he certainly owned it in his final years. It is listed by the museum as dating from about 1775 and having the mark of a Parisian carpenter Charles-Francois Normand.  It still has the original brown wool cover (though I suspect it has recently acquired new stuffing).  The unusual - and clearly customised - features are the pivoting book desk and writing table attached to the arms, the latter with a handy drawer divided into four compartments.  The provenance is given as "unknown".

It is not really clear whether the chair made the journey to Paris with Voltaire or after his death, but he must have had it originally at Ferney. Thus S.G. T
allentyre describing the furniture in Voltaire's bedroom: "Later on, Voltaire had a second writing-chair made, which he used much in the last few years of his life : one of its arms formed a desk, and the other a little table with drawers; and both were revolving". (Life of Voltaire (1909) ii p.83)

Lady Morgan recalls the chair 

The Irish writer Lady Morgan recounted seeing the chair by the fireside of her friend the Marquise de Villette (Voltaire's "Belle et bonne") at the Hôtel Villette as late as 1820.  This was not the apartment where Voltaire had died, which had been sold by this time, but a second Villette property in the rue Vaugirard.  Once the setting for brilliant society gatherings, in the Marquise's declining years it had become a shrine to the great philosophe:

           "The apartment habitually occupied by Madame de Villette, is a sort of reliquary, dedicated to the remains of Voltaire:  Her book-cases are filled with his works ; her secretaire with his MS. letters. The arm chair, which he always occupied, stands by her hearth. On the reading and writing desk, ingeniously fastened to one of its arms, he wrote for the last twenty years of his life."


Notice from the Musée Carnavalet

Lady Morgan, The Book of the boudoir, vol. 1 (1829),p.264 and France in 1829-30, p.142.  Free e-book versions of these books are readily accessible.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

The posthumous history of Voltaire's heart

The statue from an old photograph
In 2010 renovation works at the Bibliothèque nationale necessitated the temporary removal of Houdon's statue of Voltaire from its time honoured place in the Salon d'honneur, rue Richelieu. Imagine the consternation when the statue began to omit a noxious odour!

The explanation? ....Voltaire's heart preserved in its base was making its presence felt......

Voltaire in situ in the Salon d'honneur, Bibliothèque nationale

Ferney: his monument
is here, but his heart
is elsewhere!
The story of the heart

On Voltaire's death, his heart was removed and appropriated by the marquis de la Villette who placed it in a precious metal box, bearing the suitably uplifting inscription:  "His heart is here but his spirit is everywhere".  The marquis managed to buy the estate at Ferney from Madame Denis and briefly enshrined the heart there, its casket installed on a velvet cushion before a pyramid shaped monument designed by the former architect Léopold Racle. This splendid cenotaph was surrounded by no less than forty one portraits of Voltaire's friends and guardians of his memory.  In 1785, when financial necessity obliged the marquis to sell Ferney, the heart was quietly removed to his ancestral property the Château de Villette at Pointe-Sainte-Maxence (Oise).

"Chambre du Coeur de Voltaire" Engraving by F.-D. Née
 from a drawing by G. Duché de Vancy 
made for the marquis de Villette at Ferney in 1781.

 When the marquis's son (the gloriously named Charles-Voltaire Villette) died in 1864 a protracted legal rankle resulted in the heart being given over to the French state. It was duly presented to Napoleon III and placed in the base of Houdon's plaster statue of the philosopher in the then Bibliothèque impériale. In 1924 the statue was rescued from dust-covered neglect and ceremonially restored to Salon d’honneur, complete with the heart.  And there it resided undisturbed until 2010.

Ceremonial handover in 1924
The statue (with heart) in 1924

If you like you can read all about the state of the now mummified heart and the elaborate conservation treatment it required. I have not been able to find out whether it has yet been restored to its former compartment in the base of the statue.


"Voltaire, un coeur à prendre!", post dated 27/12/2011.  SFU-BNF blog,

Nathalie Buisson, "Le cœur de Voltaire : un secret bien gardé". in  Actualités de la conservation,  No.32, 2012

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Meet Doctor Curtius.....

Wax bust of Curtius, Musée Carnavalet

Every so often you find a portrait from the 18th century that gives you a sudden sense of the real living breathing person.  This waxwork self-portrait of Madame Tussaud's adoptive uncle and mentor Philippe Curtius does just that - and the sensation is not entirely pleasant!  The bust, which is life size, is stuffed rather unceremoniously into a corner at the Musée Carnavalet; in fact I rather think it shares a cabinet with that horrible papier-mâché Voltaire....

Sunday 14 July 2013

The Carillon of the Bastille..cont.

The carillon and clock before the Revolution

The clock and its bells were installed in 1764 on the wall of the new block for staff officers built (as a prominent gold lettered inscription on black marble proclaimed) by Antoine Raymond Jean Gualbert Gabriel de Sartine, lieutenant of police. This divided the space between the monumental walls into two courtyards, the larger one being where the prisoners took their exercise. The clock faced into the main courtyard from the apex of the upper storey immediately opposite the principal drawbridge which was to be so fatefully disputed on 14th July 1789. It was surmounted by a tile-covered turret housing the three bells.  Letters survive detailing payments to the clockmaker, Quillet, his disputes with the bell founders, and various subsequent adjustment and repair work.

Illustration from Millin's Antiquités nationales plate III

Even before the Revolution, the clock had attracted a certain opprobrium due to the sculpted figures which adorned it, two recumbent slaves undiplomatically festooned in finely wrought chains. They featured notably in the hugely popular Memoirs of the Bastille by Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet, a work which was not so much a criticism of the Bastille as an indictment of the whole psychology of imprisonment. Linguet paints a memorable picture of the torments of the exercise yard, over which the clock presided in sadistic splendour:

Prefigurement of destruction?  Frontpiece to Linguet's Memoirs -
 Louis XVI frees the unjustly imprisoned
Note the clock has already been struck by lightning!
             ….... it must not be supposed, that the act of tormenting, with which they keep their captives in misery, is suffered to relax during this transitory interval : for it may easily be conceived, how little they can enjoy walking in a place so circumscribed; where there is no shelter from the rain ; where nothing but the inconveniences of the weather is experienced ; where with the appearance of a shadow of liberty, the sentinels that surround them, the universal silence that prevails, and the sight of the clock, which is alone allowed to break that silence, present them with but too certain marks of slavery.

                     This particular may be worthy of a remark. The Clock of the Castle looks into the Court. It is covered with a handsome dial-plate : but, who would imagine the ornaments with which they have thought proper to decorate it? Chains carved with much exactness, and highly finished. It is supported by two figures, bound by the hands, the feet and the waist : the two ends of this curious garland, after being carried all round the plate, return to form a prodigious knot in front ; and, to signify that they menace both sexes alike,the Artist either inspired by the genius of the place, or else in pursuance of precise directions, has carefully made the distinction of a male and a female. Such is the spectacle, with which the eyes of a prisoner are regaled during his walk : a large inscription in letters of gold engraved on black marble informs him, that he is indebted for it to M. Raymond Gualbert de Sartines. (pp.50-51)

Such was the impact of Linguet's indictment, that the Baron de Breteuil, Louis XVI's enlightened minister, paid visit to the Bastille shortly afterwards demanding that the chains be removed, though sadly the position of the slaves could not be altered.  Millin's Antiquités nationales corrects Linguet's iconography – the slaves are both male, representing youth and old age, indicating that both extremities of life are equally threatened by slavery.

14 July and its aftermath

Photograph of the carillon
in the 1890s from
Maxime Vuillaume's book.

In the assault on the Bastille on 14th July the clock was subject to furious attacks and the commemorative marble plaque with its gold lettering broken to smithereens. It was later claimed that the clock stopped for ever at a quarter past five. The clock mechanism, however, survived the assault. Three days later, on the 17th, the Bastille's enterprising demolisher Palloy received a visit from a Master clockmaker called Regnault, with an order from the commander of the Paris militia the marquis de La Salle, to take possession of the clock and its bells. Palloy at first resisted but later surrendered them - the Bibliotheque Nationale has the receipt.
(There is some evidence Palloy managed to hang on to the two sculptures from the clock face; they - or two replicas - certainly appeared in his tableau on the Bastille site for the 1790 Fête de la Fédération.)

  The carillon itself subsequently resurfaced at the main administrative centre for the demolition effort, in the district of Saint-Louis-de-la-Culture, and was sold on to the foundry at Romilly-sur-Andelle (Eure), one of the key establishments providing copper and bronze to the Marine and the mints in Paris, Rouen and Orleans. At this point it was happily rescued by the director Daniel Grimpret who, finding it good order, installed it in the works as a curiosity. In the 1890s it was still there.

A visit from Napoleon

On the 14th Brumaire of Year XI of the Republic (1802) the carillon enjoyed a moment of renewed glory when First Consul Bonaparte visited the Romilly Foundry accompanied by Joséphine and the Minister of the Marine, Kellerman. The bells were allowed to ring for an extended period to mark the occasion, which seemed to please Bonaparte - though the workers were more pleased by the fact that he awarded them the bonus of a month’s salary.

Later history

The foundry changed hands, but successive owners jealously guarded the bells until, on the works' closure in 1897, they were finally sold to a merchant in the metal trade, who exhibited them at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition in the "Palace of Mines and Metallurgy". After this the trail becomes hazy, though they remained in Paris. According to one source they were reported successively in the attic of a factory in Saint-Denis, an apartment block in the Avenue d'Eylau and, at a later point, in another attic in the 4th Arondissement. They were certainly listed as being in the garden of No.11, Avenue d’Eylau in a street directory published in 1906 (Promenades dans toutes les rues de Paris, 16e Arrondissement, p16).
In a recent account the journalist Pierre Bellemare tells a similar anecode to Jean-Louis Viguès about the carillon ringing spontaneously. He has a M. Dupré-Neuvy transporting the bells back to Paris from Normandy - almost certainly an error - and erecting them as a centre piece in his smart courtyard garden in the Avenue d'Eylau. One night, disaster struck when the whole quartier was awoken by the unbidden clanking of bells. It took a locksmith, called out in the small hours in police presence, to disable the mechanism before the carillon could be persuaded to stop. The mystery of what had happened was never fully resolved, though there was some talk of a passing cat. At this point the bells were abandoned and only rescued from the garden and repaired in 1914.

It is not clear whether M. Neuvy was ever a doctor, but the carillon was certainly bequeathed by him in August 1955 to an invalid named René Bernard. Bernard was none too pleased with having to find storage and in 1957 hit upon the idea of giving his cumbersome legacy away to an old friend, Michel Lévesque, who long ago, as a boy scout, had befriended and supported him in hospital. Lévesque recorded his amazement when the huge packing case arrived out of the blue, but, sadly, he too had nowhere to store the carillon which was soon shipped out to the suburbs.

At the moment I can find no more accessible information between this point and M.Viguès's acquisition of the bells in the late 1970s, but I'll keep looking......


Information for the earlier period is mostly from:
Maxime Vuillaume, L’Horloge et les cloches de la Bastille ,, 1896.

This is an English version of Linguet's Memoirs of the Bastille (Dublin, 1782):

For the 19th and 20th centuries:

“Le carillon de la Bastille à Romilly sur Andelle”, post dated 25/01/2013,

Pierre Bellemare, "Un carillon voyageur" in Possession: l' étrange destin des choses, 1996 (extracts available on Google Books)

Saturday 13 July 2013

The Carillon of the Bastille

Salut!  To celebrate the 14th July 2013, I offer you the “Carillon of the Bastille”!


The Carillon today 

This substantial relic now holds pride of place in a fine modern "Museum of Campanology" opened in 1994 in the commune of L'Isle-Jourdain in the Midi-Pyrénées.  We are informed that it is not strictly speaking a "carillon" at all but the prison clock mechanism, with its accompanying three bells.  There was originally a clock face which looked out on the main court of the prison and was supported by the figures of two chained slaves - sadly inevitable targets for the liberators of 1789.  The bells weigh 125, 75 and 50 kilos respectively. They are ornately decorated and inscribed with the name of their founder, Jean-Charles Chéron (or Louis in the case of the small bell) who appears in a contemporary directory as "Founder of the Prince de Condé", and with the date 1762 (1761 for the small bell).
Decoration on the large and medium bells

Sale catalogue 1989

The carillon is now an official “historic monument” and much venerated.  In 2005 it even visited the world’s only other “bell museum” in Beijing, ceremonially conveyed along the old silk road from Lyons in a convoy of “Renault Trucks” (what else?)

But this degree of care and attention is  recent. The carillon only appeared on the official horizon in 1989, when it was dramatically rescued from public auction and possible expatriation at a cost of Fr.620,000, by the timely  intervention of museum curator Colette Golfier and French Minster of Culture Jack Lang himself.

A previous owner

The identity of the person who sold the Carillon in 1989 is no great mystery. He is M.Jean-Louis Viguès, and he is alive, well and on Facebook, apparently living in Cayenne, having been proprietor from 1978 to 1988 of the restaurant “Au carillon de la Bastille” in Paris.  The writer and language school pioneer John Haycraft  recounts a meeting with him in his book In search of the French Revolution, published in 1989.

On a slightly depressing visit to the Place de la Bastille,  Mr Haycraft  had spotted the firmly closed “Carillon of the Bastille” restaurant.  A nearby newsvendor informed him that he had indeed seen the bells in the restaurant – two and a half metres high and still chiming - but the proprietor had sold the restaurant and brought a “self” somewhere nearby:

            Without much hope, we looked around for a self-service restaurant and found one facing the Place.  Here, to our delight, we were welcomed warmly by the owner, Jean-Louis Viguès, an exuberant man in his late thirties, who was a Bastille enthusiast.  Yes he owned the carillons.  Huge they were, made of grey, ancient metal.  Originally they had been suspended in the inner courtyard of the fortress.  Prisoners had liked their chimes, but after a few weeks, the monotonous repetitions every quarter of an hour had become intolerable, marking as they did the length of tedious time ahead.

           Jean-Louis told us that when the Bastille was pulled down, the carillons were salvaged by an unknown individual and handed down from person to person.  Early this century they were acquired by a doctor who left them on one night when he went to the hospital.  In the apartment building where he lived they made such a reverberating noise that his neighbours had to call the police to switch them off.  When the doctor died, he left them to a patient of his with poliomyelitis, who had to keep them in a warehouse where the storage fees were more than his small pension.  So he sold them to a friend who thought it a good idea to exhibit them to the public, and sold them in turn to Jean-Louis Viguès for his restaurant in 1979.


John Haycraft, In search of the French Revolution, Secker & Warburg, 1989, pp.49-50

On the Musée at L'Isle-Jourdain and the carillon:

Article on the 2005 exhibition in Beijing

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Robespierre on the day of his execution by Jacques-Louis David

Maximilien Robespierre on the day of his execution [drawing] by Jacques-Louis David, 
The Morgan  Library & Museum, New York, Department of Literary & Historic Manuscripts
Graphite on paper,  (184 x 200 mm)

Hang on here!!


I came across this picture on the Morgan Library's blog, where it was posted in 2011.  It has been reblogged a few times but doesn't seem to have excited that much attention or comment (at least in sources accessible on the internet).  But can this possibly be real?


The drawing formed part of the collection of the French dramatist, Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), longtime Revolutionary obsessive and author in 1899 of an hostile melodrama entitled Robespierre.  At some point after Sardou's death, his collection was mounted in an gold-tooled red morocco bound volume. There is an impressive array of material - a manuscript by Robespierre, two pamplets, letters and no less than 53 engravings. The collection was sold on his death in 1909 and subsequently purchased by the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1928. 

There is no real clue where Sardou might have obtained the drawing though that is no reason to doubt its authenticity -  he is known, for instance, to have met and talked to Elisabeth Lebas in the 1840s. 


Marie Antoinette,
drawing in the Louvre
Napoleon, in A life of Napoleon

by Ida M. Tarbell, New-York 1905
from a private collection (Wikimedia)

This is a difficult one. The profile image is similar to other David sketches as is the hard outline of the forehead and nose, the loops suggesting drapery.  Maybe the Robespierre drawing seems more tentative and has less clean lines, but then the others two are pen and ink  -  and the subject does have wavy hair and a frilly shirt!


The description from the Morgan Library notes that the name David beneath the sketch is not the signature of the artist, but possibly a mark of identification. The presumption is that the rest of the writing is in David's hand. Again, comparison with verified manuscripts does nothing to contradict this - David's writing varies quite a lot with speed, pen and age;   the script on the drawing seems to me quite close to the more cursive examples.

Where was David on 10th Thermidor?

Of course there is nothing to suggest, even if the drawing is by David, that it was made from life or at the time of Robespierre's execution. That at least seems highly unlikely.  Having earlier embraced Robespierre fraternally at the Jacobin Club, David absented himself from the Convention for the fatal debate of 9th Thermidor and did not reappear until 13th when he attempted a halting speech of  self-defence.  With sweat pouring from his forehead, he was a sick man and one (not unreasonably) in mortal fear.  It is unlikely he would have risked showing himself on the 10th let alone been capable of producing this cool dispassionate portrait.

Is it Robespierre?

Robespierre looks more like the reluctant participant in some strange parlour game than someone facing execution, though he need not be actually on his way to the guillotine (the tumbrils did not depart until early evening).  Certainly the bandage is less than convincing - more whimsical bandana than a bloody binding. That shirt too is surprisingly intact.  We know Robespierre made it unaided up the steps of the scaffold but he was in pain and semi-conscious for most of his final hours.

I suspect this drawing was created long after the event, but who knows?  


To the National Razor!: Collecting Heads of the French Revolution 
Morgan Library & Museum Blog,  Posted by Anna Culbertson 22 March 2011,

Sunday 7 July 2013

Maximilien, model citizen.....

This splendid (if a little unkind) model of Robespierre is from the Museum of Ventura County in far-away California.  It is one of over 400 figures created by the artist George Stuart, who performs educational monologues on history and orginally designed his models as stage props.  It is about a quarter life-size. Follow the weblink to enjoy the jigsaw puzzle version!

Madame Tussaud encounters Maximilien

By the time her Memoirs were written in 1838, Madame Tussaud was well advanced in modelling her own legend -  Revolutionary history repackaged into tempting tableaux for a Victorian audience, with our heroine centre-stage.  Who is to know whether she even met Maximilien?  Nonetheless her  Robespierre is interesting and possibly quite close to the man himself  - reserved, careful of his appearance, thoughtful and courteous, not at all the stereotypical caricature of the bloodthirsty Terroriste

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