Saturday 28 September 2013

Watteau's Persians

During the Persian ambassador's six-month stay in Paris, Watteau produced a number of fine drawings of members of his entourage in red and black chalk.  

There is no information about the exact circumstances under which they were created, though 18th-century annotations always state that they were "from life". Details of the costumes - the cloak, the breeches and shoes of the servant -  have occasionally been disputed, and it is sometimes said that Watteau used models rather than "real" Persians.  However, he was a close friend of Antoine Coypel, (painter of the Versailles reception) and could well have arranged for individual Persians to pose.

The drawings were created as finished studies rather than preliminary sketches for paintings and are normally grouped with a set of "Savoyards" of the same period as modern character studies. The exact details of how many exist and where is difficult to unravel without access to the full catalogues. According to the Louvre there were nine drawings - seven in red and black, one in red only and a final one in trois crayons (ie. red, black and white).  A set of six were later engraved by Boucher as part of Jean de Jullienne's collection of engravings after Watteau,  Figures de différents caractères (the "Recueils Jullienne").

Sunday 22 September 2013

The Persian ambassador - again

In the official view the Persian ambassador long outstayed his welcome.  Diplomatic negotiations concluded and he should have been ready to leave  - the gazettes affirmed it, the Court wished for it, the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles was left in a state of readiness for his departure.  But, happily ensconced in the Hôtel des ambassadeurs, rue de Tournon, on expenses of  500 livres a day, Mohammed Reza Beg was in no hurry at all - to the exasperation of the duc de Breteuil, he and his entourage of forty men proceeded to make themselves thoroughly at home and managed to remain in Paris for a whole six months.

Parisians, of course, had an insatiable curiosity about this exotic personage and many picturesque details of his everyday life during his stay in Paris survive. The following is summarised from M. Herbette, Une ambassade persane sous Louis XIV  (Paris, 1907) a old  book based on original memoirs which picks up nicely the harried bemusement of the French officials charged with the Persians' care.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Another miniature - the Persian ambassador (1715)

Oil on paperboard. 9.4cm x 7.5 cm.
Inscribed on verso: 
Ambasadeur [sic] / de Perse / present a Louis XIV

This striking miniature by Antoine Coypel, sold at Sotheby's in New York in 2007, and posted on Wikipedia in 2011, depicts Mohammed Reza Beg (or "Bey"), an ambassador from the Shah of Persia sent to the Court of the Sun King in 1715. 

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Portrait of a Terrorist? Carrier at the Musée Lambinet

Anonymous portrait of Jean-Baptiste Carrier (1756-1794).

This portrait of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, perpetrator of the notorious "Noyages de Nantes", was posted on the French version of Wikipedia in December 2009  and has subsequently found its way onto several other websites.  No dimensions are given - it was scanned from a 1980 edition of Michelet - so it is easy to miss that it is a miniature:  not snuff box lid size, but still pretty small.  The original is in the Musée Lambinet. 

The label in the museum ascribes it to David himself - not implausibly: it is an accomplished and arresting work.

The portrait in situ at the Musée Lambinet (my photo)

Lithograph by François-Séraphin Delpech
 after Zéphyrin Belliard
One Wikipedia commentator has cast doubt on whether the portrait really is Carrier. He has even consulted Carrier's descendants. (The Carrier gene is strong, he says cryptically - no doubt someone still has that nose!).  The family "swear by" a Delpech lithograph, the only other known likeness apart from overt caricatures.


Personally I think the two images could well be the same man.  The real problem is accepting that this sympathetic and sensitive  portrait could indeed represent someone with such an odious and fearsome reputation as the murderous Carrier.  

Thursday 12 September 2013

At home in the Revolution

The French Revolution gave us popular government, militant nationalism, mass conscription, Terror, Dechristianisation......and politically correct wallpaper!

Here is a splendid Revolutionary wallpaper from the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, as posted on their website for 14th July this year:

Sidewall and border: République Française Liberté Égalité. France, ca. 1792.
Woodblock print on paper. Gift of John Jay Ide Collection

French Revolution Wallpapers

This is an example of wallpaper used as propaganda. This is a paper produced during the French Revolution, woodblock-printed ca. 1792. The citizens of France felt that the Revolution could not be won just by fighting in political circles or on the battlefield. They felt it needed to be reinforced on the domestic front as well and had to occur in the ordinary citizen’s everyday life. It was believed that symbols had a powerful effect on the spirit and could strengthen the validity of the new principles. The domestic nature of wallpaper as well its repetitive aspect made it an ideal medium for portraying such motifs, and bringing these ideals into the home. This paper contains numerous symbols of the Revolution including the red Phrygian cap, cockade, tri-color ribbons, and a banner with the words liberty and equality, which are all combined in this rather beautiful format. Unlike posters or flyers used today for the spread of information, these are block-printed wallpapers, made by some of the top French manufacturers. The Museum contains about a dozen different versions of wallpapers expressing this theme, in both sidewalls and borders, suggesting they were widely used and were being produced by a number of different manufacturers.

Monday 9 September 2013

Balzac's Turgotine

Balzac's Les Chouans contains a famous description of a "Turgotine".  The reference is strictly ironic - this is a miserable delapidated old coach from Paris now relegated to provincial Brittany.

In 1799 the Breton Counter-Revolutionary insurgents plan to attack the stagecoach out of Fougère.....

 Nothing better paints the condition of a country than the state of its social "plant," and thus considered, this vehicle itself deserves honorable mention. Even the Revolution had not been able to abolish it ; indeed, it runs at this very day*. When Turgot bought up the charter which a company had obtained under Louis XVI  for the exclusive right of serving passenger traffic all over the kingdom, and when he established the new enterprise of the so called turgotines, the old coaches of Messieurs de Vousges,  and the widow Lacombe were banished to the provinces.

 One of these wretched vehicles served the traffic between Mayenne and Fougeres. Some feather-headed persons had baptized it antiphrastically a turgotine, either in imitation of Paris or in ridicule of an innovating minister. It was a ramshackle cabriolet on two very high wheels, and in its recesses two pretty stout persons would have had difficulty in ensconcing themselves. The scanty size of the frail trap forbidding heavy loads, and the inside of the coach box being strictly reserved for the use of the mail, travelers, if they had any luggage, were obliged to keep it between their legs, already cramped in a tiny kind of boot shaped like a bellows. 

Its original color and that of its wheels presented an insoluble riddle to travelers. Two leathern curtains, difficult to draw despite their length of service, were intended to protect the sufferers against wind and rain, and the driver, perched on a box like those of the worst Parisian shandrydans, could not help joining in the travelers' conversation from his position between his two-legged and his four-legged victims. 

The whole equipage bore a fantastic likeness to a decrepit old man who has lived through any number of catarrhs and apoplexies, and from whom death seems yet to hold his hand. As it traveled it alternately groaned and creaked, lurching by turns forward and backward like a traveler heavy with sleep, as though it was pulling the other way to the rough action of two Breton ponies who dragged it over a sufficiently rugged road.

* August, 1827, when Balzac, twenty-eight years old, and twenty- eight years after date, wrote "The Chouans" at Fougeres itself ” 
Translator's Note.


English translation and illustrations from:
The Chouans by Honoré de Balzac. A new translation from the French New York : A.L. Burt 1920  quote .p.54-55)

[I liked the word "shandrydans" in this translation. Apparently it means:  
1. a two-wheeled cart or chaise, especially  one with a hood
2. any decrepit old-fashioned conveyance]

Reading La Comedie Humaine - The Chouans [Blog].  
A good summary of the plot, including the attack on the stage coach.

A local guide from Fougères on Balzac's stay there and the locations in the novel.

On the road - the "Turgotines"

This monster from the  Alsace Museum of Post and Telecommunication in Riquewihr is a reconstructed "Turgotine", one of a new breed of fast stagecoaches that appeared on the King's highways in the last quarter of the century. As the name implies, they were the brainchild of Louis XVI's enlightened  minister, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot.

The Alsatian Turgotine hits the road, drawn by four "study Breton horses"

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Voltaire and the "Enigma of Sellières"

Logis of the abbaye de Sellières as it is today
The commune of Romilly-sur-Seine in the department of l'Aube (Champagne-Ardenne) was at one time know as Romilly-Voltaire. Voltaire was buried there for thirteen years between his death (30th May 1778) and his translation to the Pantheon (8th May 1791)  The18th-century house of the abbaye de Sellières still exist in its pleasant grounds, but the town and its abbey are definitely bereft of their chief attraction.  All that remains is a modest grave stone and a couple of toe bones in Troyes; even the 19th century bust of Voltaire on its column has disappeared......

Old postcard with the grave marked -
the remains of the chapel have long since disappeared.

Gravestone of Voltaire

At least the merchandise was cool
- not just a postcard but
commemorative socks as well!

 In 2004 there was game attempt to shine once more in the reflected  glory of the great philosopher when the town staged an exhibition on "Voltaire and the Enigma of Sellières". Apart from displays of prints, plans and letters the main focus was the question of whether the exhumers of 1791 had really carried off the right corpse.

In Champagne, we are told, doubts had long lingered.  It was rumoured that Voltaire’s body had been secretly hidden inside a  wall and some monk or gardener buried in his place, that the corpse, in its advanced state of putrefaction, had been dissolved in quick lime or, more sinister still, spirited away in the night by grave robbers – Freemasons or mysterious strangers dressed in black in the employ of the Empress Catherine the Great.

From the Adelaide Mail (1927) 

Speculation had been renewed in 1927 when, in the course of renovation works, an unidentified body was found under the main staircase of the abbey house.  It had no cross or rosary, an astonishing detail for a corpse interred within an abbey.  The ribs of the skeleton were broken in a manner consistent with the removal of the heart and the marks of  a surgeon’s knife were also visible on the skull. The conclusion was plain – this was Voltaire himself, swapped with the gardener to ensure he rested in peace.

 At the time the find caused a flurry of comment in the press as far away as Australia.  In 2004 it didn't excite much interest.


Notice of the Exhibition at the Abbaye de Sellières (October-November2004)

Further details from an accompanying book by local historian Pierre Guillaumot can be found in Biblionomadie et Voltaire by Eric Poindron, 24 November 2008.,1018.html 

Monday 2 September 2013

Marat's bathtub .....again

This old postcard, depicting a Parisian antique shop with Marat's bath on display, is reproduced on half a dozen internet sites.  The point is obvious  - there have  been many "Marat" baths for sale, all of equally dubious provenance.  Does the one in the Musée Grévin fare any better?  At the best scenario there is a ten year gap in the written record between the destruction of Marat's monument and the bath's purchase in 1805.  I haven't seen the bath so am in no position to decide if it "looks" real, but a number of points were made at the time to  bolster its authenticity.  

Sunday 1 September 2013

Marat's bathtub

Here is a vintage postcard of the Marat montage from Madame Tussaud's Parisian rival, the Musée Grévin -  yes,THEY have the tub! (or so the story goes....)

The bath caused a minor sensation in July 1885 when Le Figaro tracked down its then possessor, a curé called Father Rio from the little town of Sarzeau in the department of  Morbihan in Brittany. The curé had inherited it long ago in 1862 from an ancient and staunchly royalist parishioner, one Mlle Capriol de Saint-Hilaire and had stored it in the refectory attic, more recently in an outhouse. He now realised that selling the tub could earn money for his parish, but the Musée Carnavalet turned it down due to its high price and lack of provenance.  Madame Tussaud's subsequently agreed to purchase it for Fr 100,000 but  unfortunately the curé's acceptance was lost in the post.   After rejecting other offers, including one from Phineas Barnum, he finally sold the tub for Fr 5,000 to Gabriel Thomas, president of the  Musée Grévin, where it remains to this day...

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