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.

Sunday 17 November 2013

The Château de Bellevue is no more....

The château de Bellevue, Yvrac, in happier times 

There were cries of "foul play" in the little commune of Yvrac near Bordeaux last winter when a fine 18th-century château was inadvertently razed to the ground in three days flat by a gang of Polish construction workers charged only with demolishing an outbuilding. The owner, a Russian plutocrat, who had been conveniently absent at the time, was a little too forgiving and a little too rapid in unveiling plans for a spanking new replica, attempting to smooth ruffled feathers by contracting local firms to do the work.  

Saturday 16 November 2013

A statuette of Voltaire by Houdon

Houdon, Statuette of Voltaire,
Signed and dated "f.p. Houdon 1778"
(My photos)

This tiny and very finely conceived statue from Musée Lambinet is one of very few terracotta miniatures of Houdon's seated Voltaire. 

Voltaire sits for Houdon

Shortly after his return to Paris in February 1778, the eighty-three year old Voltaire agreed to sit for Houdon, having seen his newly completed sculpture of Molière.   Grimm reports that Houdon took but two or three sessions which the philosopher attended cheerfully.  The marquis de Villeveille, who had instigated the sittings, claimed proudly that he had animated the patriarch's features by brandishing Voltaire's recently received "crown of triumph" from the Comédie Française.  The original sculpture, a  bust, now in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Angers, was completed by 16th April 1778 when François Metra noted, "All of Paris goes to the studio of M. Houdon to see a bust of M.Voltaire that is without question the closest likeness of all the portraits one has done of this patriarch." 

According to Georges Giacometti, it was immediately following Voltaire's death that Houdon conceived the idea of a full length figure and immediately hurried to Voltaire's deathbed to cast a mould of his hands. Given the harried, clandestine nature of Voltaire's posthumous departure from Paris, this seems unlikely, though such a mould, with Houdon's characteristic red seal and an inscription «H. 31 mai 1778 », certainly exists, again at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Angers  (acquired however only in 1882).

What is certain is that before November 1778 (the date of a letter from Grimm to Catherine the Great of Russia telling her the news), Houdon received a commission from Mme Denis, Voltaire’s niece, for a full-size marble statue intended for the Académie française.  It is this sculpture which, declined by the Académicians, today resides in the foyer of the Comédie française (with or without Voltaire's brain en suite!)

Catherine the Great's bronze

The sculptor showed his composition at the Salon of 1779 in the form of a bronze statuette, which was later sent to the Russian Empress, who was considering a second full-sized statue and is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. 

Houdon, Seated Voltaire, Gilded bronze, Height: 32 cm 
Originally belonging to Catherine the Great; sold at auction in 1852 by order of Nicolas I;
 subsequently owned by  André Pavolovitch Chouvalov and his heirs;
acquired by the 
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam in 1960.  

A commentator on the Salon wrote: “Here indeed is the old man of Ferney.  Wrapped in his dressing gown, he is seated in his armchair, with his hands resting on the arms;  he has returned from a walk and is tired, ready for bed.  Such is the domestic scene that the author has chosen; yet despite the lassitude of his body, his mind is wide awake, and his sardonic smile reveals the harvest of ridicule that the satirical philosopher has reaped in his latest meditations” (quoted Playing with fire, p.149).

The Musée Lambinet statuette

It was Houdon's common practice to produce several copies of his sculptures, often in different media, bronze, terracotta and plaster. No doubt he had many requests for a Voltaire and produced a number of statues which look to be from the same mould as the 1779 Salon piece. According to H.H. Arnason, although these should be regarded as miniatures for cabinets des amateurs rather than "maquettes" or preliminary studies, they are less tight in composition than the full scale statues. Differences include more complex folds of drapery, a wig (or at least longer hair) and Voltaire's disengaged expression, staring into the distance as though lost in thought. His left hand lie loosely on his upper thigh and he sits flatly in his chair with both toes showing. In the finished composition on the other hand, he is fully alert, his hand tense upon his chair arm, his feet positioned as if about to rise.

The most details provenance notes for the Musée Lambinet figure trace ownership back to Napoleon's general the Baron Dejean who died in 1845; it was given by his heir in 1896 to the mayor of Versailles for the town library and subsequently found its way to the Musée Houdon, now Musée Lambinet.

Other examples

Although Voltaire was the most popular subject Houdon sculpted, the small models in terracotta and plaster are rare. Many are in private hands. According to a recent auction noticethere are, apart from the the Musée Lambinet statue, only two other terracottas known: in the Musée d'Art et Histoire, Geneva - apparently, though there is no reference on their website - and in the private collection of Edmond Courty, Chatillon-sous-Bagneux. It is not clear at what stage this last was recorded, but the Courty collection was sold in 2002.

In addition there are half-a-dozen or so plaster examples, with Houdon's red wax seal, signed and dated 1778 and painted to resemble terracotta.

Louvre (Grand Palais)

This figure belonged originally to the miniaturist François Dumont (1751-1831), perhaps a gift from Houdon, and was given to the Louvre by Dr Henri Gillet in1891.(35.9cm 14.6cm x 20cm)

Metropolitan Museum, New York

This statuette probably belonged originally to the statesman and Academician François Antoine de Boissy d'Anglas, whom Houdon knew and sculpted. In 1916 it was put up for sale by a certain
Madame Gaultry first in Bordeaux and then in Paris. Bought by the dealer Jacques Seligmann, it found its way to American where it was owned by the Bliss family from 1920 to 1952, then donated to the Metropolitan Museum. This particular statue is easily traced from its missing chair leg. (See Giacometti, p.196-8.) (35.6cm x 14.6cm  x 20cm)

Walters Art Gallery Baltimore 

Arnason lists the Walters Art Gallery statuette as agood quality example. It was acquired by Henry Walters, again from Jacques Seligmann, in 1912. Possibly this is the statue from the collection of Jacques Doucet described by Giacometti as sold to Seligmann in Paris in 1912 (p.186)

Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  
35.5 cm x 14.5 cm  Described as painted plaster and wood.  No further information is available.

Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

This little statue in Nantes is always listed among the examples but, although authentic, it is clearly a little cruder in execution and probably a later copy.  It was acquired by the museum in Nantes in 1866 and is dated by them to the second quarter of the 19th century.

In addition to the above, there is a statuette in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, gift of L.C.G. Clarke in 1960 (no picture available but apparently in a glass case!).Two others have been sold at Christie's: from collection of Franklin H. Kissner (1989) and from that of John R Gaines (auctioned in 1993 and again 2013).


Georges Giacometti,  Le Statuaire de Jean-Antoine Houdon (1919), vol.3.

H.H. Arnason, The sculptures of Houdon, Phaidon, 1975, p.49-53

Playing with Fire: European Terracotta Models, 1740-1840, Metropolitan Museum of Art(2003).[Exhibition catalogue. Available on Google Books]

Notice from 2013 Christies sale

Friday 15 November 2013

1755: A memorable ball

THE HOST: Claude-Adrien Helvétius
A former tax-farmer,  Helvétius had given up his lucrative office five years previously, purchased the purely honorary one of maître d'hôtel de la Reine and devoted himself to writing and research. A year later he had married Mme de Ligniville-d'Autricourt, the niece of Madame de Graffigny, a witty and lavish hostess, who ably assisted her husband in making of the Helvétius mansion, rue Sainte-Anne, a centre for convivial  and freethinking gatherings.  In 1755 the unpleasantness  and notoriety of the affaire De l'Esprit still lay in the future and there was little to mar this luxurious, refined and, by mid-century, slightly old-fashioned world of letters and conversation.

THE GUEST OF HONOUR: Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle
In an age when men died young, Fontenelle, in his late nineties, was a living link to the age of Racine and Corneille and, ever obliging, happily to play his role as grand old man of the Enlightenment.  Helvétius self-consciously modelled himself on the libertins of old and must have been delighted that Fontenelle, though now deaf and almost blind, still managed from time to time to be guest of honour at the rue Sainte-Anne.

THE OCCASION:  A carnival ball, opened by Fontenelle with Helvétius's little daughter on 7th February 1755.

François-Hubert Drouais, Elisabeth-Charlotte Helvétius
later comtesse de Mun
The episode is recorded in the literary Journal of Charles Colle: 

"At the beginning of the month (February 1755) M.Helvétius gave a fine ball which was opened by M. de Fontenelle who, a few days later, entered his hundredth year, with the younger Mademoiselle Helvétius who was only a year and a half old.  Fontenelle still bowed to her and kissed the little girl.  Then he took the daughter of Madame d'Epinay, who was seven, bowed again and kissed her too.  What a lot of trouble for a gallant of ninety-nine years; two bows, two compliments, two kisses;  all joking apart, it's extraordinary, the man still has his wits about him". (vol.2,p.80)

And also there.....

It comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that another guest at the ball was none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau!  At this time, having just returned from Geneva to Paris, he still counted the leading philosophes among his closest friends and accepted the hospitality of Helvétius eagerly.  Although Rousseau speaks often in his Confessions of his extreme shyness and gauche behaviour in polite society, others testify to his charm and brilliant conversation. In one of his letters he reported attending the ball and witnessing there a "most agreeable sight": "It was the worthy Fontenelle who opened the ball with a young lady of four.  I advised the mother to point out to the girl the singularity of the occasion, something she will look back on in her old age with pleasure".  (A bit irritating this, since the contrast in age was clearly the whole point.)

It is a little confused which of Helvétius's two daughters is being referred to.  Despite Colle, it is usually assumed to be the elder, Elisabeth-Charlotte, who was born on 3rd August 1752, making her two-and-a-half at the time. The second daughter Geneviève-Adelaide, born on 25 January 1754, had just turned one. Neither girl would have been old enough to remember the event.

Madame la comtesse
de Belsunce,
 by Carmontelle, 1775
Elisabeth-Charlotte later married an aristocratic career soldier, Alexandre-Jean-François comte de Mun, but their union ended unhappily in divorce.  She died relatively young in 1799, so slightly spoiling this tableau of the generations.

The other little girl, Madame d'Epinay's daughter Angélique-Louise-Charlotte, later comtesse de Belsunce, lived on until 1824. Thus she at least could have boasted in the age of Chateaubriand and Byron of her kiss from a friend of Racine and Corneille.


I  first came across a mention of the ball long ago in R.J. White's Europe in the eighteenth century (1965), a nice gossipy book, though not much use for passing your A-level!  It is also written up in the late Maurice Cranston's biography of Rousseau, vol.2: The noble savage (1991), p.2-3.

Charles Colle's Journal historique: ou, Mémoires critiques et littéraires is on Google Books. Colle is not good on ages; he has Fontenelle's wrong too. Fontenelle died on 9th January 1757, just a month short of his hundredth birthday (11th February), so in February 1755 he would in fact have turned 98 years old and entered his 99th year.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Choiseul's pagoda at Chanteloup

The "pagoda" at Chanteloup with its huge semi-circular basin is all that now remains of Choiseul's magnificent chateau.  Always a strange architectural fantasy, deprived of all frame of reference it is now positively surreal - a forty-four metre tall oriental cum neo-Grecian dream set in wide open, and in most photographs, deserted, parkland with the Forest of Amboise stretching beyond.  Choiseul originally conceived the edifice as a monument to posterity to those friends who had come to Chanteloup during his four years of exile from Paris.  For, in the closing years of the old reign, flock to him they had; this miniature Versailles had contrived to combine an aura of domestic intimacy with a round of receptions and entertainments on a truly lavish - and ruinous - scale.  

Thursday 7 November 2013

Choiseul - the Chanteloup snuff box

Snuff box: 8cm x 5.7cm x 4.5cm
Van Blarenberghe, gouache on vellum mounted beneath crystal glass.
The box itself is probably the work of the Parisian goldsmith, 
Pierre-Francois Delafons. 

This second gold snuff box belonging to Choiseul is now in the Metropolitan Museum's Wrightsman Collection. The six miniature views, again by Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberghe,  depict Choiseul's grand château at Chanteloup near Amboise in Touraine. Since almost nothing now remains of the estate, they are an important record of his extensive embellishments to the house, gardens and park.

Choiseul employed his architecture Le Camus de Mézières to add long colonnades on either side of the main house linking it to twin pavilions. The gardens were remodelled on several occasions in a mixture of formal and "English" or "Chinese" style.

The park was also greatly expanded.  Soon after purchasing the property in 1761 Choiseul acquired the Forest of Amboise by exchange of lands with the king and opened up the series of extensive radiating rides shown on the base of the box (see right, middle picture). 

This vista of the park with its semi-circular water feature, fed by pipe and canal from twelve kilometres distant, gives some sense of the enormous scale of Choiseul's estate, which it was said to take twenty minutes to cross.

Sadly Choiseul's debts too were on a regal scale. Following his bankruptcy and death, Chanteloup was sold first to the duc de Penthièvre and, in the Napoleonic era, to Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who used the park as a sugar-beat factory.  Finally the property fell into the hands of speculators and was entirely demolished.


The snuff box: Description from the Metropolitan Museum

F.J.B. Watson, "Snuff Box," in The Wrightsman collection, vol. 3, ed. F.J.B. Watson and Carl Christian Dauterman (New York, 1970), pp. 133-139.  Available online at:

On Chanteloup: 

Claude Viel, "Choiseul et Chaptal à Chanteloup" p.249.

Les jardins du duc de Choiseul à Chanteloup
Colloque l'Esprit des jardins : entre tradition et création, 5-6 sept. 2008, Conseil Général d'Indre-et-Loire

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