Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Important chairs 4 - the chair in which Rousseau died

I've managed to find another chair!  This one belonged to Rousseau and is on show at the Abbaye de Chaalis, where a smart new "Espace Rousseau" was opened in 2012 to mark the Rousseau tercentenary. It is described as an armchair ("fauteuil"), though the word suggests something rather more comfortable and upholstered.  It is said to be the chair in which Rousseau died.

The chair - along with various other bits of personal paraphernalia, notably Rousseau's inkwell, collar and walking stick - belonged to the collection of the marquis Louis-René de Girardin,  In May 1778 Girardin and his wife had offered the philosopher a home at nearby Ermenonville  where they had created "natural" gardens inspired by his writing. Sadly Rousseau did not live long to enjoy his sanctuary.
Greuze, Marquis de Girardin with the bust of Rousseau
Abbaye de Chaalis

On 2nd July 1778, having returned from his habitual morning walk, he was enjoying coffee in the company of Thérèse Lavasseur when he suddenly complained of tingling on the soles of his feet, a sensation like cold water running down his spine and pains in his chest. He was then seized with a violent headache. He was put to bed but subsequently attempted to get up, fell to the floor unconscious and never recovered. Rumour spread that Rousseau had taken poison or shot himself, but the autopsy revealed massive cerebral bleeding as a result of a stroke or, as modern opinion tends to believe, the repeated falls that he had previously suffered.

A contemporary account of Rousseau's death, based on the testimony of Thérèse Lavasseur, briefly features a chair, presumably this one:

His wife wanted to give him some medicine; he said that it was impossible in his present state of weakness.  However, having helped him onto his bed, she gave it to him, but he couldn't keep it down;  she wanted to slip a flat bed pan under him.  "What!", He said, "Do you think me so weak that I can't get up?".  He made an effort and, throwing himself to the bottom of the bed, got into his chair. His wife proposed a cup of soup, he drank a little then gave it back to her....When she turned away to put the cup on the side, he fell down on the floor, dead.  Believing that he had fallen over in weakness, she threw herself on him to pull him up.  She tried to put him back on the chair but seeing him motionless, she gave a cry and fainted....

Georges Gazier,"La mort de J.-J. Rousseau récit fait par Thérèse Levasseur à l'architecte Paris  à Ermenonville"  Revue d'Histoire littéraire de la France 1906, 13(1) p.107

"The Last words of J.J. Rousseau" engraving by Heinrich Guttenberg after Jean Michel Moreau  (1741–1814) .

"Espace Rousseau" on the Abbaye de Chaalis website
"La Collection Jean-Jacques Rousseau" (virtual visit) Chaalis Rousseau tricentenary minisite.

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