Friday 27 February 2015

Cavagnole - a "cheating game"

Gambling was another of Emilie's passions.  Her quick mind enabled her to calculate chances effectively (though it did not save her from spectacularly losing over 80,000 livres at the royal table at Fontainebleau in 1747).  On her death Voltaire lamented loss a "great man" who translated Newton and Virgil, but was known among women only for her "diamonds and cavagnole" ( to Baculard d’Arnaud, letter of 14th  October 1749)
Gaspare Traversi," The Card Party"  (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

"Cavagnole" was indeed a surprisingly unintellectual pastime for an intelligent woman. Usually played for low stakes, it was easy to cheat at and boringly simple to play.  It was looked upon with contempt by courtiers like Voltaire, who were obliged to suffer stifling evenings at the gambling table:

On croirait que le jeu console ; 

Mais l'ennui vient , à pas comptes ,
A la table d'un carvagnole , 
S'asseoir entre des majestés

[They believe that the game amuses / but boredom arrives, step by step/ at the cavagnole table / to take a seat between their Majesties].

Thursday 26 February 2015

Émilie du Châtelet - Madame Pompon-Newton

Émilie du Châtelet was well known for her love of fashion, jewellery and pretty things. Voltaire nicknamed her "Madame Pompon-Newton" and indulged her penchant. The ascerbic Mme Du Deffand reproached her with living beyond her means to keep up appearances, making herself ridiculous with her profusions of "frisure, pompons, pierreries, verreries". Mme de Graffigny could hardly contain her surprise when she saw her jewellery, particularly the snuffboxes:

 She had known Mme du Châtelet when she had only one tortoise-shell snuff-box; now she possessed "fifteen or twenty of gold, of precious stones, of beautiful lacquer, of enamelled  gold, a new fashion which was very expensive, and incense-boxes of the same kind, one more magnificent than the other; jasper watches with diamonds, needle-cases, and other wonderful things ; rings containing precious stones, and charms and trinkets without end.(Hamel, p.175-6).  

Sunday 22 February 2015

The Château de Breteuil - Madame du Châtelet in wax

I do like waxworks (apart from those guillotined heads). The Château de Breteuil has loads, supplied by the Musée Grévin, including various historical personages inside the house and no less than seven tableaux from Perrault's fairy tales in the outbuildings!  In 2014 the Marquis commissioned a wax model of his ancestress, Madame du Châtelet. Here she is: 


This is what  the Château de Breteuil Facebook page has to say:

1. The creation of a wax model requires considerable documentation. The reference point for the new waxwork was the portrait by Marianne Loir in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Bordeaux; the château itself has a fine eighteenth-century copy in its collections. The work of Elisabeth Badinter and Judith Zinsser on the correspondence and archive sources, revealed Madame du Châtelet to have been a strong personality who freed herself from social conventions and attracted many enemies.

2. Information was carefuly gathered on her physical appearance - colour of eyes and hair; shape of the face. The mannequin's hair was created by Any d’Avray a  Parisian firm which specialises in theatrical wigs. The wigmakers were struck by the natural style; the hair was tided up in a simple chignon, with some locks left curled and loose on the shoulders.  Elodie Pommelet, a theatrical make-up artist, did the make up;  this too was quite natural, though with the use of powder as was the fashion for both women and men of the eighteenth-century nobility.

3. The costume was made by  Pascale Breyne of the Troupe du Crâne (a theatrical company which specialises in period comedies).  The dress is dark blue velvet, with detachable lace cuffs and fur trimming. This style of loose gown, called a "robe battante", was popularised by Madame de Montespan and was fashionable in the first half of the eighteenth century.

4.  The tableau was designed by the Marquis de Breteuil himself and his adviser Christophe Leray to present Emilie informally at work on her scientific studies.  The wax statue was positioned in front of an eighteenth-century telescope as though observing the stars.  The screen,  a family heirloom, was created from her actual sedan chair, with its gold decoration and the coats-of-arms of the Châtelet and Breteuil families.

Château de Breteuil

Friday 20 February 2015

Madame du Châtelet - portraits of a "femme savante"

What did Madame du Châtelet look like?  The article on French Wikipedia conveniently gathers together a set of comments on her appearance and personality, all of them equally catty.  

According to the marquise du Deffand she was "large and dry-looking" with a ?florid complexion ("le teint échauffé"), thin face, pointed nose and small sea-green eyes. She remarks on her discoloured and damaged teeth.  Emilie's figure also comes in for criticism: she is  "without hips, narrow in the chest, with fat arms and legs and enormous feet".  The Souvenirs attributed to  Madame de Créquy likewise mentions the big hands and feet.  

The surviving portraits are more flattering, but to some extent confirm the descriptions.  They clearly show the same woman, big boned, with a low forehead, long nose and small closed mouth (no doubt concealing those imperfect teeth)!

Here are the main portraits, in so far as I have been able to find them on the internet.

By Bernard-François Lépicié

1910 engraving after Lépicié 
To judge from the features this portrait is undoubtedly a young Madame du Châtelet, with dark unpowdered hair.  It is credited to either Bernard-François Lépicié (1698-1755) or his son Nicolas-Bernard (1735-84).  Both ascriptions are slightly problematic - the father is known almost exclusively for engravings; the son, though  a portrait painter, was surely too young to have painted this youthful looking Émilie.  In 1892 the picture belonged to the Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild.  It is also reproduced in my old copy of Nancy Mitford's Voltaire in love from 1957 where the acknowledgement is "By courtesy of Mme. Thierry"; the engraving illustrated was for sale on ebay.

Here is a description of the painting from an 1892 exhibition catalogue: 

Cent chefs-d'oeuvre des écoles françaises et étrangères ...(Paris; G. Petit, 1892)

Marquise du Châtelet by Lepicie, no.24

Seated in a white silk dress with paniers;  low-cut bodice decorated with ribbons knotted in the shape of sunflowers; loose brown fur boa behind the neck and extending the length of the bodice.  Hands covered by two long mittens which extend to the sleeves; the left hand holds a closed book, the right a piece of paper showing figures of geometry.  The head, slightly to one side, faces forward; the mouth is serios, but with laughing and spirited eyes (les yeux railleurs et spirituels)

Collection of the Baroness N. de Rothschild

By Nattier

Nattier portrait from 1743 is again "location unknown". This reproduction is from Elise Goodman's The portraits of Madame de Pompadour: celebrating the femme savante (2000) [Extracts on Google Books]

  As Elise Goodman points out the picture falls within  a clear tradition of depictions of the "femme savante" who is both beautiful and learned.  The book on display is Madame du Châtelet's own Institutions de physique, first published anonymously in 1740, then in revised form in 1742.  It has to be said that Émilie tranforms a little awkwardly into a typical white glossy Nattier subject.

By Marianne Loir ("after Nattier")

Marianne Loir, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux  Oil, 118 cm x 96 cm

This beautiful portrait by Marianne Loir was formerly in the royal collections and was acquired by the Municipality of  Bordeaux in 1803  (Several copies exist, including Lot 3 of the 2012 sale)  It is clearly the likeness of a real woman, though the pose is still that of the conventional "femme savante". Émilie is surrounded by the paraphernalia of scientific scholarshipwhilst the beautiful low cut gown in vibrant new Prussian blue and her white bosom emphasise her feminity. In her left hand she holds a set of compasses and in the right a carnation, symbol of love; perhaps the prominence of the flower was intended deliberately to affirm the dominance of the heart over the intellect. 

Entry on Joconde:

On the website of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux

It is unclear to what extent Marianne Loir's picture is "after Nattier". Elise Goodman (p.103) reproduces two engravings after a "lost" Nattier which are very similar indeed to the Loir picture.  The Institut Voltaire also owns a copy (left) which they feel is "very probably" a late Nattier:
See comments in La Gazette des Délices, Autumn 2005

I am sure the Institut Voltaire knows what it is talking about. Nonetheless, this face does not resemble the known Nattier portrait, which seems altogether more characteristic of his work.

By Quentin La Tour
This La Tour pastel is my favour picture of Émilie. There are several different versions; this one is from the Musée Antoine Lecuyer, Saint-Quentin. It is sometimes described as an "unknown woman" but Neil Jeffares in the Dictionary of pastellists identifies it as Madame du Châtelet, and he is obviously right!

It compares with La Tour's studies of Voltaire which were done in 1735.

It would be nice to think this is a close likeness of Émilie.  Certainly it is unencumbered by any symbolic intent, though it is possible that the intelligent eyes and confident amused expression owe more to La Tour's interpretation than to Émilie herself.

By an unknown artist 

Portrait in oils, 120 cm x 100 cm
Château de Breteuil

This much reproduced portrait is usually listed as an unidentified painting though for some unaccountable reason it now appears on Wikipedia as the work of Quentin La Tour. It is a private possession of Henri François, Marquis de Breteuil and is on display in the beautiful Château de Breteuil. A little model based on the painting, created by Brigitte Duboc, adorns one of two rooms devoted to Émilie (In fact, as the daughter of a younger son of the Breteuil family, she never actually resided at the château) 

 By Nicolas Largillière?

Marquise du Châtelet (?)by Nicolas  Largillière
Oil, 130.8cm  x 102.3 cm

In January 2010 Christie's in New York sold this portrait of  Madame du Châtelet by Nicolas Largillière for  $134,500 on behalf of the Columbus Museum of Art, its owner since 1953 (Sale 2282, Lot 175) . The identity of the sitter, which has long been accepted, rests on an inscription at the bottom of a smaller version of the picture sold in 1920. It was also noted, rather weakly, that the Marquise's fingers pointed on the globe to Scorpio, Voltaire's zodiacal sign.... 
Since then the Largillière expert Dominique Brème has challenged the identification, concluding that the picture dates from about 1725 and represents a generic "docte Uranie". Madame du Châtelet's biographer Elisabeth Badinter agrees, as does the English expert Andrew Brown who took the picture down from the Madame du Châtelet French Wikipedia page!

Thursday 19 February 2015

Cirey interiors

Madame de Graffigny was a pretty ungrateful house-guest, but her correspondence provides a valuable description of the interior of Cirey which, alas, was totally destroyed in the Revolution.  In 1738, when she visited, renovations were still very much in progress, Voltaire and Émilie's intimate and finely appointed apartments contrasted markedly with the bare and cold quarters to which guests found themselves banished.  Even the catty Madame de Graffigny could not withhold her admiration for the comfortable luxury of the newly refurbished rooms.

Her account gives an interesting insight into eighteenth-century taste. Today's commentators would concentrate much more on overall design; Madame de Graffigny tends to catalogue fine objects - furnishing, sculptures, even boxes of rings and jewellery. It is a world where the paraphernalia of everyday upper-class life are difficult to make and expensive to acquire.  Interesting too, that Voltaire despite the intimate setting, could not resist the opportunity for self-advertisement; adorning statues with "famous epithets" of his own composition.

The present owners of the chateau have beautifully recreated Madame du Châtelet's bedroom and renovated the library, so it is possibly to gain an idea of its former glory.

I was distressed, incidently, to find that the brilliant Émilie was yet another dog-lover!  This time the spoilt pooch was provided with a co-ordinated basket next to its mistress's bed.....

I was too lazy to find all the references and translate them, so here is an version of Madame Graffigny's letters, quoted or paraphrased in English from a nice old book I found on the internet,  Frank Hamel's  An eighteenth-century Marquise: a study of Emilie du Chatelet, which dates from 1911 (p.173-9)

Voltaire's apartment  

 [Madame Graffigny] began with the suite belonging to Voltaire:

" His little wing is so close to the main part of the house that the door is at the bottom of the chief stair- case. He has a little ante-chamber as large as your hand; then comes his own room, which is small, low, and upholstered in crimson velvet, a cosy corner done the same with golden fringe. It is winter furniture."
The window of this room looked out upon a meadow crossed by the river Blaise. On opening a door he could hear Mass said -  a concession to the conventions. The walls of his rooms were wainscoted, and in the panels pictures were framed; mirrors, beautiful lacquered corner-cupboards, porcelain marabouts, a clock supported by marabouts of a peculiar shape, an infinite number of ornaments, expensive, tasty, and everything so clean that you could kiss the parquet ; an open casket containing a silver vase ; in short, everything which was luxurious, and therefore necessary, to Voltaire.  What money! What work! He had a case for rings, which held two dozen with engraved stones, as well as two set with diamonds. 

From this room one passed into the little gallery, which was as much as thirty or forty feet long. Between the windows were two very fine statues, on pedestals of Indian varnish. The one was Venus Farnese, the other Hercules. The other side of the windows was divided into two cupboards, one for books, the other for scientific instruments.  Between the two there was a stove in the wall, which made "the air like spring."  In front was a high pedestal, on which stood a large Cupid, about to shoot an arrow. At its base this Cupid bore the well-known inscription by Voltaire : 
Qui que tu sois, vois ton maître tu sois   
II est, le fut, ou le doit être*

This was not finished ; there was to be a sculptured niche for the Cupid which would hide the front of the stove. The gallery walls were panelled and painted yellow.  Clocks, tables and desks were in profusion. Nothing was wanting.  Beyond was the dark room for experiments in physics.  Nor was this finished.  There was also to be one for instruments, which at that time were kept in the gallery.  Everything but physical comfort was catered for, for there was only one sofa, and no padded arm-chairs. Voltaire was no lounger. 
The panels of the wainscoting were hung with beautiful India paper, and there were screens of the same.  A door led directly into the garden, and there was a pretty grotto outside.  

*For the inscription, see:

Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet, engraving
from Francesco Algarotti,   Il Newtonianismo per le dame (1737)
Émilie's bedroom  

Could any Idol have found a more perfect temple ?  Yes; but only one. The Idol's idol.  Her rooms were still more beautiful, even more recherché.  Mme de .Graffigny visited them in the company of their mistress. 

The bedroom was panelled in wood and varnished in light yellow relieved with edges of pale blue. That was the colour scheme, and everything harmonised even the dog's basket. The bed was of blue watered silk; the wood of the arm-chairs, the chest of drawers, the corner-cupboards, the writing-desk, all yellow. The mirrors, set in silver frames, were all polished and wonderfully brilliant.  A large door made of looking-glass led to the library, which was not yet furnished. Then there was Madame's boudoir, a really eighteenth- century boudoir, which made one feel ready to go down on one's knees and worship at the shrine of beauty. The wainscoting was blue, and the ceiling was painted and varnished by a pupil of the famous Robert Martin. In the smaller panels were pictures which Mme de Graffigny thought were painted by Watteau, but which were really by Pater and Lancret. The chimney-piece and corner-cabinets were loaded with treasures, amongst others the wonderful amber writing-desk which was a present from Prince Frederick. There was an arm-chair upholstered in white taffetas, and two stools of the same. This divine boudoir had an outlet through its only window on to a terrace, from which the view was charming. 
On one side of the boudoir was a clothes closet, paved with marble slabs, hung with grey linen, and adorned with prints. Even the muslin window-curtains were embroidered. Nothing in the world could be so lovely ! .....

The bathroom

There was one other apartment which received attention from everybody concerned. It was the bathroom. In those days a bathroom was apparently not in constant use for its legitimate purpose. We hear of the fair Emilie taking a bath when she was expecting Desmarets to arrive at Cirey no doubt as a kind of welcoming ceremonial.  Certainly this room was occasionally used as a drawing-room. It was so like the study that perhaps confusion arose on that account. Emilie dated one of her letters to Algarotti from "la chambre des bains' and Voltaire held a reading there, behind closed doors, as though his poetry took on an added flavour from the mystery of the surroundings. If we are to believe. Mme de Graffigny, the apartment was a work of art in itself. She goes into ecstasies over it. 

" Ah, what an enchanting place ! The antechamber is the size of your bed ; the bathroom is tiled all over, except the floor, which is of marble. There is a dressing- room of the same size, of which the walls are varnished in sea-green, clear, bright, lovely, admirably gilt and sculptured ; furniture proportionate : a little sofa ; small and charming arm-chairs, of which the wood is in the same style, carved and gilt ; corner-cupboards, porcelains, prints, pictures, and a dressing-table. The ceiling is painted ; the room looks rich, and very much like the study ; there are mirrors and amusing books on lacquer tables. All this seems as though it were made for the people of Lilliput. No, there is nothing prettier; for this retreat is delicious and enchanting. If I had an apartment like that, I would be wakened at night for the pleasure of looking at it  I have wished for you to have one like it a hundred times, because you have so much good taste in little nooks of this kind. It is certainly a pretty bonbonnière I tell you, because the things are so perfect. The mantelpiece is no larger than an ordinary arm-chair, but it is jewel enough to be put in one's pocket."

Tuesday 17 February 2015

The Porte d'honneur at Cirey

The ornately carved Porte d'honneur at Cirey was commissioned by Voltaire himself.  In 1735, with a lettre de cachet hanging over him,he had taken sanctuary at the chateau and set about a programme of renovation and refurbishment in eager anticipation of Madame du Châtelet's arrival.  (He apparently financed the work using money acquired through speculation in wheat and supplies for the French army).  The result was the new wing, with its splendid doorway giving directly onto the grand salon.

You can see it clearly in the picture of Cirey on the old "Voltaire" ten-franc banknote.
This account of the iconography of the Porte d'Honneur is taken from the late Hubert Saget's book Voltaire à Cirey, (2nd ed 2005):


The inner arch is elaborately decorated with seashells and features two very fine sculpted heads of the god Neptune, one awake and one asleep. It is often said that the marine theme reflects the ideas of Maupertius, Voltaire's rival in love, who thought that the origins of life were to be found in the sea. This may be an over-interpretion; the staircase inside boasts almost equally effusive fruit-baskets. Professor Saget also notes a very similar sculpture on a doorway in the rue de Varenne; probably this one on the Hôtel Gouffier de Thoix, no.56:

Above the arch Voltaire has placed an inscription from the Bucolics of Virgil, "Deus nobis haec otia fecit", "God has given to us this leisure", an allusion to the enforced idleness of his stay in Cirey.

The pillars on either side of the door feature attributes of the arts and sciences; they may perhaps be Masonic symbols.


1. A terrestrial globe with meridians, and a telescope - possibly a reference to Madame du Châtelet's astronomical interests.

2. A set-square, compass, plumb line - again an intellectual allusion or freemasonry signs?

3. Two vines. These correspond to a human head on the right pillar - signifying perhaps  "man in the face of Nature".

4. Another Latin phrase, this time taken from Horace
"Hic virtutis amans, vulgi contemptor et aulae
Cultor amicitiae, vates latet
Abditus argo"
"Here the poet, who loves virtue and scorns the crowd and the Court, cultivates friendship, remaining hidden in rural retreat"

5. An inkwell and pen symbolising literature.

6. Famous lines of Voltaire own composition:

"Azile des Beaux-Arts, solitude où mon coeur
Est toujours demeuré dans une paix profonde
C'est vous qui donnez le bonheur
Que promettait en vain le monde"

Refuge of the fine arts, solitude where
/in a deep peace I left my heart 
You gave me the happiness
That the world promised me in vain”


1. Globe with a set square, perhaps signifying moral rectitude.

2, Palette and brushes, symbolising painting

3. A human head.

4. Mallet and scissors, for sculpture.

5. Is there something else here? Prof. Saget doesn't say and I can't make it out.

6. Inscription in English:
"When dulls prevail and hypocrisy bear sway
The post of honour is a private station"

This is taken from Act iv of Joseph Addison's play Cato. ( Voltaire slightly misquotes - perhaps deliberately;Addison has, "when vice prevails and impious men hear sway".  Not sure "dull" is really an English noun.)


Hubert Saget, Voltaire a Cirey, (2nd ed 2005) p.146-50.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Found and lost? the manuscripts of Madame du Châtelet

Lot 16: Exposition abrégée du systè Newton
On 29th October 2012 there was much excitement when a host of scientific manuscripts by Émilie du Châtelet went under the hammer at Christie's in Paris.  They included a corrected version of her translation of Newton, Exposition abrégée du système du monde selon les principes de Mr Newton, two unpublished works on Newton's optics and various studies on geometry, arithmetic and physics. A copy of Voltaire's Eléments de la philosophie de Newton contained annotations by both Madame du Châtelet and Voltaire himself, confirmation  - if any were needed -  that.Émilie was the brains behind the work.  Lesser lots included parts, written up in the hand of Voltaire's secretary Longchamp, from three theatrical works performed at the "petit théâtre".

Lot 17: Three plays by Voltaire performed at Cirey

Lot 3:  Portrait of Emilie  after Marianne Loir.
The story behind the sale is nice tale of unexpected rediscovery. Almost nothing remains of the original furnishings from Cirey and Madame du Châtelet's papers had long been supposed destroyed, either on her death in 1749 or after the execution of her son, Louis Marie Florent du Châtelet, in 1793. But in 2010 the whole family archive was miraculous found intact in ten wooden boxes in the attic of a house in Rosnay-l'Hôpital (Aube), where Cirey's inheritors had moved when the chateau was sold in 1892;  up to this time the documents had been tenaciously guarded by an elderly female descendant. Documents concerning the chateau, dating back to 13th century, were deposited in the Departmental Archives of Haute-Marne at Chaumont. But there was no legal impediment to the sale of Madame du Châtelet's personal manuscripts and joy gave way to concern as the scholarly community anticipated the break-up of the newly acquired collection.  Despite a campaign which resulted in a petition from 1,4000 researchers worldwide, the French Ministry of Culture did not move to preempt.  The auction went ahead and the manuscripts made record prices:  € 961,000 (double the estimate) for the Exposition abrégée; € 421,000 for Voltaire's Eléments de la philosophie de Newton  (against an estimate of € 60,000); four times the expected amount for two works on optics.

Lot 17: Abrégé de l'optique de mr Newton

And loss?

The purchaser was financier Gérard Lhéritier , president and founder of Aristophil, a company specialising in rare manuscripts and owner of the Musée des lettres et manuscrits, boulevard Saint-Germain, where the collection includes the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom and Napoleon's wedding certificate.  Despite a few qualms about private ownership, La Gazette des Délices for Winter 2012 pronounced itself pleased: French taxpayers had saved their euros, the manuscripts were kept together and the Bibliothèque nationale had been promised detailed descriptions.  In March 2013 the manuscripts went on temporary exhibition; viewers were even furnished with a magnifying glass for detailed inspection. There was just the slight worry that operatives were on hand apparently offering the manuscripts in lots "for sale".......

Publicity video by Aristophil. Despite the slick production, this is a pretty poor effort (for instance, I think it was the poet J-B Rousseau, not Jean-Jacques who was the family house guest!)

All was, indeed, not well -  as became apparent last November, when the museum and various branches of Aristophil were subject to a dramatic descente by the anti-fraud brigade......The company is accused of “deceptive marketing practices," and“gang fraud."(!)  Aristophil's basic scheme sounds like something out of the 18th-century.  Clients  are invited to "buy" lots  -  effectively acquire shares - in rare manuscripts, with promises of attractive returns.  The market has been artificially inflated by the company's own aggressive buying strategy. This is big money: Aristophil  are said to own five percent of the global books, letters and manuscript market estimated at three billion euros a year. They have created a "speculative bubble" which is now set to burst.  Legal proceedings against them started as early as 2010 and one of the objectives of November raids was to seize assets for Aristophil's clients.

The investigation is likely to be a long one. Currently the museum is still open (with a Valentine's Day exhibition) and the media fightback has begun with a "Soutenons Aristophil"  website and Facebook page.  All we can only hope for the long term is that Emilie's manuscripts stay safe and don't disappear again, this time into some creditor's bank vault....


Details of the sale 
Christie's website:

"Les manuscrits et souvenirs d'Emilie du Châtelet vendus pour 3,28 millions d'euros", L'Obs 29/10/12.

Finding  the manuscripts
Andrew Brown, " 'Minerve dictait et j’écrivais':les archives Du Châtelet retrouvées"  Cahiers Voltaire, 11 (2012), p.7-9.

Il faut sauver les archives de Voltaire, Le, 28/09/12

Financial fraud?"
€500 Million Ponzi Scheme Suspected at Paris Museum" Artnet, 20/11/14.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Voltaire's private theatre at Cirey


Voltaire's "Petit théâtre" at the Château de Cirey looks like some paper model from a doll's house. It is the only private theatre to survive from the 18th century apart from the (altogether grander) Opéra at Versailles and Marie-Antoinette's theatre at the Petit Trianon. As it dates from 1735, it is actually among the earliest French theatres of any kind. Despite the prestige of French drama, the French lagged behind in theatre design: in 1748 Voltaire complained bitterly that the press of spectators on the stage of the Comédie-Française had reduced his tragedy "Semiramis" to farce.  It was to be another ten years before the Comédie was remodelled on Italian lines. Voltaire later build private theatres at Les Délices and Ferney, but only the theatre at Cirey, lovingly restored in 1999, now remains..

The tiny auditorium, nestling under the roof of the château, boasts five benches to accommodate a dozen or so spectators. On one side, a small box with painted rails commands the best views. It is balanced by a trompe l'oeil box on the opposite wall - partly plastered over in the 19th century. In what remains of the painting a jaunty abbé turns his back oddly away from the stage; he once admired the cleavage of his young female companion, but nowadays only her hand remains.

In Voltaire's theatre the stage was strictly reserved for the actors; this posed no problem - since house guests were dragooned into performing, spectators were in short supply. The blue curtain is again painted in trompe-l'oeil; the central medallion originally held cards - some of which still exist - in which the name of the play was displayed. Three sets of scenery, made of painted cloth stretched over wooden frames,.have been painstakingly restored. They represent a "rustic room", a "forest" (six frames) and an "exotic garden".
Although he was distracted by scientific reading and research Voltaire’s enthusiasm for the theatre did not diminish during his time at Cirey. He worked on his tragedy Mérope in 1737, then embarked on two new tragedies Mahomet and Zulime, to say nothing of a libretto and a couple of comedies

According to Madame de Graffigny, who stayed at the chateau for nine weeks in 1738 and 1739, guests were put through a punishing schedule: 

".You can't catch your breath here. Today we performed The prodigal child  and another play in three acts, which we had to rehearse. We rehearsed Zaire until three in the morning; we will perform it tomorrow …We must dress our hair, get our costumes fitted, listen to an opera; what chaos! …We counted up last evening that in twenty-four hours we had rehearsed and performed twenty-three acts – comedies, tragedies and operas

Worse was to follow; for three days in celebration of Mardi Gras Madame de Graffigny counted no less that thirty-seven acts over a three-day marathon which culminated in a performance of Zaire finishing at one thirty in the morning.  Léopole Desmarets, Graffigny's lover, left a comic account of  Madame Du Châtelet  and Voltaire in the lead roles; Émilie performed in a monotone, whilst an ill-tempered Voltaire required constant prompting and everyone muffed their lines.( see Carlson, p.52-3)

In 2009 Lauren Gunderson produced a critically-acclaimed play Émilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life  at the Petit Theatre at Cirey; her vision of the theatre at Cirey was a little grander than the real thing!:



Le petit théâtre de Voltaire" on the Château de Cirey websiste

Journal JHM Vidéos, "Petit théâtre de Voltaire" (25/06/09)

Marvin A. Carlson, Voltaire and the Theatre of the Eighteenth Century (1998)
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