Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A little-known portrait of Voltaire

Anonymous portrait in oils of Voltaire; 91 cm x 71cm
Dijon, Musée des beaux-arts 
Portraits give an illusion of familiarity - it is faintly disturbing to discover a new one, especially of a subject you think you recognise and know  well....This Voltaire, which I have not come across before, is from the Musée des beaux-arts in Dijon.  It was formerly thought to be by Antoine Vestier but in 2004 the Sorbonne research student Michelle Despes argued that the artist was in fact the Flemish painter and Academician Jacques André Joseph Aved (1702-66).  This ascription is now accepted on Joconde.  Aved moved in the same circles as Voltaire in Paris.  He held a salon in his Hôtel des Théatins, rue de Bourbon (now rue de Lille)  knew Fontenelle and Titon du Tilleul, and frequented the gatherings of Madame de Lambert, the duchesse du Maine and Madame de Tencin.

In 2006  La Gazette des Délices published a piece by Michelle Despes in which she attributed to Aved an altogether better-known portrait, the Voltaire "at the age of twenty-four" acquired by Theodore Besterman in 1948 and given to the Institut et Musée Voltaire in 1953.  This picture is usually dismissed (quite reasonably) as an inferior copy of the famous portrait by Nicolas Largillière in Versailles. A manuscript note in a 19th-century hand on the back specifies that it was given by Voltaire himself to Charles Palissot, author of the comedy Les philosophes (1760).

Perhaps surprisingly, the curators at Les Délices have taken Michelle Despes's argument sufficiently seriously to outline her reattribution in their guidebook (Petite histoire des Délices (2013), p.33-34)

The case rests mainly on dating.  In 1718, Michelle Despes argues, the youthful Voltaire was too poor and lacking in standing to have commissioned a picture from the great Largillière, but was much more likely to have encountered Aved. (I worry a little that Aved, if he was born in 1702, was only sixteen at the time...?). This may be so, but on the other hand Voltaire is known to have possessed and cherished a Largillière portrait of his mother (a version of which was sold at auction in 1986)

The date of the Largillière portrait is in any case open to doubt.  According to the notice for the Versailles picture, the date of 1718 derives from a letter concerning the engraved version executed by Etienne-François Besson for the Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, published in Paris  in 1785-9.  This specifies that the model was twenty-four years old when he posed. Voltaire appears older than this (though he clearly still has his teeth!)  and experts on Largillière feel,  based on the style and palette, that a date of 1724-25 is more likely.  This places the portrait at a suitable highpoint in Voltaire's career; he received a pension from the Regent in 1722, published the Henriade in 1723 and in 1725 was charged with theatrical productions for the marriage of Louis XV (1725).   His wig and clothing too are consistent with Regency fashions.

Michelle Despes would also clearly like to challenge the idea that the Les Délices Voltaire is a "mere copy".  In her view it represents a more natural style, showing Arouet with the dreamy distant expression of a young man in love, much more spontaneous and fresh than the "cold and impersonal" Largillière.  In which case, is the highly finished Versailles painting the copy?  How does the Les Délices  picture compare with the Dijon portrait by Aved?  It seems to me that there are lots of difficulties with this interpretation.  The conventional view, that the Les Délices picture is a later copy of the Largillière original seems much more likely.


Notice of the Dijon portrait on Joconde:

Lespes, Michelle, "Clin d’œil : Portrait de Voltaire à l’âge de vingt-quatre ans : une nouvelle hypothèse", La Gazette des Délices. La revue électronique de l’Institut et Musée Voltaire, 12, hiver 2006.

Flavio Borda d'Agua, ‎François JacobPetite histoire des Délices (2013), p.33-34.

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