Monday, 30 November 2015

Houdon's Lafayette

One of the lasting ways in which America has shown its love for Lafayette is by leaving us his image in marble, created by one of the greatest portrait sculptors of all time, Houdon.

As early as December 1781 the Assembly of Virginia had voted to commission a bust of Lafayette in Paris to be presented to him personally. Lafayette was sent a copy of the resolution and no doubt the idea appealed instantly to the vanity of the man. However, the project lay forgotten until September 1783 when Lafayette himself felt obliged to mention it in a letter to Washington.

Washington duly sprang into action. On 5th April 1784, Governor Harrison, with the approval of the Council, instructed Thomas Barclay, the American Consul at Nantes, to oversee to the commission. However the Assembly went back on its plan to present the statue to Lafayette personally, deciding instead to give it to the city of Paris, to be displayed "in some public place"; a second bust was commissioned for the Capitol at Richmond as the companion to a the projected statue of Washington.

Jefferson determined that Houdon should sculpt both the Washington and the Lafayette; Barclay was of the same opinion: "it is better that the same person compleat both the Busts; the more so as he is at the top of his profession". The cost of each was to be 3000 livres. Houdon took a life mask of Lafayette and made his preliminary model - now at Cornell - before sailing for Philadelphia in 1785 for his sittings with Washington. The first marble bust was completed in early 1786 and was installed, with much ceremony, in the great hall of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The second, in Richmond, was completed shortly afterwards. The Paris statue was damaged by order of the Commune on 10 August, as were busts of Louis XVI, Necker and Bailly; it is usually presumed to be the Lafayette salvaged by Houdon and mentioned in his posthumous studio sale: "Marble, voted in 1791 by the Commune of Paris, suffered in 1792 a mutilation which was repaired" - sold for 50 francs.

Houdon,  Marquis de Lafayette, ca. 1785, plaster bust, painted white.  Boston Athenaeum
There are also several early plaster busts. The plaster in the Boston Athenaeum, which shows Lafayette in uniform of Major General of the American Army without elaborate drapery, was one of four works by Houdon which belonged to Jefferson at Monticello (the others being Franklin, Washington and John Paul Jones). H.H. Arnason comments that Houdon did his best to cast Lafayette in a heroic role, but was handicapped by the actual appearance of the marquis, an unprepossessing young man of twenty-eight with an oddly receding forehead. In the finely worked marble at Richmond the addition of a Baroque styled cloak adds more dignity to the portrait.

Marble at Versailles (Arnason, fig.163)
A later version of the statue shows Lafayette in his National Guard's uniform, with a wig concealing his sloping forehead. The marble at Versailles - thought to be the bust shown in the Salon of 1791 - is dated 1790.


H.H. Arnason, The sculptures of Houdon, Phaidon, 1975, p.80-1
Anne L. Poulet, Jean-Antoine Houdon, sculptor of the Enlightenment (2005) p.257-61.

Boston Athenaeum, "Busts of Franklin and Lafayette by Jean-Antoine Houdon"

See also:
Lauren Zajac, "An SEM and microanalysis examination of a Marquis de Lafayette terracotta portrait bust"
This Boston College thesis, on a terracotta version of the Versailles bust, shows just how difficult the identification and dating of Houdon's work really is.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Gaoler of Olmütz

Gaoler of the prison at Olmütz, dated Maubourg, 1831.
Black crayon and chalk, 19,8 x 14,2 cm

This little picture was among the items sold by Christie's in 2010 and returned to its former home at La Grange. Between 1795 and 1798 Lafayette's wife and his two daughters Anastasie and Virginie were allowed to share his captivity in the fortress of Olmütz in Austria.  A label on the back confirms that the picture was drawn "from life"  by Anastasie de Lafayette, later comtesse de Latour Maubourg.
There is a nice write up of the picture in Cloquet's  Recollections of the private life of General Lafayette (1835):

[Cloquet refers to a letter from General Latour Maubourg who was imprisoned with the Lafayette family]

You must also recollect Sir that in the same letter Latour Maubourg speaks of a certain corporal decorated with the title of prevot and no less timorous than covetous. It has occurred to me that you will not be sorry to make a more ample acquaintance with this individual for the melancholy part which he has played in the history of the victims of Olmutz has transformed him from an obscure individual into an historical personage. The whole of Mademoiselle Anastasia Lafayette's time was not employed in attending to her poor mother or in making clothes or shoes and stockings for her father.  In concert with her younger sister she endeavoured to afford her parents every amusement that could relieve the sorrows of their situation.  One day she sketched a portrait of the corporal on her nail in order that in case of a surprise the drawing might not be seized and to prevent the original himself from perceiving the sketch for you may well imagine that the old fellow was not of a disposition to sit for his picture at full length.  Mademoiselle Lafayette transferred her sketch to a sheet of paper and afterwards when she quitted the prison made a copy of it which is at present at Lagrange near the door of her father's apartment.  The following is a description of the old corporal.  He is represented in the act of opening the door of the prison which is towards the corridor and which is secured above and below with cross bars provided with padlocks His half bald head is uncovered,  his few remaining hairs are collected into a little queue which is ludicrously turned aside over his shoulder and he advances with the stealthy pace of a timid individual who lends an attentive ear to some fancied noise.  In one hand he holds a bunch of large keys one of which he directs mechanically towards the lock in the other is one of those beaked lamps which are much used in Germany and its dim light is reflected on his visage.  A stick which serves for self defence or the chastisement of offenders is attached to his wrist by a leathern strap his little three cornered hat is squeezed flat under his arm his sabre is fastened to his side by a girdle his waistcoat breeches wide boots and in fact the whole of his attire shew that he is in undress and his knees seem to bend not so much under the weight of years as under the influence of cowardice.  But enough of this poor devil who like his general has long since departed this life......(p.88-9)

...and also reproduced in the splendidly named American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge ( vol.3, 1837) id=98pCAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA356&lpg=PA356#v=onepage&q&f=false

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Memories of Lafayette: collections in America

How Lafayette loved his American friends, and how they have loved him in return!  Here are some notes and links for the major American Lafayette collections. Without exception they are beautifully curated, most with extensive online descriptions and facsimiles.  Lafayette himself, lover of symbolic gesture and collector of memorabilia, would have appreciated it all....

Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania

Lafayette College holds an extensive collection of letters, manuscripts and memorabilia donated by the American Friends of Lafayette. (We are informed that they occupy "33 linear feet -- 96 boxes, 4 extra-oversize folders, 4 oversize shelves")  The  documents are mainly American in origin and relate either to Lafayette's participation in the American War of Independence or to his tour of the United States in 1824-5. Highlights includes letters of Lafayette to Washington and the manuscript of Lafayette's 1824 address to the US Congress.

In addition the collection includes almost a thousand prints, plus assorted memorabilia, mostly commemorative objects but also items which belonged to Lafayette himself.  Among them is this sword, with its Jacobin bonnet decoration, which the General surrendered to his Austrian captors in 1792. 

The print collection has been the subject of an ambitious digitisation project. 650 prints are now available to view online.

Collection portal: 
Cornell University Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections

Cornell University's Lafayette collection is "the largest of its kind outside France."  It includes not only over 11,000 original manuscripts, documents, and letters but also  furniture and artworks - among them the famous life-mask of Lafayette by Houdon, executed in 1785. The core of the collection belonged originally to the Lafayette family estate at Chavaniac.  It was sold in 1912 to the Parisian antiquarian dealer Dieudonné-Elie Fabius who added substantially to it in the following decades. It was purchased for Cornell in 1963 for the sum of 7 million dollars by the US  diplomat and collector Arthur H. Dean  who had been in Geneva engaged in disarmament talks with the Soviet Union at the time.  He was able to use his considerable influence - including personal acquaintance with the French Minister of Culture André Malraux - to secure the export of the collection from France.  In 1966, again financed by Dean, the University was able to add the collection of the Parisian book dealer Marcel Blancheteau.

Houdon Life-mask of Lafayette 1785
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell

Summary: "The collection includes the oldest existing letter from Lafayette (1772), long missives he sent to his wife from America during the Revolution, other letters he wrote while imprisoned in Austria (1792-1797) and during his 1824-5 trip to the USA; texts of Lafayette's speeches, his commentary on public events, material compiled for inclusion in his memoirs, financial statements ; many letters from foreign correspondents on the progress of liberal causes in their countries, including letters from leaders of the Italian revolutionary movement; notes concerning the Belgian revolution, letters and documents on his involvement in the Italian and Polish revolutions, and documents concerning the management of family business affairs, including the management of the family estates."

Sixty images and documents have been digitized and presented on the Collection website.

 The Cornell curator Laurent Ferri,when asked for his highlights, picked out a letter of Lafayette to his wife, written in May 1777, in which declares his idealistic devotion to the American cause, translation as follows:

I offer my service to that interesting republic from motives of the purest kind… Her happiness and my glory are my only incentives… The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the safe and respected asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and tranquil happiness

A letter in broken English to Washington from Lafayette's six-year old daughter Anastasie wins the "cute kid" accolade: 
Dear Washington, I hope that papa whill come back son here. I am verry sorry for the loss of him, but I am verry glade for you self. I wich you a werry good health and I am whith great respect, Dear Sir, your most obedient servent, anastasie la fayette.

Main collection weblink

"Lafayette: "Citizen of Two Worlds", Exhibition mounted for the 250th anniversary of Lafayette's birth, 25 Sept 2007- 28 April 2008 .

University of Chicago 
The University of Chicago Library holds a collection of letters amassed by Stanislas de Girardin, a member of the Legislative Assembly and close political ally of Lafayette. Both Girardin and his father  René Louis, Rousseau's host at Emenonville, were familiar correspondents of Lafayette. The collection was purchased in 1931 from the antiquarian dealers E.F. Bonaventure Inc. of New York who had secured it from the last descendants of the Girardin family.

 The website has a general description but no facsimiles. The collection comprises 221 letters bound into 13 vols. It includes:
Vol.1 (1774-80) Letters relating to the management of Lafayette's estate during his minority; details of expenditure incurred during his expedition to America.
Vols.2-6.(1791-1798).  Letters relating mainly to Lafayette's imprisonment and the efforts of his friends to free him.  Includes a copy of the famous letter written by his fellow prisoner Latour-Maubourg from Olmutz describing their imprisonment.
Later volumes include Lafayette's  personal correspondance with Fanny Wright (vol. 10) and with the actress and singer Maria Malibran (vol.11).as well as letters relating to various other members of the Lafayette family.
Holdings summary:

University of Cleveland
This is the microfilm of the La Grange collection. The Library of Congress has a copy too, but the Cleveland site has a full presentation and selected transcripts/facsimiles. The website recounts the story of how Cleveland benefactor John Horton contrived to secure the microfilm after striking up an unlikely friendship with the usually unapproachable René de Chambrun.  Mr Horton died in 2006 at grand age of 91.

Index to the Cleveland collection
Selected transcriptions and facsimiles.
Library of Congress Finding Aid

Story behind the acquisition

Exhibitions in 2015 

These were two major exhibitions held earlier this year to coincide with the arrival of  the replica ship Hermione in American waters.

New York Historical Society
Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione
 29 May - 16 August 2015
The exhibition concentrated mainly on the American War of Independence, and included exhibits from La Grange, as well as from the Cornell collection.

Boston Athenaeum 
Lafayette: an American icon June 17 – September 27, 2015
The Boston Athenaeum holds a Houdon of Lafayette and the exhibition, which included items from many American connections, was themed on Lafayette portraiture and iconography. A full list of the exhibits is available on the internet though not, sadly, with images.

Full list of American Lafayette sites on ArchiveGrid

Monday, 23 November 2015

Memories of Lafayette: the Château de Chavaniac-Lafayette

In contrast to La Grange, the Château de Chavaniac in the Auvergne, Lafayette's birthplace museum, has been open to the public for many years. Although Lafayette never lived there for any length of time as an adult, he visited periodically -  in 1770, 1783 and 1786; then in 1789 and on his return to France in 1800, before taking up residence definitively at La Grange. The medieval manor house had been completely rebuilt in 1701 following a fire and was enlarged in the first half of the 18th century.  In 1791 Lafayette himself had the building modernised by the architect Ambroise Laurent Vaudoyer assisted by the painter Albert Ancica. The work concentrated on the grand salon "des philosophes", which was conceived as a shrine to the Enlightenment, and the boudoir of Madame Lafayette, both situated on the first floor.  In a spirit of naive optimism, Lafayette had a stone from the Bastille, adorned with a Phrygian cap of liberty, replace the Lafayette coat-of-arms over the main door.

Chavaniac remained in the Lafayette family until 1916  when it was bought from the indirect descendants of the last marquis by the Scotsman John Moffat  on behalf of the "French Heroes' Lafayette Memorial Fund", an American foundation which raised more than  $50 million to help French soldiers and victims of the First World War .The fund committee hoped to restore and preserve the château as a memorial and archive of French-American friendship.  Moffat and his wife took up residence and pursued the fund's relief work, creating an orphanage and  a pioneering "preventorium" for  children with TB. They are said to have welcomed more than 25,000 children. They added a school, dormitory, and dairy farm.  The nearby village of Chavaniac became Chavaniac-Lafayette in 1957.  Moffat himself died at the age eighty-one in 1966 and is buried at the foot of the chateau's front terrace.

Starting in 1917 the Memorial Committee began a series of restorations and new construction work, under guidance of the municipal architect Achille Proy.  The roof was replaced, the foundations stabilised, the tower rebuilt and a south wing added, which had the effect of restoring the medieval silhouette.  The interior was reorientated around the main salon and utilities connected.

 In 2009 the Memorial Committee was finally dissolved and the Department of Haute-Loire took over direct control.. Following the Lafayette 250th anniversary celebrations in 2007, theycommitted to a major programme of further restoration. The first phase, now successfully completed with the aid of local sponsorship,  was the boudoir of Madame Lafayette. A Departmental brochure issued in 2010 estimated the cost at 160,000 euros and featured dispiriting pictures of peeling salmon pink paint and hanging wires.  Now the wall panels, beautiful 18th-century parquet flooring and fine furniture have all been beautifully restored. The most significant feature of the room is the gorgeous Reveillon wallpaper - bought for Chavaniac in the early 20th century but dating from the 1790s. There are 14 panels in all, including not only classic Reveillon arabesque wall panels, but also a set of elaborate cameos that go over the doors.


Château Chavaniac-Lafayette website

Restoration of the salon de Mme de Lafayette, sponsorship brochure, November 2010

Chavaniac on the Marie-Antoinette Forum (loads of pictures)

Blog devoted to the Chavaniac "Preventorium"
Memorabilia of Mr and Mrs Moffat

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Memories of Lafayette: the Château of La Grange-Bléneau

Château de La Grange-Bléneau

La Grange-Bléneau is the foremost site in France with Lafayette associations.

The 14th century manor in the municipality of Courpalay, in the department of Seine-et-Marne  belonged in the 18th century to the d'Aguesseau family. Lafayette's wife Adrienne de Noailles  reclaimed the property from the estate of her mother Henriette d'Aguesseau towards the end of the Revolution and gave it to Lafayette, who lived there from 1802 until his death in 1834.  Lafayette added a park by Hubert Robert. The château was lived in, virtually untouched, throughout the 19th century by the family of Lafayette's grandson Jules de Lasteyrie.  In 1935 it was purchased by the comte René de Chambrun (1906-2002),himself  a direct descendant of Lafayette's daughter Virginie Lafayette de Lasteyrie.  Chambrun was a successful international lawyer and longtime president of the crystal and glass firm Baccarat.  His mother was Ohio-born Shakespeare scholar Clara Longworth. Chambrun, however, had more politically suspect connections. In 1935 he married Josée Marie Laval (1911-1992) daughter of Pierre Laval, and it was Laval who provided the money to purchase the château. In the post-War period Chambrun defended his father-in-law vigorously and was himself was tried for treason but acquitted. (Chambrun's nephew Nicolas Longworth had the dubious distinction of being both Pétain's godson and Theodore Roosevelt's son-in-law.)
Lafayette’s Bedroom in Château de La Grange. Colour Lithograph
 by Joseph Langlumé [between 1830 and 1840]

 In 1956 Chambrun and his wife found huge cache of Lafayette's long-lost letters, documents and books in fourteen walled-up attic rooms at La Grange: 

The discovery is described by André Maurois as “resembling a fairy tale.”

They entered into the Lafayette library at the top of the northwest tower. Not a single object had been moved. The mail from the general’s last days was in the drawer, unopened. Handsome books offered to him by the American states were lined up on the shelves; the gold of their bindings gleamed brightly as if new. In the drawers they found the general’s seals, his dear recollections of Washington; in the attics of the Polish Corridor, thousands of letters written by him, by his relatives, by his wife, by their children and grandchildren. [Preface to Adrienne The Life Of The Marquise De La Fayette (1960)]
Chambrun spent the next forty years collating the find. He gave only limited access to the scholarly community.  Maurois was allowed to use the collection to write his biography of  Adrienne (1961) and in 1977 Chambrun himself published a book of Lafayette's prison experiences.

In 1996-7 the Library of Congress acquired a $300,000 federal grant to microfilm the collection. Permission was finally given with the proviso that the originals were not to leave La Grange - the work was carried out entirely in the kitchen, the only room in the château with heating and electricity.  The result runs to sixty-four reels or 6,400 feet of microfilm.(MSS 83808).  Cleveland University acquired a copy of the microfilm in 1997. The Archives de France also has a complete set (729 Mi 1-64)

The Fondation de Josée et de René de Chambrun, which was created in 1959,now owns and oversees La Grange, as well the Laval family property, the château de Châteldon in the Auvergne.  It operates from the De Chambrun's former Right Bank apartment. The French press was not slow to point out the family ties of  prominent members of the Foundation  with Pierre Laval and to voice fears that the memory of Lafayette might be annexed by the extreme Right - especially when it was rumoured that the Foundation was behind moves in 2007 to have Lafayette's ashes transferred to the Pantheon.

Jean-Baptiste Weyler, Portrait of Lafayette
Christie's sale Lot 157
The purchasing power of the Foundation is considerable.  In 2007 it sold its shares in Baccarat for more than $70 million dollars with a further payment of $25 million or so in 2009. In 2008 came the acquisition of  Washington's Cincinnati medal for $5.3 million. There have been further strategic purchases.  In June 2010 the sale by Christie's of the collection of the banker Arthur Georges Veil-Picard afforded the Foundation the opportunity to recover several notable pieces which had originally belonged to La Grange.  Among them were an oval pastel of Lafayette in his National Guards uniform by Jean-Baptiste Weyler and two interesting watercolours by Jean-Pierre Houel depicting  commemorations of the fall of the Bastille.  Also recovered was  Ary Scheffer's portrait of Washington which  was the centrepiece of the main salon where Lafayette exhibited paintings and souvenirs of his American friends.

From the public point of view the return to La Grange of these items is a mixed blessing. Lafayette's patrimony may be safeguarded, but  there is some danger of it disappearing from view. Admittedly, the Foundation has made considerable efforts to encourage cordial relations with the United States. Laura Bush made a stop at La Grange as part of a three-day visit to France in 2007, and several items were lent to the 250th anniversary  commemorative exhibition organised by the New York Historical Society this year (though not, as far as I can tell, the $5 million medal).  However, apart from old auction records, there is little current information on the internet concerning items in the La Grange collection.  Not only is the château closed to the ordinary public but all interior photography is forbidden.

 Watercolours by Houel: blessing of the National Guard flags in Notre Dame in September 1789; memorial service in the Church of the Sepulchre (attended by the Lafayettes) in August 1789. Lot 164


Photos of the exterior of La Grange in 2004 on the Picpus website

Miller (2015-08-19). Lafayette: His Extraordinary Life and Legacy (Kindle Location 6529). iUniverse. Kindle Edition.
Christie's Paris June 23, 2010, Sale 5601, collection de Veil-Picard, Tableaux et Dessins Anciens et du XIXe Siecle"
 Notice for the exhibition at the NY Historical Society:  Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione 29 May - 16 August 2015

Morice, "Lafayette, nous revoilà !" Agoravox,  13 Dec 2007
Article condemning the political sympathies of the Fondation Chambrun: "Lafayette au Panthéon ? Se serait donc aussi un peu (beaucoup) de Vichy et de monarchie dans le temple républicain. Et ça, franchement, la République ne peut le supporter"

Friday, 20 November 2015

Lafayette's five-million dollar medal

On 11th December 2007 Sotheby's in New York sold a Society of the Cincinnati medal which had  belonged to Washington and later to Lafayette  for 5 millions dollars ($5,305,000 - I counted the noughts carefully!).  The numismatist Greg Reynolds declared himself "flabbergasted" at the anticipated sale price -  an American medal or "order" had never before made as much as $500 000 at auction.

The Society of the Cincinnati was created in April 1783 by  American officers who had fought in the War of Independence; in May an invitation was extended to French officers who had participated;  the French ordre de Cincinnatus had Louis XVI among its members. By early 1785 there were two thousand members. (As a hereditary order, in 2005 it still had  "some 3,700 members", descendants of commissioned officers of the Continental Army or Navy and their French counterparts  who had served in the Revolutionary War.),Washington was president of the Society until his death in 1799.

The original medal or "order" was designed by the Continental Army officer Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the future architect of Washington DC,at the invitation of his former commander  von Steuben. His design was based on a simplified version of the description given in the "Institution" of the Society which had been drawn up by General Henry Knox, chief artillery officer of the Continental Army and later Washington's Secretary of War.

The medal features a golden eagle surrounded by a wreath. An  enamel medallion on the eagle's chest shows two senators presenting a sword to Cincinnatus who stands beside his plough. The  Latin motto proclaims that the owner "left everything" to  serve the Republic.("Omnia Reliquit Servare Rempublicam"). Washington specified instructed that the medals, which were to be paid for personally, must be "finished in a masterly manner (and) ornamented in an elegant, tho' not costly Stile".  L'Enfant spent five months in France working with the jewellers Duval and Francastel  and with the engraver Jean-Jacques André Le Veau who produced the copperplate for an accompanying diploma.  Although the earliest examples were all made by Duval and Francastel,  there are numerous variants on the basic design, including at least six from the 1780s. A larger silver medal, intended as a keepsake rather than as a decoration to be worn, was designed by L'Enfant but not cast until the 20th century.  .

In 1784 French naval officers commissioned for Washington the Diamond Eagle, now in the collection of the Society, which became the president's insignia of office. Washington also possessed several gold badges - the one depicted in a portrait in the New York Historical Society is clearly a different example. The medal which was auctioned is believed to have been specially made for Washington by Duval and Francastel in 1784 at a cost three times the price of any other medals that were available to American and French officers.

In 1824 Washington's adopted daughter Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis presented the medal to Lafayette during a tour of the United States, which he made, in the company of his son George Washington Lafayette,  at the invitation of President Munroe. According to Sotheby's, Lafayette treasured the momento of his hero and can be seen wearing it in a portrait now in the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston (which I can't find anywhere on the internet).

Engraving of Lafayette in 1825 (with some medals) dating from 1899
As Mr Reynold sagely concludes, the inflated price fetched by the medal reflects mainly its symbolic value as "a treasured possession of Washington" embodying the personal bond between Lafayette and Washington and, with it, the alliance of  the United States and France.  Even so, the thing is tiny.  It measures only 1.5 by 1.125 inches.

The consignor was Lafayette's great-great-granddaughter, the  Baroness Meunier du Houssoy. Her son and heir Arnaud, who was in America for Lafayette's 250th birthday celebrations in 2007, is a successful investment banker.

 After a "spirited 11-minute auction" involving three bidders, the medal was bought by the Fondation Josée et René de Chambrun which owns the Lafayette family château of  La Grange, thirty miles east of Paris. There was a certain amount of opportunism about timing of the sale since in 2007 the Fondation  had received a payout of $70 million for its shares in the Baccarat crystal glass firm.

According to Christophe  Van de Weghe, the Manhattan gallery owner who bid on behalf of the Foundation, the medal is a symbol of French-American friendship, and there are only two places where it should reside - La Grange or Mount Vernon. Sadly La Grange is not open to general public, but there were promises that the medal would be  exhibited in America soon.


Sotheby's press release

The Society of the Cincinnati website

Articles by Glenn Collins in the New York Times, 28 Nov and 12 Dec 2007

Posts by Greg Reynolds onCoinLink, 2 Dec and 18 Dec  2007

Sally Webster, "Pierre-Charles L'Enfant and the Iconography of Independence" Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 7(1) Spring 2008

Monday, 16 November 2015

Houdon: " Seated Voltaire" at Les Délices

Here are some pictures of Houdon's Seated Voltaire, the beautiful centrepiece of the Musée Voltaire at Les Délices in Geneva, which I was lucky enough to visit last Easter.  This version is among the finest examples of Houdon's famous statue, and is particularly unusual in that it is made of terracotta.

The statue was acquired for the museum by Theodore Besterman in 1957.It is signed and dated "Houdon. Fecit. 1781". It is thought to have belonged to Beaumarchais, and to have once stood in the antechamber of the salon in the magnificent Hôtel Beaumarchais, boulevard Saint-Antoine - where Beaumarchais also had an extensive garden with a pavilion dedicated to Voltaire.
See:  Galignani's Paris guide: or, Stranger's companion through the French metropolis (1822), p.221

The Hôtel remained in the Beaumarchais family until 1818 when the property was bought by the municipality of Paris and demolished to make way for the Saint-Martin canal.  According to Besterman the statue itself was subsequently recorded in the possession of a demolition contractor called Fossard.  It was then owned by an antiquarian from Asnières who sold it to on to one doctor Ledoux-Lombard.  Later it was accepted by a  furniture storage business (garde-meuble) in payment of an outstanding debt. There is no clear dating for any of this (at least in the summary information available online). The piece was finally auctioned by Drouot in 1953  and again in 1957 when Besterman persuaded the muncipality of Geneva to finance its acquisition for the Institut et  Musée  Voltaire.

The provenance is not absolutely watertight.  The identification with Beaumarchais's Voltaire has been challenged by Guilhem Scherf,  curator for the Department of Sculptures in the Louvre and an expert on terracottas, who points out that the inventory taken at Beaumarchais's death described his statue as  "plâtre bronzé".  The staff at Les Délices  argue that painted terracotta is easily mistaken for plaster - indeed the statue was identified as plaster by Drouot in 1953.  In 2004  the remains of bronze colour could be seen on the front, the rest  of the statue being tinted ocre. You can see this clearly in older photos on the internet (see left) . I think it has now been completely cleaned - since it is a uniform, almost marble, white.

The only other major example of Houdon's Voltaire assis in terracotta belongs to the Musée Fabre in Montpellier.  This is almost certainly the statue described in the catalogue for the sale of Houdon's studio in October 8, 1795 (no.88).  It was acquired by the antique dealer Abraham Fontanel and in 1803 installed with great ceremony in his private museum in Montpellier.  During restoration work it was found to have been fired in several separate pieces; the chair is of plaster and the whole assembled on a base of planks supported by a wooden frame.  This differs from the present statue which, as Besterman emphasised, is all of a piece.  The legs of the chair are infilled (with a representation of a pile of books) to give strength, a solution echoed by the sculptor James Pradier whose  bronze statue of Rousseau in Geneva was inaugurated in 1835.


Video from the Bibliothèque de Genève, published  23 Jan 2015 (Youtube) 

Caroline Guignard and François Jacob "Clin d'oeil: à propos du Voltaire assis de Houdon" La Gazette des Délices 2(Summer 2004)

James David Draper and Guilhem Scherf,  Playing With Fire: European Terracottas, 1740-1840, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003 [exhibition catalogue], no. 110 Montpellier statue.

Balcar, Nathalie, “Le Voltaire assis de Houdon: étude et restaurationTechnè: la science au service de l'histoire de l'art et des civilisations  21 (2005)

I recently came across these photographs in the Frick Photoarchive which show a very similar terracotta Voltaire signed and dated "Houdon. Fecit. 1781". 

The provenance notes are as follows:

(f) Senator Roy de Loulay, Castle of Mornay (Deux Sèvres); 
(f) not sold in 1895 with contents of the Castle, but purchased later in Paris, from the previous owner's son; 
(f) by 1932, for sale in New York at the Ferargil Galleries; 
(f) by 1937, owned by Souffice, dealer, Galerie Voltaire, Paris. 
Present location unknown.
Without dates for Besterman's provenance, it is hard to be certain, but I think in all probability this is the same statue.


Sunday, 15 November 2015

Museum of the Préfecture de Police

The Musée de la Préfecture de Police in Paris can be visited for free and has some interesting 18th-century material.  The museum was originally set up in 1909 by the préfet Louis Lépine (1846-1933), using exhibits collected for the Exposition Universelle of 1900.  You have to be brave,  not just because of the nature of the collections, but because the museum is situated in an actual working police station, the l’hôtel de police of the 5th arrondissement, 4, rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Visitors have to negotiate the front desk of the Prefecture and make their way to the third floor.  There are about 2,000 exhibits in a small space.  The museum has  recently been reorganised in a thematic way, but  it is still a bit Ripley – ancient shop dummies wearing police uniforms,  doors off old prisons, wax heads of serial killers.  However, it also contains a well-presented selection of documents from the archives of the  Préfecture, which are otherwise closed to the general public.   

Sadly, the holdings of the archives for the 18th century are limited, since much of the material was destroyed at the time of the Commune in 1871.  Among the items which remain are a series of registers for the old prisons of Paris dating back to the 16th century, plus various lettres-de-cachet and detention orders. The Préfecture also inherited the dossiers of the many committees and commission charged with public order between 1789 and 1800. Again only a small percentage remain, but these include registers of  trials and arrests from the height of the Terror.  There is no online catalogue.

The archive has recently moved to new premises in the Pré Saint-Gervais and now boasts 9 kilometres of shelving.  Plans are afoot for the museum to follow there in the near future.

This year the archives and museum were "guest of honour" at the annual International Rare Book, Autograph, Print & Drawing Fair which took place at the Grand Palais on 24th-25th April. The catalogue of the exhibition is available on the website and provides some useful supplementary information.

Here are a few highlights relevant to the 18th century:

Early history of the Parisian police

Here is Louis XIV's edict establishing the office of Lieutenant of Police, registered by the Parlement of Paris on 15 March 1667.  
The objectives of the post were summarised as cleanliness, clarity, security ("netteté, clarté, sûreté") The first Lieutenant General of Police was Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, who held the post for thirty years, and did much to organise the policing of Paris on a professional basis. 

The Treatise on policing was written by Nicolas Delamare, a commissioner of the Châtelet court; the four volumes were originally published between 1705 and 1738. The Treatise lists the many competences of the 18th-century police:  religion, security, public morality, sciences and liberal arts, health, trade, food supply, manufacture, transport, labourers and domestic servants, the poor.

Other exhibits in the museum reflect this  diverse role.  La Reynie's 17th-century successors devoted themselves to improving security in the streets of the capital by attacking centres of crime (destruction of the Cours des Miracles in 1668).  In the 18th century, more prosaically, the Lieutenant Hérault addressed traffic congestion, requiring the registration of public carriages and, in 1725 and 1739 prohibiting double parking. He also instituted road signs  and the numbering of houses. His successor, Gabriel de Sartine established public gas lighting in the streets of Paris.

Prison registers

The prisons of Paris were a major responsibility of the Ancien régime police and the archives of the  Préfecture include an extensive series of prison registers ("Registres d’écrou") Famous entries on show include that for Damiens, who was transferred from Versailles to the Conciergerie on night of 17th to 18th January 1757. I have searched the internet in vain for a picture, but here, as a consolation prize, is the entry in the registry of the Conciergerie for an earlier, more successful regicide,  François Ravaillac, assassin of Henri IV (27 décembre 1594).

Here is a register relating to those held in the "Diamond Necklace Affair" in 1786.

Lettres-de-cachet and police orders.

There are several examples on show, of which the most iconic is surely this Order of 1717 signed by the marquis d'Argenson, authorising the detention of Voltaire in the Bastille on suspicion of writing obscene satirical verses against the Regent and his daughter.  (Voltaire was incarcerated from 17th May 1717 to 14 April 1718)

"Epée de justice" (sword of execution) (17th or 18th century)

 Documents from the Revolutionary period 

During the Revolution the policing of Paris was transferred to the municipality and completely reorganised, with the creation of forty-eight police commissioners and a force of officers of the peace.  The  Préfecture de Police was subsequently set up by Napoleon in 1800.    The archive iincludes orders for the arrest of numerous famous figures:  Beaumarchais, Lavoisier, Charlotte Corday, Madame Roland.  There are also Revolutionary engravings, medals, and an ivory whistle and baton carried by an
officier de paix in 1792. 

Here is the prison register entry for Charlotte Corday (13 July 1793) : 

This is the order for the arrest of Jacques-Louis David, who was imprisoned from 2 August to 28 December 1794 :

Here is the decree of  ordering the appearance of Louis XVI before the National Convention on 11th December 1792, at the commencement of his trial:

The archive contains a number of documents relating to the imprisonment of the Royal family in the Temple. Among the most moving is this original statement, dated 13 June 1818, by  Philippe-Jean Pelletain, the surgeon who carried out the autopsy on Louis XVII.  Pelletain describes how he secretly removed the boy's heart and smuggled it out of the Temple.

But, you ask, do they have a guillotine? Of course they do!. There is a third-size replica and the blade from an actual guillotine. However, although the label would have us believe that this blade dates from the Revolutionary era, Bruno Fuligni (2015) identifies it as a "modèle Berger" from the 1870s.


Préfecture de Police website:

Marie-José Selaudoux  "Le musée de la Préfecture de Police" La critique parisienne, 68 (2012)
 Guillaume Sinoquet, "Le musée de la préfecture de Police de Paris" Criminocorpus post of 18 December 2014 

Bruno Fuligni Musée secret de la police [book] (2015)

Corinne Sorin,"Paris: Musée de la police" Blog de Corinne Sorin, post of 4 October 2011

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