Thursday, 5 November 2015

Sir William Quiller Orchardson's Voltaire

This striking painting from the National Gallery of Scotland by Sir William Quiller Orchardson dates from 1883 and captures a dramatic moment in Voltaire's quarrel with the chevalier de Rohan-Chabot.

 It was early in 1726.  Voltaire had already narrowly escaped the chevalier's cane at the Comédie-Française  thanks only to an opportune swoon by Adrienne Lecouvreur. A few days later  Rohan-Chabot sent his adversary a spurious invitation to dinner from the duc de Sully, who graciously received his unexpected guest. During dinner Voltaire was summoned to the entrance by a footman and set upon by three or four of Rohan-Chabot's lackeys armed with cudgels whilst the chevalier himself looked on from a safe distance. In the picture a ruffled and furious Voltaire storms back upstairs to protest to the duc de Sully and demand that he calls the police.  Sully refuses to take action; he acknowledges that the attack has been "violent and uncivil" but implicitly closes ranks with his fellow-aristocrat against his troublesome - and uninvited - guest.

There is no detailed description to help visual the event, so the likely accuracy of the depiction is hard to gauge.  The interior of the splendid early 17th-century Hôtel de Sully in the Marais is atmospherically evoked.  René Pomeau tells us that "le dîner" was a mid-day meal so we should imagine it to be afternoon rather than evening. I have no idea whether it was likely to have been an all-male event.  I suspect the rather uniform long dark wigs are wrong, since lighter colours were fashionable by the 1720s (see Watteau's young man in the Enseigne de Gersaint) and smaller wigs were beginning to be worn.

National Galleries of Scotland notice

The painting was acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland in 1925.  It is recorded before this date as belonging to the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. Some of the depictions on the internet are of an oil sketch; the figures in the sketch are relatively larger and the man nearest the duke has his chin resting on his hands.  An oil panel depicting Voltaire was sold by Christie's in 2005.

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