Thursday, 31 December 2015

Voltaire, vegetarian?

In 2014 a collection of Voltaire's "pensées végétariennes"  were edited by Renan Larue, a professor of French and Italian at the University of Santa Barbara.  According to Professor Larue, vegetarianism is a scattered but persistent theme in Voltaire's writings from the 1760s onwards.  His interest was stimulated by his own dietary concerns and his reading, particularly of the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, whose treatise on abstinence from eating meat was translated into French by the the abbé de Burigny  in 1761.  As Professor Larue himself admits, Voltaire's treatment is limited; it was always subsiduary to his battle against religious hypocrisy and his continued, unresolved meditations on the problem of evil in the world.

I admit I was a little sceptical that Voltaire really cared much about animals or entertained "vegetarianism" at all; but Voltaire surprises.  The passages which Professor Larue has assembled give  impressive evidence of his willingness - perhaps unique among 18th-century writers - to empathise with the plight of butchery animals. Although he may not have considered vegetarianism as a serious option for modern men, his defence of historical vegetarians seems to go well beyond the immediate requirement of anti-Christian polemic.

Animals and humans – the starting point.

The premise behind Voltaire's position was his long standing conviction that men and animals are fundamentally alike in nature.  His view harps back to the criticism of Cartesian dualism and early 18th century debates on the nature of  "animal souls". Thus in the Letters from Memmius to Cicero, XVI. (1772): "Animals have the same faculties as us.  Organised like us, they receive life like us and give it in the same way. They initiate movement in the same way and communicate it .They have senses and sensations, ideas, memory".  Animals are not totally without  reason  they possessed it in proportion to the number and acuity of their senses. Some individual  animals -  dog, orangutan or elephant - might be more worthy than imbecilic humans, among whom Voltaire pointedly gives pride of place to "our old gourmands struck down by apoplexy",

The main thrust of this philosophy, of course, was to dethrone men from their privileged place in creation and to challenge the, to Voltaire vacuous, concept of an immortal soul. In late works, however, Voltaire seems increasingly willing to emphasise the corollory, that men should have regard for the experience and welfare of animals.

The suffering of animals

In one of his last major essays, Il faut prendre un parti ["We must take sides"], composed in 1772 or 1773, Voltaire takes the human capacity to empathise with animal suffering as the very starting point for his discussion of the problem of evil: "We have never had any idea of good and evil, save in relation to ourselves.  The sufferings of an animal seem to us evils, because, being animals ourselves, we feel that we should excite compassion if the same were done to us".  The suffering which Voltaire has specifically in mind  is being killed and eaten. He depicts a nature red in tooth and claw.  All creation is caught up in a violent and brutal ecological cycle: "From the smallest insects to the rhinoceros and the elephant the earth is but a vast battlefield, a world of carnage and destruction". "What can be more abominable", concludes Voltaire, "than to feed constantly on corpses?"

Human responsibility for butchery animals 

Elsewhere, Voltaire is more inclined to emphasise human responsibility for the suffering of animals, Again he singles out slaughter and butchery.  Men are blinded by habit from seeing "the awful destiny of the beasts that are intended for our table":  "Children who weep at the death of the first chicken they see killed laugh at the death of the second".  The article "Viande" in Questions sur l'Encyclopédie asks:"What barbarous person would roast a lamb, if that lamb could plead with us in a moving discourse not to be both assassin and cannibal?"

Voltaire seemed genuinely disturbed by the gratuitous cruelty of farming and slaughtering.  He relates, with horrified credulity, that men once ate animals limb by limb whilst they were still living (Traité sur la tolerance, XII note)   Modern practices also excite condemnation:  the hen Dialogue between a capon and a fattened hen relates her miserable fate:
"An accursed servant took me over her knees, stuck a long needle in my  backside, seized my womb twirled it around the needle, ripped it out and gave it to her cat to eat"
"I am peaceable and have never done any wrong; I have even nourished these monsters by giving them my eggs.  Why should I be castrated, blinded, beheaded and roasted?"

The vegetarian option

Is there an alternative to"this frightful habit, which has become part of our nature"? Voltaire is pessimistic about the likelihood of modern men adopting vegetarianism. Predictably, his  most scathing comments are reserved for the prevarication and hypocrisy of Jewish and Christian dietary laws; under guise of abstinence, monks have given up meat only to become "murderers of soles and turbots, if not of partridges and quails."  Genuine vegetarianism has, however, existed.

Voltaire's first example is the faraway civilisation of Indian. His interest in India and the religion of the "Brahmins" dates back to the 1740s, but at this time he had very little information, other than the Jesuit letters from missions, the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses.  He was aware of Indian respect for the cow, but interpreted it as the result of a belief in metempsychosis; the Indians feared they might be harming the souls of  their dead relatives.  It is this position that was  parodied in Zadig. By the 1760s, however, Voltaire  had acquired new source material, including the so-called Ezour Veidam, a manuscript supposedly from the time of the Vedas, which presented the religion of the Brahmins as a simple monotheism, devoid of superstition. In Voltaire's view this included genuine vegetarianism.  Thus in the Princesse de Babylone (1768) the shepherds of the Ganges are said to live in perfect equality and never kill their flocks; it is considered a "horrible crime" to "kill and eat ones fellow creatures". In the Lettres d'Amabed (1768) a Jesuit missionary excites hatred because he is capable of "murdering chickens".  
Voltaire also revisited the longstanding idea of an Ancient Greek vegetarian tradition, which started with  with Orpheus and including Pythagoras and his disciples.  In 1761 the abbé de Burigny sent him a copy of the treatise of Porphyry who henceforth acquired pride of place among Voltaire's vegetarians. At all times, Voltaire asserted, there have been sects prepared to embrace vegetarianism on grounds of religious scruple.

Voltaire vegetarian?

None of this is to say,of course, that Voltaire entertained vegetarianism as a serious personal option.  If he abstained from meat it was for dietary reasons; on occasion he humorously  bemoaned the necessity of following  "the regime of Porphyry" but he never saw it as an ethical choice.  At the time that he wrote his Dialogue of the capon and the hen, the livres de compte at Ferney show that he bought a considerable amount of meat and fish, and often offered fine meats to his guests.  


Renan Larue:

ed. Voltaire, Pensées végétariennes  Fayard/Mille et une nuits (2014)

"Voltaire et le problème de la souffrance animale" (2010 lecture)

Renan Larue, "Le végétarisme dans l'oeuvre de Voltaire (1762-1778)"
Dix-huitième siècle, 2010/1 n° 42, p. 19-34

"Voltaire aurait-il signé le manifeste Les animaux ne sont pas des choses?"  Le Devoir:  libre de penser, 22 février 2014

See also
Jim Chevallier, Vegetarians in Old Regime France (2009)  16p.

Extract from Il faut prendre un parti "We must take sides"(1772)
 translated by Joseph McCabe in Toleration and other essays:  (London, 1912)


We talk incessantly of "the soul", though we have not the least idea of the meaning of it.....We may be quite sure that there would be just as much reason to grant the snail a hidden being called a "free soul" as to grant it to a man.  The snail has a will, desires, tastes, sensations, ideas and memory.  It wishes to move towards the material of its food or the object of its love.  It remembers it, has an idea of it, advances towads it as quickly as it can;  it knows pleasure and pain. Yet you are not terrified when you are told that the animal has not a spiritual soul; that God has bestowed on it these gifts for a little time; that he who moves the stars moves also the insect.  But when it comes to man you change your mind.....(p.222-3)


We have never had any idea of good and evil, save in relation to ourselves.  The sufferings of an animal seem to us evils, because, being animals ourselves, we feel that we should excite compassion if the same were done to us.  We should have the same feeling for a tree if we were told that it suffered torment when it was cut;  and for a stone if we learned that it suffers when it is dressed.  But we should pity the tree and the stone much less than the animal, because they are less like us.  Indeed, we soon cease to be touched by the awful destiny of the beasts that are intended for our table.  Children who weep at the death of the first chicken they see killed laugh at the death of the second.
It is only too sure that the disgusting carnage of our butcheries and kitchens does not seem to us an evil.  On the contrary, we regard this horror, pestilential as it often is, as a blessing of the Lord;  and we still have prayers in which we thank him for these murders.  Yet what can be more abominable than to feed constantly on corpses?

Not only do we spend our lives in killing, and devouring what we have killed, but all the animals slaughter each other;  they are impelled to do so by an invincible instinct.  From the smallest insects to the rhinoceros and the elephant, the earth is but a vast battlefield, a world of carnage and destruction.  There is no animal that has not its prey, and that, to capture it, does not employ some means equivalent to the ruse and rage with which the detestable spider entraps and devours the innocent fly.  A flock of sheep devours in an hour, as it crops the grass, more insects than there are men on the earth.

What is still more cruel is that in this horrible scene of reiterated murder we perceive an evident design to perpetuate all species by means of the bloody corpses of their mutual enemies.  The victims do not expire until nature has carefully provided for new representatives of the species.  Everything is born again to be murdered.

Yet I observe no moralist among us, nor any of our fluent preachers or boasters, who has ever re-flected in the least on this frightful habit, which has become part of our nature.  We have to go back to the pious Porphyry and the sympathetic Pythagoreans to find those who would shame us for our bloody gluttony; or we must travel to the land of the Brahmans.  Our monks, the caprice of whose founders has bade them renounce the flesh, are murderers of soles and turbots, if not of partridges and quails.  Neither among the monks, nor in the Council of Trent, nor in the assemblies of the clergy, nor in our academies, has this universal butchery ever been pronounced an evil.  There has been no more thought given to it in the councils of the clergy than in our public-houses.

Hence the great being is justified of these butcheries in our eyes; or, indeed, we are his accomplices.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Voltaire spares a thought for the poultry! Dialogue du Chapon et de la Poularde

Anne Vallayer-Coster, Still life: cock and hen. c.1787.  Musée de Tessé. LeMans.
Another one for the festive season -  Voltaire's dialogue of 1763 between a capon and a fattened hen.  In the Dialogue the two birds confide to one another that they have both been neutered; the capon informs his naive companion that they will soon be killed,  cooked and eaten.  In the end the sous-chef arrives and the hapless birds say their farewells. Their laments provide Voltaire with a convenient pretext to denounce the cruelty of human beings, their injustices and hypocrisies.


THE CAPON:  Dear God, my sweet Hen, why are you so miserable?

THE HEN: My dear friend, you ought to ask instead why I am not more miserable!  An accursed servant took me over her knees, stuck a long needle into my backside, seized my womb,  twirled it around the needle, ripped it out and gave it to her cat to eat.  Now I cannot receive the favours of the Cockerel, nor lay any eggs.

THE CAPON: Alas! my good Hen, I have lost more than you.  The operation they did on me was doubly cruel.  Neither you nor I will find consolation any more in this world: we have been made into a poularde and, in my case, a capon.  The only idea that sweetens my deplorable state, is that I heard two Italian abbés talking near my hen-house  who had suffered the same outrage so that they could sing in a clearer voice before the pope.  They said that men had begun by circumcising their kind and finished up by castrating them; they cursed their fate, and the human race.

THE HEN: Are they going to eat us?  The monsters!

It is their custom.  They put us in prison for several days, force us to swallow a pâté of a secret recipe, gouge out our eyes so that we are not distracted;  finally, when the fete day arrives, they pull out our feathers, cut our throats and roast us.  They bring us in before them on a large silver platter;  each one says what he thinks of us; they give our funeral oration: one says that we taste of hazelnut, another notes our succulent flesh; they praise our thighs, our wings, our posterior, and that's our time in this world finished for good.

THE HEN: What abominable wretches!  I am ready to faint. What!  Snatch out my eyes!  Cut my throat!  I'm going to be roasted and eaten! Do these scoundrels have no remorse?

THE CAPON:  No, my friend.  The two abbés that I told you about said that men never feel remorse about things that they are accustomed to do by habit.

THE HEN: What a detestable breed!  I bet they  continue to laugh and tell amusing stories as they eat us, as though nothing has happened.

La cuisine bourgeoise by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand.
THE CAPON: You've guessed it.  But you should know, for your consolation (if such is possible), that these animals - who are bipeds like us, and are very inferior to us because they lack feathers - have often treated their own kind just as badly.

My two abbés said that the Greek Christian emperors never failed to gouge out the eyes of their brothers and cousins.  In the country where we are now, there was a certain Débonnaire who put out the eyes of his nephew Bernard.  As to roasting each other, nothing is more common among this species.   My two abbés said that more than twenty thousand men had been roasted for opinions which it would be difficult for a capon to explain, and which I care very little about.

THE HEN: So are they roasted to be eaten?

THE CAPON: I can't tell you that for certain; but I remember clearly having heard that there were countries - among them that of the Jews - where men have sometimes eaten one another.

THE HEN: Let's leave it at that.  It is proper that the representatives of such a perverse species should devour one another, and that the earth should be purged of that race.  But what about me?  I am peaceable and have never done any wrong; I have even nourished these monsters by giving them my eggs.  Why should I be castrated, blinded, beheaded and roasted?!  Do they treat us like that in the rest of the world?

THE CAPON: The two abbés say no.  They confirm that in a country called India, which is much larger, more beautiful and fertile than ours, men have had for thousands of years a sacred law which forbids them to eat us.  A certain Pythagoras, who traveled among these just peoples, brought this humane law back to Europe where it was followed by his disciples.  The good abbés read Porphyry the Pythagorian, who wrote a fine book against meat-eating.

Oh great man!  Oh divine Porphyry!  With wisdom, force and tender respect for the Divinity, he proved that we are the allies and relatives of men. God has given us the same organs, the same feelings, the same memory, the same seed of understanding, developed in us to a point determined by eternal laws.  In short, my dear Hen, it is an outrage against God to say that we have senses but do not feel and a brain but do not think. These imaginings, of a fool named Descartes, are the height of ridiculousness and an empty excuse for barbarity.

Thus the greatest philosophers of Antiquity never had us spit-roasted. They tried to learn our language and to understand our behaviour, which is so superior to that of the human race.  We were safe with them as in a Golden Age.  Sages do not kill animals, said Porphyry; it is only barbarians and priests that kill and eat them.  He wrote his admirable book to convert one of his disciples who had become a Christian through gluttony.

THE HEN: Well, then. Do they put up altars to this great man who taught virtue to the human race, and saved the lives of animals?

THE CAPON: No. He is regarded with horror by Christians who eat us, and who still detest his memory today; they say that he was impious, that his virtues were false, because he was a pagan.

THE HEN:  Gourmandise creates terrible prejudices.  The other day I hear a man addressing other men in the big building near our hen-house.  He announced that "God has made a pact with us and with those other animals called men; that God has forbidden them to eat our blood and flesh."  How can they reconcile this prohibition with devouring our boiled and roasted limbs?  When they cut our throats, it is impossible to leave no blood in our veins; this blood mingles with our flesh; they are evidently disobeying God by eating us.  Besides isn't it a sacrilege to kill and devour people with whom God has made a pact? It would be a strange agreement where the only clause is to deliver us to death.   Either the Creator did not made a pact with us, or it is a crime to kill and cook us;  there is no middle ground.

THE CAPON: That isn't the only contradiction to be found among these monsters, our eternal enemies.   They have long been reproached because they cannot agree among themselves on anything.  They make laws only to violate them; and what is worse they violate them in conscience.  They have invented a hundred subterfuges, a hundred sophisms, to justify their transgressions.  They use reason only to justify injustice and words only to disguise their thoughts. Consider:  in the little country where we live, it is forbidden to eat us on two days of the week. They have found a way to evade this law. Indeed, this law, which seems favourable to you, is actually very barbarous;  it requires that on these days they eat instead the inhabitants of the water; they go and find their victims in the depths of seas and rivers.  They consume creatures where a single fillet often costs more than a hundred capons;  they call this fasting, doing penance.  In short, I don't believe it would be possible to imagine a species more ridiculous and at the same time more abominable, extravagant and bloodthirsty.

Colour plate from Jules Gouffé, Livre de cuisine (1867)
THE HEN:  Oh, my God!  Can't you see  - the villainous sous-chef is about to arrive with his great knife?

THE CAPON: We are done for, my Friend, our final hour has come! Let us commend our souls to God.

THE HEN:  I hope  I give the rogue who eats me an indigestion so bad that he wretches. But little people always try to avenge themselves on the powerful with useless wishes and the powerful just laugh at them.

THE CAPON:   Agh! I am being seized by the neck.  Let us forgive our enemies

THE HEN:  I am no more.  They have grabbed me, they are carrying me off.

THE CAPON:  Goodbye, for all eternity, my dear little Hen.


In France the dialogue is on the Baccalaureate syllabus; there are many different versions in French on the internet and a nice critical edition: Voltaire, Dialogue du chapon et de la poularde, Manucius, 2014, 9782845784352, collection «Littéra».  No English versions though. There is a discussion of the dialogue in Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and traces: true, false, fictive (2010) p.109-111.

Monday, 28 December 2015


The art of the silhouette, tracing shadow profiles or figures to create simple black cut-out portraits, enjoyed a vogue in mid-18th century France and later, even more so, in the Anglo-Saxon world - in the days before photography it offered a quick and cheap alternative to formal portraiture. The early history of the genre is not well documented but the term "Silhouette" itself has a clear and undisputed origin; it derives from the name of the French minister Étienne de Silhouette (1709-67). By 1765 it was current enough for Jean-Jacques Rousseau to report that he has been asked by an admirer for "mon profil à la Silhouette" (letter of 7th April 1765)

Silhouette was French Controller General of Finance for little over eight months between 4th March and 20th November 1759.  He came to post in the middle of the Seven Years war and was immediately forced into drastic measures to raise funds, including the widespread imposition of duty on luxury items, from tobacco through to carriages, lackeys, wallpapers, silks and gold and silver plate.The well-to-do also feared for their pensions. Despite the fact that he was widely regarded a progressive figure, his actions inevitably provoked protest.  A barrage of  satirical pamphlets, chansons and caricatures poked fun at his supposed austerities. Amusingly pared-down garments and objects were produced; from plain print dresses to breeches without pockets and snuffboxes of rough wood. It was at this point that his name became definitely attached to portraits à la Silhouette.

The earliest account I have been able to find is from Lettres sur la France (1766) - ascribed to "Sir Robert Talbot" but probably in reality by Jean-Henri Maubert de Gouvest.  Here is the relevant passage from the 1771 English version: 

p.71-2: In England a clamour would have been raised against the Minister; and a commotion would have laid him under the necessity of signing his place.  Agreeably to our temper, which is less serious than yours, we diverted ourselves at the expense of the reformer.  Some songs and pasquinades delivered him up to the raillery of the people of the Capital and of the Provinces.  Fashion seized his name, and inserted it in the new bills of the shops near the Palace (ie. in the arcades of the Palais royal).  Everything appeared à la Silhouette.  The several artisans aggravated the charge through emulation.  The very name became ridiculous.  There are few instances of a reputation so suddenly lost.

Note:  The caps à la Silhouette were the wings of a bat in brass-wire, meanly covered with a simple gauze.  The coats had not plaits, the breeches no pockets.  The snuff-boxes were of wood unpolished, the watches with half a case of gold or silver.  The pictures à la Silhouette were faces drawn in profile on black paper, from the shadow of a candle on a sheet of white paper nailed to the wall. [This last fashion (like many others) was from hence probably introduced into England a few years ago.]

Here is another reference,  translated from Mercier's Tableau de Paris of 1781:
Henceforth, everything appeared "à la Silhouette" and his name quickly became the object of ridicule. Dresses were made using deliberately dull and simple print material ("Les modes porterent à dessein une empreinte de sécheresse & de mesquinerie"), coats had no pleats, breeches no pockets; snuff-boxes were made of plain wood; portraits were profiles made out of black paper by the light of a candle on sheets of white paper. ("les portraits furent des visages tirés de profil sur du papier noir, d'après l'ombre de la chandelle, sur une feuille de papier blanc") Thus  did the nation avenge itself.  (vol. 1 1781) p.231

Compare also Barthélemy François Joseph Mouffle D'Angerville Vie privée de Louis XV  (vol. 3 1781) p.221-2 on portraits and culottes à la Silhouette:  The outlines of the former traced from a shadow and the lack of a fob (gousset) in the latter  provided the epigram:  they indicated the point to which the Controller General had reduced individuals and their purses.

In the 19th century the idea became current that Silhouette himself had invented or popularised the new art form. Guy-Jean Néel has squirreled out a temptingly circumstantial account from the Journal Officiel de l'Empire Français for August 1869 which claims not only that the former Controller-General enjoyed making silhouette portraits, but that the walls of several rooms in his chateau at Bry-sur-Marne were covered with them.  Sadly the chateau was completely destroyed by fire in 1871, so if Silhouette ever made or collected the pictures, no trace remains.


Philip Dodd,  The Reverend Guppy's Aquarium. (2009). Chpt 12, p.192-207:"The shadowy life of Étienne de Silhouette",

Guy-Jean Néel, "Silhouette et Silo" in  Mélanges offerts à Maurice Molho (ENS Editions, 1987) p.221-4

Interview with Georges Vigarello, author of La Silhouette du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours. Naissance d’un défi (Paris, Seuil  2012),  Le Monde 14.12.2012  

Emma Rutherford, Silhouette: the art of the shadow (Rizzoli 2009).
Emma Rutherford explains how the term "silhouette" was introduced to England in the work of Johan Caspar Lavater and Henry Fuseli. It was popularised in the early 19th century in England in the work of  Auguste Edouart.                                       

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Chouan Christmas

Légendes de Noël 

Another Christmas story translated from G. Lenotre.

In this sentimental tale, a band of Revolutionary soldiers fighting the Chouans find themselves overwhelmed by memories of Christmas.

 Illustrations are  by Paul Thiriat from the 1911 edition of the Légendes de Noël which is available on Gallica.

This story was told to me one evening beside the Couesnon River near Fougères where from 1793 to 1800 the epic struggle of the Chouans took place. Memories are still keen in these parts of the "great trial" of the Revolutionary era.

One night in the winter of 1795 a party of Republican soldiers was on the road skirting the forest of Fougères, which connected the routes from Mortain and Avranches. The air was fresh, but almost warm, even though it was one of the longest nights of the year. Here and there, behind bare hedges, patches of snow in the fields caught the light .

The patriots moved forward: their long hair hung out beneath their bicorne hats; their coats were blue with wide sashes; heavy cartridge pouches banged against their legs; their coarse red-striped trousers were stuffed into gaiters.  They went along bent and tired, weighed down by their haversacks and the heavy guns they carried. They led with them a peasant who, earlier that evening, had shot at the band from a hiding place among the gorse bushes.  His bullet had gone right through the sergeant's hat then ricocheted back and broke the pipe that one of the soldiers was smoking. They had immediately pursued him, hemmed him in against a bank, then captured and disarmed him.  The "Blues" were taking him to Fougerolles where the brigade was camped.

The peasant was wearing a goat fleece as a coat, which opened at the front to reveal his  Bretonne shirt and a waistcoat with big buttons.  He had clogs on his feet and on his head a felt hat with wide brim and ribbons over a woollen bonnet.  His hair hung down around his neck.  His expression was impassive and hard.  As he moved along, his small bright eyes furtively scanned the hedges that bordered the road and the winding pathways that led off it. Two soldiers held the rope that bound his hands, wrapping the ends around their arms.

When the Blues and their prisoner had passed Tondrais and forded the  river of Le Nanson, they made their way through the forest in order to avoid inhabited areas.   At the Servilliers crossroads, the sergeant ordered them to halt. The tired men piled up their guns, threw their bags onto the ground and, piling up dead gorse and leaves, made a fire.  Two of them tied the peasant firmly to a tree by the rope around his wrists.

The Chouan, with his bright and quick moving eyes, watched the movements of his guards; he did not tremble or say a word; but his expression was full of anguish - evidently he thought that he was about to die.  His anxiety was not lost on one of the Blues who tied the ropes. This was a scrawny youth with a mocking and vicious air, wh otaunted the prisoner.

"Don't be afraid.  Nothing is going to happen to you now; you have at least six hours to live; enough time to win at lotto if you have a good card.  There you are, buck up!"

"Tie him up well, Pierrot; don't let him take advantage of our politeness."

"Don't worry, Sergeant Torquatus", replied Pierrot.  "We will taking him safely to the General". 

"You know, dog", he continued, addressing himself to the peasant, "don't give yourself illusions; the Republic isn't rich and we don't have guillotines; but you will have your comeuppance in lead bullets - six in the head and six in the body.  Think on that until morning;  that will give you food for thought."

With that Pierrot sat down among his comrades by the fire and began tranquilly eating a piece of dried bread from his haversack.

This war in Brittany, which had been waged for three years by regular soldiers against bands of peasant,  was a bitter struggle against invisible enemies, and had taken on the odious characteristics of a hunt for wild beasts.  Neither camp showed the habitual generosity of soldiers; there was no compassion for prisoners, no pity for the defeated; a man who was captured was a dead man.  Both the Blues and the Chouans had many men to avenge. 
It seemed that in this terrible epoch men had lost all sense of humanity; the habit of shedding blood, insecurity about the next day, the overturning of customs, the breakdown of social bonds - these things had made them into beasts, whether brave or treacherous, lions or tigers, having no other goal but to kill or be killed.

When he had finished his bread, Pierrot began to load his gun.  He chose a bullet and held it delicately between his fingers.

"Hey my lad!" he said to the peasant who was following his every movement; "this one is for you".

He slipped it into the barrel of his gun, which he stuffed with paper  All the men  broke into laughter and each one offered a word to contribute to the captive's misery.........

The peasant remained silent and calm before this assault.  He seemed to be listening out for some distant sound that the shouts and laughter of the soldiers prevented him from hearing.  Suddenly he dropped his head and drew back; from the depths of the forest arose the sound of a bell, clear and distinct in the tranquil night air.  Almost immediately a second, lower, bell could be heard from the opposite direction and soon a third, low, plaintive and far away.

The Blues, stirred in surprise.

"What is that?....Why are they ringing the bells?  Is it a signal?  Or a warning?"

They all spoke at once;  some of them ran for their arms.  The peasant raised his head and looked at them with his clear eyes.

"It is Christmas", he said.


"Christmas.  They are sounding the bells for Midnight Mass."

The soldiers, grumbling, returned to their places around the fire and fell silent.

"Christmas", "Midnight Mass"; these words, which they hadn't heard for so long, astonished them.  Vague memories came into their minds of happy times, of tenderness and peace; with lowered heads they listened to the bells, which spoke to them all in a forgotten language.

Sergeant Torquatus put down his pipe, folded his arms and closed his eyes, with the air of someone savouring a symphony.  Then, because he was ashamed of his weakness, he turned to the prisoner and, in a much more gentle tone, asked him, "Are you from these parts?"

"I am from Coglès, not far away..."

"And you still have priests amongst you?"

"The Blues are not everywhere; they have not got further than the Couesnon and beyond that we are still free.  Listen, it is the bell at Parigné which is sounding now;  the other, little one, belongs to the chateau of M. du Bois-Guy, and over there is the bell of Montours.  If the wind is right, you can hear "la Rusarde", the great bell of Loudéan."

"All right, all right; I didn't ask for all the details", interrupted Torquatus, who was disconcerted by the silence that had descended on his men.

At that moment, from every direction, the sound of bells from distant villages rose into the night air.  It was a gentle melody, sweet and harmonious,  blown closer then further away by turn.  And the soldiers, with bent heads, listened;  they thought of things which they had not remembered in years;  they saw again the churches of their villages, bright with candles, the crib with its red and blue Christmas candles;  they heard in their minds the Christmas carols which had been sung for generations,  songs as old as France itself, which told of shepherds, stars and small children and which spoke too of peace, reconciliation and hope.  And these thoughts made these ferocious soldiers feel tender....

"What do they call you?" the sergeant suddenly asked the Chouan.
Branche d'or"

"Oh! what sort of name is that?" exclaimed Pierrot, whose mocking laugh was this time without echo.

"Silence!" said the sergeant. "You can call yourself what you like.  Branche d'or is a war name.   I myself have chosen the name Torquatus."

The bells still sounded in the distance; and the voice of the sergeant became softer as though he was afraid to break the spell that the music had cast over the sleeping world.

"Do you have a wife?" he asked.

Branche d'or's lips tightened, his brows covered his eyes and he frowned; he replied with a nod of his head.

"And your mother? "asked Pierrot; "Is she still alive?"

The Chouan did not reply.

"Do you have children? " asked a third man.

A sigh escaped the prisoner;  in the light of the fire they could see tears rolling down his cheeks. The soldiers looked at each other, ashamed.

"I am going to untie him a moment, sergeant", said Pierrot, overcome with emotion.

Torquatus signaled his agreement;  they untied Branche d'or who sat on the ground at the foot of the tree, his head in his hands.

"Damn", said the sergeant, "his wife and kids will have a rotten Christmas, when they find out..... What a miserable thing war is!".  

"In the old days", he continued, "everyone was happy at this time.  Christmas was a time of celebration and good cheer."  

And looking at the dying fire, he added, dreaming aloud:

"I too have a wife and boys, in Lorraine:  it is a land of Christmas trees; they cut down a sapling in the woods and decorate it with lights and toys;  how the little ones laugh and clap their hands!"

"Where I come from", said another, "they build a great crib in the church with a baby Jesus, and they distribute cakes to the boys and girls on Christmas night"

"In the North, where I am from", said another, "Father Christmas goes through the streets with a long beard and a cloak covered with flour to represent snow.  He knocks at the doors and cries out, " Are the children asleep?  Everyone is both afraid and happy."

All the men let themselves be carried away by their memories; in their hardened hearts, memories of long-passed childhood passed like a soft dew on dried grass; they were all quiet; some sat with their heads bowed, their minds far away in a happy and peaceful past; others looked at the peasant in sympathy.  As the Christmas bells fell silent then restarted, a sort of anguish seized the little band.  The sergeant got to his feet, took a few feverish steps, looked at his men as if to consult them, then tapped Branche d'or on the shoulder:

"Go!" he said.

The Chouan raised his head, not understanding.

"Go! Run away!  You are free."

"Go!" cried the Blues, "Save yourself...the sergeant has ordered you".

Branche d'or got up, shaken, thinking it was some kind of cruel joke.  He looked at each soldier in turn, then finally understanding, he gave a cry and raced off into the forest.

An few moments later the band of Blues moved on.  As they walked off through the forest they suddenly heard a terrible groaning.  Torquatus turned.  It was Pierrot, overcome with tenderness, crying in great sobs, as he thought about past Christmases, about wooden shoes decorated with toys and about his old mother who, doubtless at that very moment, was praying to the infant Jesus to keep her son safe from harm.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Oudry's portrait of Clara

Oudry, Clara.  Staatliches Museum Schwerin 310 × 456 cm (122 × 179.5 in)
Jean-Baptiste Oudry's famous and much reproduced portrait of Clara was painted from life when the rhinoceros was exhibited in the Foire St-Germain  in 1749.  The picture is life-size - which in the case of a rhinoceros means pretty large: some ten by fifteen feet!

In 2001 the painting was re-discovered in Schwerin on the Baltic coast of Germany and shipped, together with an equally enormous canvas of a lion, to the Getty Museum for conservation.  As you can see from the Getty video, this was quite a task!  The huge canvasses first had to be unrolled - no mean feat in itself after 150 years - then painstakingly cleaned and repaired, minute scratch by minute scratch.

In 2007 Clara was finally ready to be revealed to the public as the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Getty on "Oudry's Painted Menagerie".  The picture has now been returned to Germany and in 2015 rehung in the refurbished gallery of the Ludwigslust Schloss, the former hunting lodge of the Dukes of Meckleburg-Schwerin.

Duke Christian Ludwig II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (1683-1756) and his son Prince Friedrich were Oudry's greatest foreign patrons.  Between 1733 and 1753 they acquired no few than forty-four of his paintings and forty drawings  - which today represents the largest collection of his work in existence. In March 1750 Oudry offered the Duke's chamberlain sixteen pictures of which ten "formed a series appropriate for the decoration of a gallery".   The series was a set of  birds and animals painted from life in the Versailles Menagerie at the request of François Gigot de La Peyronie (1678-1747). Louis's surgeon, "who wished to have the pictures engraved and to provide a series of natural history paintings for the royal botanical gardens" (presumably, though not certainly, a planned gallery at the Jardin du roi). La Peyronie had unfortunately died without taking possession of the commission.  The letter also mentions the picture of Clara.  All ten of the Menagerie paintings, plus Clara and the portrait of the Versailles lion, which was sold to the Duke in 1752, are now on display in Schwerin.


Exhibition Oudry's "painted Menagerie" 1st May - 2nd September 2007.

A full online version of the exhibition catalogue has also generously been made available.

The pictures are rehung in Schwerin:
"Schwerin/Ludwigslust Bildergalerie: Oudry-Gemälde ziehen um" Ostsee-Zeitung 28.09.2015

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Menagerie lion

The Menagerie lion, whose name was Woira, became famous for his friendship with a dog who shared his cage.  The following account in English is taken from William Bingley's  book Animal biography, published in 1820:

A Lion, about three months old, was, in 1787, caught in one of the forests of Senegal; and Pelletau, the director of the African company in that colony, undertook to superintend the animal's education. The mildness of his physiognomy, and the unusual gentleness of his disposition, rendered this Lion a great favourite with all persons who saw him. Sensible of the good treatment that he received, he seemed, on all occasions, highly delighted with the caresses and attention of his friends, atid was, in most respects, as tractable as any domestic animal could be. Such was his love of society, that he was always delighted to be in a room where many persons were assembled: and what was very extraordinary, he lived in perfect harmony, and was at all times on the best terms, with the other animals, of every species, that were kept in his master's house. He slept in the same place with sheep, dogs, cats, monkeys, geese, ducks, &c. When he was about eight months old, two whelps were littered by a Terrier on his bed. This new family excited a most lively interest in the Lion; and if he had been the parent of the little animals, he could not have displayed to them an attachment more tender than that which was now remarked in him. One of the whelps died; his affection was redoubled towards the other; and this affection appeared to regulate all his movements. 

At the age of fourteen months, the Lion, with his little companion, was embarked for France. It was feared that the change of situation and habits would have had such influence as to render him in some degree ferocious. This, however, was not the case; for he could at all times be allowed, without danger, to range at liberty in the vessel. He was landed at Havre, and, attended by his faithful dog, was, with only a cord attached to his collar, conducted thence to Versailles. On the death of the dog, which took place some little time after their arrival at Versailles, he seemed to be very disconsolate and miserable; and it was thought necessary to supply the loss of his companion by putting into his den another animal of the same species. The second dog, terrified at the sight of so tremendous a beast, immediately endeavoured to conceal himself; and the Lion, surprised by the noise, struck the animal with one of his fore-paws, and killed it on the spot. He did not, however, attempt to devour it. A third dog was put into his den, and lived with him for some years afterwards.

William Bingley, Animal biography, or, Popular zoology (1820)

Image published in La Décade philosophique (1794)

 Modern zoologist would no doubt diagnose a distortion of natural behaviour, but contemporary commentators were uniformly optimistic in their conclusions. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre cited the lion's tenderness towards the dog as an example of how good treatment can modify the temperament of ferocious animals. "Their friendship is one of the most touching sights that nature can offer to the speculations of a philosopher.....Never have I seen such generosity in a lion, and such amiability in a dog" (p.639)   The librarian of the Jardin des plantes, who devoted a pamphlet to Woira in October 1794, offered the lion as a moral example of fidelity, noting sentimentally that to the lion his companion was not merely a dog but a friend.  In the summary published in La Décade philosophique for 1794 there is an added political dimension; the lion symbolised the ability of republican society to reconcile the natural and artificial: the animal had conserved all the primitive traits of his species, and returned to Africa, would still reign supreme. Society had not destroyed his instinct, but rather perfected it (p.195)

The lion was one of the few animals to survive the depredations of the Revolutionary years and the transfer of the Menagerie to the Jardin des plantes.  His canine companion accompanied him but, to the lion's distress, died soon afterwards.  Woira himself probably perished in the frosty winter of 1795.


Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Mémoire sur la necessité de joindre une ménagerie au Jardin des Plantes de Paris

Georges Toscan, Histoire du Lion de la Ménagerie du Museum national d'histoire naturelle (Paris, 1795)

La Décade philosophique III (1794) p.195

See also:

Louise E. Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris (2002), p.216-8

E. C. Spary, Utopia's Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution (Univ.of Chicago Press, 2010) p.148.

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