Saturday, 30 April 2016

A portrait of Voltaire's mother

Nicolas Largillière, Portrait of Marie-Marguerite, Madame d'Arouet, c.1700
Seventy years after her death, this  portrait of Madame Arouet hung in Voltaire's bedroom in Ferney - the only image he possessed of a mother he could scarcely remember: it is listed in his inventaire après décès (Besterman,ed. Correspondence and related documents App. D 503).  In 1979 it was included in an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale together with a companion portrait of François Arouet, père.  The catalogue confirms that  "a long family tradition" identified the sitters as the parents of Voltaire, painted by Largillière:  Madame Denis took the portraits (of her grandparents, don't forget) back to Paris and, on her death, they were inherited by Voltaire's great-nephews Dompierre d'Hornoy. The owner in 1979 was identified as the "comte de Dompierre d'Hornoy".  The portrait of Voltaire's mother was subsequently sold by auction on 25th May 1986, and so presumably passed out of the family.  The image is now available commercially as part of the Bridgeman Art Library - no further information is given, apart from the fact that the picture is in a  "private collection".

René Pomeau, who had seen both portraits, was circumspect.  The "presumed" portrait of Voltaire's father shows a young man about town,  a "petit maître",  rather than a serious man of the law. He also commented wisely on the fruitlessness of speculations concerning the resemblance between mother and son, based only on Largillière's (disappointingly non-descript) portrait.  [René Pomeau, D'Arouet à Voltaire 1694-1734 (1985) p. 28 nt 3].


Bridgeman Art Library - Nicolas, Largillière:  Portrait de Madame Arouet, mère de Voltaire.

 Voltaire : un homme, un siècle, [catalogue of an exhibition held at the Bibliothèque nationale, 25 janvier-22 avril 1979], Nos. 4 and 5.

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