Rehabilitating Marie-Antoinette’s favourite: the princesse de Lamballe

Open any book on the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette or the French Revolution and the reader will invariably find one or two sentences recounting the grisly manner of the princesse de Lamballe’s death during the September massacres.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Print by Verité after a 1782 portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) (print published after 1792). Credit: Gallica / BnF.

Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie-Carignan, the princesse de Lamballe (1749-1792), once a central figure of Marie-Antoinette’s court, is today largely forgotten, reduced to a fittingly sensational anecdote illustrating the bloodshed that ensued in Paris during the last turbulent years of the eighteenth century. The princess’s true character and activities have long been lost in the mawkish narratives peddled by the wave of nineteenth-century biographies that succeeded her death. This sentimental revival of interest in her person was closely interwoven with the propaganda that attended the royalist cult of Marie-Antoinette and has coloured all subsequent interpretations.

My research focuses on the portraiture and patronage of the princesse, and through an examination of the many portraits the princess sat for and her role as patron and collector, I hope to redress these longstanding lacunae and recover something of her former influence and contribution. An accomplished noble amateur, traveller, bibliophile, freemason, salonnière, patron and collector, not to mention the highest ranking courtier in the queen’s household, Lamballe presents an ideal case study, particularly as her widowed, childless, professional and independent status presents a rare alternative to the more orthodox paradigms within her milieu.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

The princesse de Lamballe’s chaumière at Rambouillet. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In determining the governing ideologies in the princess’s iconographical programme and by tracing the mechanics of her engagement with different groups of artists and craftsmen, I hope to identify a wider range of motives and cultural meaning than has previously been ascribed to female court portraiture and patronage of this period and to cast further light on the taste of her mistress, Marie-Antoinette.

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation Travel Grant/BSECS Travelling Award I was able to travel to Paris to visit archives, libraries and critical sites pertaining to the princess. Among these were Rambouillet and the Parc Monceau. English gardens were perhaps the most expansive example of Lamballe’s patronage, and she was almost certainly influenced in this taste by the example of her brother-in-law, the duc de Chartres, with his English gardens at the château de Raincy and Monceau.


The colonnade at the Parc Monceau. Photograph by Sarah Grant.

In 1779-1780 Lamballe’s father-in-law, the duc de Penthièvre, commissioned a jardin anglais for her in the grounds at Rambouillet, his birthplace and favourite residence, at an easy distance from Paris where the princess frequently joined him when released from her duties in the city or at court. This new endeavour took its cue from, and overlapped with, the planning of her mistress and friend Marie-Antoinette’s jardin anglo-chinois in the grounds of the Petit Trianon created between 1777-1781.

– Sarah Grant


A constantly recurring theme throughout Voltaire’s œuvre is the intolerance exhibited by established religions and the barbarity that all too often follows on from that.

Throughout his life he was haunted by the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants at the hands of Catholics. He described it in his epic poem La Henriade (1723), later complaining to Frederic the Great: ‘Croiriez-vous bien qu’on m’a reproché plus d’une fois d’avoir peint avec des couleurs trop odieuses la St Barthelemy?’ (letter of c.15 January 1737). He maintained that he always suffered illness on the anniversary of the atrocity.


The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, by François Dubois (c.1576).

During his exile in London (1726-1728) he drafted essays about England which he published first in English as the Letters concerning the English nation in 1733, then in French in 1734, and many later editions, in the version we now know as Lettres philosophiques. This work opens with chapters on the religions of England, in which he praises the tolerance of some, such as the Quakers, and criticises others for their intolerance.


While Voltaire repeatedly condemns the godly massacres by the Jews described in the Old Testament, and Islam’s violent conquests (see Diego Venturino, ‘Imposteur ou législateur? Le Mahomet des Lumières’, in Religions en transition dans la seconde moitié du dix-huitième siècle, SVEC 2000:02), his main target always remains Christian intolerance.

The adoption of the battle-cry ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’, first used in a letter to D’Alembert in October 1760, and referring to the crimes of the Church, indicates that his concern was not merely historical or literary. On three occasions he waged campaigns against the intolerance and violent injustice committed in the name of religion in France in the cases of Jean Calas (1762) and the Sirven family (1764), falsely charged with the murder of a family member to prevent their conversion to Catholicism, and the chevalier de La Barre (1766), a young nobleman wrongly accused of blasphemy and brutally executed. The first of these provoked Voltaire’s wide-ranging study of intolerance, the Traité sur la tolérance (OCV, vol.56c). Of La Barre he wrote, in the Dictionnaire philosophique article ‘Torture’: ‘Lorsque le chevalier de La Barre, petit-fils d’un lieutenant général des armées, jeune homme de beaucoup d’esprit et d’une grande espérance, mais ayant toute l’étourderie d’une jeunesse effrénée, fut convaincu d’avoir chanté des chansons impies, et même d’avoir passé devant une procession de capucins sans avoir ôté son chapeau, les juges d’Abbeville, gens comparables aux sénateurs romains, ordonnèrent non seulement qu’on lui arrachât la langue, qu’on lui coupât la main et qu’on brûlât son corps à petit feu; mais ils l’appliquèrent encore à la torture pour savoir précisément combien de chansons il avait chanté, et combien de processions il avait vues passer, le chapeau sur la tête.’


Voltaire promettant son appui a la famille Calas, by C. de Last (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Major works that deal with the theme of Christian intolerance and persecution include: the Dictionnaire philosophique (OCV, vol.35-36), La Philosophie de l’histoire (OCV, vol.59), Des conspirations contre les peuples (OCV, vol.61b), L’Examen important de milord Bolingbroke (OCV, vol.62), Dieu et les hommes (OCV, vol.69), and De la paix perpétuelle (OCV, vol.70, forthcoming). In the last years of his life Voltaire gathered all his arguments against dogmatic religion in three closely related works: La Bible enfin expliquée (OCV, vol.79a), a passage-by-passage dissection of the basis of Christianity; Un chrétien contre six Juifs and Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme (both OCV, vol.79b, newly published by the Voltaire Foundation). The three together, benefitting from a lifetime’s consideration of the crimes perpetrated in the name of religion, form a compelling summation of his argument for toleration and justice.


The interrogation of the chevalier de La Barre as depicted on the monument to him in Abbeville (1907).

Of De la paix perpétuelle the Mémoires secrets of 17 September 1769 wrote: ‘Ce projet […] traité politiquement par l’abbé de Saint-Pierre et par M. Rousseau de Genève, ne sert ici que de cadre au développement du système de tolérance que ne cesse de prêcher depuis si longtemps le fameux philosophe de Ferney. Il voudrait qu’on détruisît tous les dogmes, sources intarissables de troubles et de divisions; il trace en conséquence un tableau des horreurs du fanatisme, et ce sujet remanié cent fois par le même auteur, reprend sous son pinceau encore plus de chaleur et d’énergie: le fiel qu’il broie avec ses couleurs, donne à sa touche tout le terrible des peintures de Michel Ange. M. de Voltaire est toujours sublime quand il parle d’après son cœur.’

Voltaire himself, in the article ‘Fanatisme’ of the Dictionnaire philosophique, asked a question that has acquired a chilling relevance from the recent events in France: ‘Que répondre à un homme qui vous dit qu’il aime mieux obéir à Dieu qu’aux hommes, et qui, en conséquence, est sûr de mériter le ciel en vous égorgeant?’

The answer to this that he gives at the end of the Histoire de l’établissement du christianisme not only has relevance to the supposed ‘right to offend’ so frequently claimed in these days, but questions in its turn all sides in such conflicts:

‘Je me donnerai bien de garde de m’élever avec colère contre les malheureux qui ont perverti ainsi leur raison; je me bornerai à les plaindre, en cas que leur folie n’aille pas jusqu’à la persécution et au meurtre; car alors ils ne seraient que des voleurs de grand chemin. Quiconque n’est coupable que de se tromper mérite compassion; quiconque persécute mérite d’être traité comme une bête féroce.

Pardonnons aux hommes, et qu’on nous pardonne. Je finis par ce souhait unique que Dieu veuille exaucer!’

– M.S.

Candide and Leibniz’s garden

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Schopenhauer unkindly wrote that the only merit of Leibniz’s Théodicée was that it gave rise to ‘the immortal Candide’.[1] The Théodicée does seem at least to have given rise to the subtitle of Candide, albeit indirectly. In 1737, a review of a new edition of Leibniz’s book in the Jesuit Mémoires de Trévoux dubbed its central doctrine ‘l’optimisme, thus apparently coining the term.[2] Although it could easily have been elsewhere that Voltaire first came across Leibniz’s idea that this is the best of all possible words, and picked up the smattering of Leibnizian terminology that is found in Candide, we know that he dipped into the Théodicée at the very least, since an edition of the work exists to this day in his personal library, and contains several paper markers in both volumes.[3] So he may well have noticed a key passage in its final pages about a man opting for a quiet life and cultivating his jardin. This striking parallel with the end of Candide seems to have been overlooked.

The climax of Leibniz’s Théodicée is a fable that Borges would have enjoyed, and probably did. Pallas Athena appears in a dream to Theodorus, the high priest of Jupiter, and shows him a palace with an infinite number of halls, each of which represents a possible way for things to be, but only one of which shows things as they actually are. The structure is a pyramid with an infinitely large base, and the single hall at its apex is the actual – and best possible – world. In that world, Sextus Tarquinius rapes Lucretia, which, as Pallas Athena puts it, “serves for great things”: it leads to the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and the founding of the Roman Republic.[4] She also shows Theodorus one of the many other halls in which Sextus does not go to Rome and commit his crime. Such a world, we and Theodorus are supposed to agree, is not as good as the actual one, because in it the Roman Republic does not come to be. And what exactly does Sextus do instead in the possible but non-actual world which Pallas Athena shows to Theodorus?

…Il y achète un petit jardin; en le cultivant il trouve un trésor; il devient un homme riche, aimé, considéré; il meurt dans un grande vieillesse, chéri de toute la ville…[5]

In other words, Sextus ends up as Candide would have liked to and Voltaire at Ferney more or less did. If Voltaire knew this passage – though there are surely possible worlds in which he skipped it and others in which he forgot it – we should perhaps see a wink at Leibniz in Candide’s much-discussed closing words.

– Anthony Gottlieb

[1] Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, ch.46.

[2] February 1737, p.207.

[3] Corpus des notes marginales, vol.5, p.298-99.

[4] Théodicée, section 416.

[5] Théodicée, section 415.

Helvétius and Voltaire

Claude-Adrien Helvétius

Claude-Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771)
after Louis-Michel van Loo
(Toulon 1707 – Paris 1771), 1759.
Oil painting on canvas. Unsigned.
Ickworth, Suffolk. © National Trust Images

Helvétius is remembered today, three hundred years after his birth, mainly for two controversial treatises: De l’esprit (1758) and De l’homme (1773). The furore surrounding the publication of De l’esprit was particularly intense, and the ensuing affaire soon reached the status of being one of the great literary scandals of the age. De l’homme added more fuel to the flames.

Voltaire’s connection with Helvétius predates this notorious affaire and can be traced back to 1738. The fourth of the Discours en vers sur l’homme is dedicated to ‘M. H***’, [1] and it is clear from their first exchange of letters between July 1738 and August 1740 that Voltaire was immediately impressed with the young Helvétius. On Helvétius’s appointment as fermier-général in 1738 he composed a poem in his honour, the Epître à Monsieur Helvétius. [2] He sent his ‘cher élève des muses, d’Archimede et de Plutus’ a copy of the Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, and invited him to Cirey (D1560, D1581): ‘Nous avons ici un fermier général qui me paraît avoir la passion des belles-lettres’ (D1570).

The aspiring poet sent Voltaire two poems, the Epître sur l’amour de l’étude and Sur l’orgueil et la paresse de l’esprit, on which Voltaire offered advice in the Remarques sur deux épîtres d’Helvétius and in the Conseils à Helvétius sur la composition et sur le choix du sujet d’une épître morale. [3] Voltaire’s letter of 14 August 1741 (D2529) marks the end of a remarkable three-year sequence of letters in which he had acted as Helvétius’s ‘directeur pour ce royaume des belles-lettres’ (D1673). Their correspondence would then lapse for seventeen years, not resuming until 1758, the year of De l’esprit.

Voltaire’s disapproval of De l’esprit can be seen in ‘Du mot quisquis de Ramus, ou de La Ramée’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, [4] and he resented the fact that Helvétius had never discussed the treatise with him. However, the warmth of his affection, never fully reciprocated, would survive their differences. In 1760 and 1761 he pressed the case for Helvétius’s election to the Academy (D9047, D9600), telling Helvétius that he was ‘mon confrère dans le petit nombre des élus qui marchent sur le serpent et sur le basilic’ (D9777).

Their friendship had already started to cool in 1741, and in the 1760s the ideological distance widened as Helvétius gravitated towards d’Holbach and the materialists. By 1767 Voltaire had ceased to see Helvétius as his disciple, but the soft spot he had for the man he once called ‘l’espérance et le modèle des philosophes et des poètes’ (D2096) would endure: ‘Je n’aimais point du tout son livre, mais j’aimais sa personne’ (D17572). The masonic lodge to which Voltaire was admitted on 7 April 1778 was Helvétius’s lodge, and it was Helvétius’s masonic apron that he wore for the ceremony of induction before the bust of his ‘ami charmant’ (D2147).

– David Williams

While writing this it was with great sorrow that I learned of the death of Alan Dainard on 19 December 2014. An eminent member of the French Department at the University of Toronto, Alan was one of the founder members of the editorial team lead by David Smith of the Correspondance générale d’Helvétius, the first volume of which appeared in 1981 under the joint imprint of the University of Toronto Press and the Voltaire Foundation. He was also the General Editor of the Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny to which he dedicated most of his scholarly life. The fifteenth and last volume of this edition is due for publication by the Voltaire Foundation in 2015. Alan will leave a gap in our ranks not easily filled.

[1] OCV, vol.17, p.491.

[2] OCV, vol.18A, p.297.

[3] OCV, vol.18C, p.41-68, 79-82.

[4] OCV, vol.43, p.85-90.

Voltaire, freedom of speech and religious lunacy


In the BBC News Magazine on 8 January Tom Holland (the author of Islam, The Untold Story) wrote: ‘When Philippe Val, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, published a book in 2008 defending the right of cartoonists to mock religious taboos, the title was telling. He called it Reviens, Voltaire, Ils Sont Devenus Fous (Come Back, Voltaire, They’ve Gone Mad)’. In recent years many of us have been tempted, like M. Val, to call out: ‘Come back, Voltaire, we badly need you!’

‘Once fanaticism has infected the brain, the malady is all but incurable’, writes Voltaire in the Pocket Philosophical Dictionary. Pressing home the idea that fanaticism is a kind of illness, he says: ‘fanatics are people whose madness is fuelled by murder; those who assassinated Henri IV and so many others were sick people, all suffering from the same mad rage’. Speaking of a fanatical sect he’d watched at close quarters becoming ‘more and more agitated’, he notes that ‘their eyes blazed, their limbs shook, and their faces grew ugly with rage’. He adds, as if foreseeing the murders in the Charlie Hebdo offices, ‘they would have killed anyone who dared gainsay them’.

The murder of Henri IV by Ravaillac in the Rue de la Ferronerie on 14 May 1610. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Arsenal, EST-368 (70)

The murder of Henri IV by Ravaillac in the Rue de la Ferronerie on 14 May 1610. Source: / Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Arsenal, EST-368 (70)

In a particularly arresting phrase he claims that there is no defence against this ‘bubonic plague of the spirit’. Faith is least effective of all: ‘far from being health-giving nourishment for the soul, in infected brains religion morphs into a poison’. Indeed, it’s hard to see the minds of the authors of the massacre in the Rue Serpollet as other than poisoned.

Being a man of his time Voltaire believed, rather optimistically, that the only antidote to this poison was philosophy. The cure for such an illness, he says, ‘is the philosophical cast of mind, which eventually makes us gentler in our ways’. I don’t know whether the assassins of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists left their French school before the final year in which philosophie is a compulsory subject. If they did complete the course, it doesn’t appear to have cured them of the ‘poison’ of fanaticism, and it patently failed to make them ‘gentler in their ways’.

Voltaire would have approved of Dan Hodges’s defence of secularism. We must break, Hodges said, ‘the anachronistic link between church and state’, because when it comes to setting boundaries between what can be said – or drawn – and what cannot, we must ensure that they are set not by gods, but by ourselves.

– John Fletcher

John Fletcher is the translator of Voltaire’s Pocket Philosophical Dictionary.

Voltaire: “Je suis Charlie”

Voltaire_CharlieA photo taken in Paris on Sunday 11 January:


“Philosophy brings peace to the soul; fanaticism and peace are incompatible. If our holy faith has so often been corrupted by this infernal madness, human folly is to blame.”

“L’effet de la philosophie est de rendre l’âme tranquille, et le fanatisme est incompatible avec la tranquillité. Si notre sainte religion a été si souvent corrompue par cette fureur infernale, c’est à la folie des hommes qu’il faut s’en prendre.”

Voltaire, Dictionnaire philosophique, article “Fanatisme” (English translation by John Fletcher)

Writing on the BBC website, historian Tom Holland also thought of Voltaire: “Viewpoint: The roots of the battle for free speech”.

– Nicholas Cronk

Correspondence of Enlightenment thinker reaches its 10th volume

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle, portrait by Engelmann

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle, portrait by Engelmann

From his childhood in the rural region of Cévennes in south-central France, La Beaumelle became one of the great eighteenth-century polymaths, and his career took him as far afield as Geneva, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam. During his lifetime he distinguished himself as a translator of Horace and Tacitus; he was also an author, a journalist, a historian, and the editor of Mme de Maintenon’s Mémoires. He was a champion of tolerance and one of Calas’ foremost defenders, as well as a polemicist dreaded by Voltaire for his sharp critical eye and clever pen. He was, strikingly, the only Huguenot man of letters at the time.

His Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle, edited by Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol and Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, bears witness to contemporary social events and intellectual developments in politics, literature, philosophy, history and religion.

The 10th volume of a projected eighteen-volume edition will publish soon, and follows the turbulent period of February to December 1756. At the beginning of 1756 La Beaumelle was in Amsterdam, a city that allowed him the freedom – unlike Paris – to publish the Mémoires de Maintenon. In early March he returned to Paris, having been granted permission to distribute subscribers’ copies of the first edition of the Mémoires, and, crucially, assured beforehand of his personal security.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013. From left to right: Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, Claude Lauriol, Hubert Bost.

After arranging the distribution of the second edition and obtaining oral permission to write a third, La Beaumelle was dealt a severe blow: he was arrested and placed in the Bastille. The charge? Writing a passage that offended the Viennese court, a passage suspected to have been brought to the attention of the authorities by Voltaire. His imprisonment was not one of shackles and locked cells, however, as La Beaumelle was free to take daily strolls, and to receive books and letters as well as visitors. Though officially pardoned in October 1756, La Beaumelle was still in prison at end of the year, waiting for the requisite release documentation.

When the Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle was awarded the prestigious the 2013 Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous de l’Institut de France, on the recommendation of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, it was a mark of recognition of the editors’ momentous work in bringing to light the rich correspondence of this Enlightenment figure.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013.

At the Prix de la Fondation Edouard Bonnefous prize-giving ceremony, 2 December 2013.

The Voltaire Foundation is enormously proud to publish this towering work of scholarship, and we congratulate our editors, Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol and Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, for their sustained and meticulous work.

– LR