Sculptors in the Paris Académie’s mould, and how to (mis)understand them

For some decades now an incongruous mix of tourists and Italian schoolchildren have been milling around the once quiet interior of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. In the eighteenth century this was the place where a group of young French artists frequently attended mass. An almost imperceptible remnant of this once thriving artistic community survives: on a pillar separating two side chapels is a funerary stele erected in honour of Nicolas Vleughels who, between 1724 and his death in 1737, served a lively term as the king’s appointee to the French royal artists’ residence in Rome, the Académie de France.

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele, San Luigi dei Francesi,  Rome.

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome.

The memorial was funded by Vleughels’s young widow and art dealer, Thérèse Gosset, and its carving fell to Michel-Ange Slodtz who, years before, had arrived as a young man and student at Vleughels’s ‘maison d’étude’. Whilst Slodtz studied with Vleughels and achieved acclaim in Rome, both at the Academy and as an independent master, others, such as François Boucher and Edmé Bouchardon returned to Paris to gain membership of the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture while enjoying unparalleled international renown.

Nowadays, the remote world of academism and eighteenth-century drawing instruction could appear as a construct of an intolerant era, catering to the representational concerns of Court and the ruling elite by demanding that promising and impressionable young artists bend to the authority of a set of preordained models and rules of art. This is, however, an oversimplified view, and one that I explore in my recently published book, The Profession of sculpture in the Paris Académie.

macsotay-bookcoverIf the statutes of the Academy were unmistakably a microcosm of ancien régime polity, governed by title, hierarchy and order, the Academy’s internal workings, either in Paris or Rome, tell a different story. Members of the Academy re-examined the position of artists inside their own practices, making on-the-spot criticisms of aspiring candidates’ works and projects but looking, much as in contemporary conversation, to strike a balance between an ideal of sound judgement and moments of wit and sociable self-indulgence. As this academic method matured, sculpture grew sensuous and graceful, both vital and conventional without deciding either for originality or against it. Vleughels, above all, was a resourceful man at the dawn of a modern age. He dispatched his best sculptor to carve a portrait bust of the Pope, persuaded his students to stage a Molière play during Carnival and, above all, fired their passion for experimentation with the dramatic and unfamiliar. Vleughels’s belief in discipline, balanced by an eye for things fashionable, clearly inspired their respect and friendship.

Half a century on, such cynical liberty irked French revolutionaries. After 1790 public service was to replace the intimate social exercises that constituted, paradoxically, a stage where artists could rehearse the drama of their ‘emancipated’ lives. The image of the self-serving clique, which revealed a reality never far behind collaborative bonhomie, was from then on a perpetual public affront. But this criticism either flagrantly missed the point about the potential vibrancy of the body of artists and art-lovers, or had no use for it.

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele (detail).

Nicolas Vleughels funerary stele (detail).

One can imagine how critics of the Academy might have responded to Slodtz’s monument (now sadly eclipsed by the adjacent Caravaggio altarpieces depicting the life of St Matthew) at the San Luigi dei Francesi:  they would have seen an inflated, wig-wearing petit maître. On the other hand, looking more carefully at the stele and the way the conspiratorial infant, outfitted with palette and trampling a bundle of reversed torches in the tradition of Eros Tanathos, sneaks his way around the wan physiognomy of the mentor, the monument seems to act as a metaphor of the energetic community Vleughels created. Slodtz, for his part, went on to produce a series of tomb monuments of unparalleled audacity, owing his promising start in no small measure to Vleughels’s evident flair for teaching.

–Tomas Macsotay

Emilie Du Châtelet defends her life

Last night several of us went the short distance from the Voltaire Foundation to the intimate Simpkins Lee Theatre at Lady Margaret Hall to see Emilie: la marquise Du Châtelet defends her life tonight by Lauren Gunderson. Knowing nothing of the play, but a little about Emilie Du Châtelet, I was braced for an evening of nudity (read about the butler’s embarrassment here), gambling and adultery. I can assure you that it wasn’t. The Emilie Du Châtelet presented in this play is very much appropriate for a general audience wanting to find out about a woman scientist of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately the play presented quite a one-sided oversimplification of her life, with no hint, for example, of the bullying to which she subjected Mme de Graffigny. It seems wrong somehow, in a play about a possible feminist icon, to reduce another one to a mere annoying houseguest.

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

La marquise Du Châtelet, by Nicolas de Largillière

We had no such misgivings about the production. All the actors were fun to watch for their enthusiasm and quirkiness. The older Emilie Du Châtelet put in a great performance, despite the punishing task of being on stage for the entire play, including the interval. We particularly enjoyed the highly expressive face of her father, husband and new young lover (all played by the same actor). But Voltaire naturally stole the show for us!

Emilie defends her life again tonight and until 15 February 2014.

Anyone curious to round out their knowledge of Emilie Du Châtelet should read Emilie du Châtelet: rewriting Enlightenment philosophy and science, edited by Judith P. Zinsser and Julie Candler Hayes, or Cirey dans la vie intellectuelle du XVIIIe siècle: la réception de Newton en France, edited by François De Gandt (in French).


The Letter: Purloined and Printed, Anonymous and Edited

Oxford, United Kingdom

3 February 2014

À mes très chères lectrices et très chers lecteurs,

What are the ethics of writing, answering, and editing letters? Without aiming to rival Lacan, much less Poe, I too will start my story with a purloined letter, or rather with some purportedly purloined letters.

LaBeaumelle_croppedIn late 1752 Voltaire began a many-year quarrel with Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle (the ongoing VF edition of whose correspondence has just received the prestigious Prix Edouard Bonnefous). Seeking to discredit the man who had dared to reprint the Siècle de Louis XIV supplemented with extremely critical footnotes, Voltaire’s best weapon was to accuse La Beaumelle of stealing the letters of Mme de Maintenon, which La Beaumelle had published the very same year and which constitute a key source for anyone writing a history of the Sun King. Voltaire used his own letters to spread the rumour, gradually working out the story of how the letters passed from Mme de Maintenon to her nephew-in-law, the maréchal de Noailles, then to his secretary, who lent them to one of the king’s squires, who passed them on to Louis Racine (son of the famous dramatist), from whose mantelpiece, Voltaire claimed, La Beaumelle stole them. Even as he condemned what he viewed as La Beaumelle’s shady practices in acquiring, publishing, and interpreting the letters, Voltaire nonetheless did not hesitate to seek out future volumes as a source.

Already a master in the art of the polemical printed letter from his Lettres philosophiques (1734) to his printing of the letters of the Calas family (as a means of defending them before the public, 1762, as discussed in volume 56B of the Complete Works of Voltaire), Voltaire returned to the charge against La Beaumelle in 1767 with a published Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire. Signing this polemical piece in epistolary form but addressing it to no one in particular, Voltaire opened with the belligerent declaration that he had passed on to the police the 95th letter he had received from an anonymous correspondent, since ‘every writer of anonymous letters is a coward and a rogue’. Voltaire thus staked out another tenuous position on the ever-slippery slope of eighteenth-century epistolary conduct: while his (fictional) correspondent broke the rules by sending an anonymous (i.e. unsigned) denunciatory missive, Voltaire not only denounced the correspondent to the authorities, but also rendered his own reply even more anonymous, in the sense that thousands of anonymous members of the public were to read it.

Cowards and rogues were not the only authors of unsigned letters, though: on 2 March 1791, Rosalie de Constant, a Swiss naturalist and illustrator, wrote an anonymous letter of admiration to the renowned author Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. When he too employed the media of print (posting a reply to his unknown correspondent in the Journal de Lausanne) and of epistolary guesswork (writing a reply to the wrong woman, mistaking her for the author of the initial missive), Rosalie de Constant wrote again, begging him to burn both her letters. Luckily, he did not: they struck up an ephemeral but artful correspondence, focused on their shared love of nature and on the ethical questions of whether a young lady can write a letter to a published author and whether he may reveal her secret in printed or manuscript letters (to read more, have a look at the born-digital edition of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s correspondence on Electronic Enlightenment).

Kennedy_letterNowadays, we have more than just manuscript and print media for publicizing and exploring epistolary commerce, but we face related questions: even if we generally agree that letters from the past should be made available to present and future readers, how can we best edit, present, read, analyse, and write about them? With a recent resurgence of interest in correspondences, not just as historical but also as literary objects of study, many excellent print and digital editions of eighteenth-century letters have been appearing.

Even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these editions have generated new letters: when the VF’s founder Theodore Besterman sent President Kennedy the first edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (the definitive edition of which has just been made available in a new reprint), he received a personal epistolary reply, in which the president declared it was an ‘extraordinary scholarly achievement’ and ‘an outstanding example of good book making’.

Looking to the future, UCL’s Centre for Editing Lives and Letters explores standards and possibilities for using new technologies to study early-modern letters, while, here in Oxford, the TORCH Enlightenment Correspondences Network will be holding its first meeting on 24 February to discuss, alongside plans for a year-long series of conversations about Enlightenment letters, a current print edition of William Godwin’s letters and a pilot project for a digital correspondence of Catherine the Great of Russia. Do drop us a line and join the conversation!

J’ai l’honneur d’être, avec la plus haute estime,

votre très humble servante,

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev