Public figures: the invention of celebrity in the eighteenth century

Le lever de Voltaire

Le lever de Voltaire par Jean Huber, 1772. Musée de l’Hermitage.

In his Lever de Voltaire of 1772 Jean Huber depicted the philosophe getting dressed in a somewhat awkward position. The picture was a great success: it was engraved in Paris and in London, reproduced many times and broadly circulated and sold. Voltaire accused Huber of turning him into an object of ridicule. But Huber countered that he knew exactly ‘the dose of ridicule’ that was necessary to Voltaire’s celebrity [1].

Indeed, this image was very different from traditional portraits of writers. Here, Voltaire was not displayed as a prestigious author with his books and pens, but as a private individual. It was precisely because Voltaire was well-known – because he had become a public figure – that the public was eager to stare at him even through the mediation of print, in the intimacy of his bedroom, performing ordinary activities. The painting’s appeal rested on the impression it created of a voyeuristic glimpse of Voltaire’s intimate life. It is exactly the same mechanism that drives today’s paparazzi. Thus, the interest of the public (its empressement as Huber put it) was not based on genuine admiration but rather on curiosity and a desire for intimacy, a strange mixture of distance and proximity, of greatness and familiarity.

The popular success of this image was also due to the existence of a commercial market. The proliferation of portraits in the public sphere was an important feature of the social and cultural transformations that distinguished the eighteenth century. Many printers in the 1770s specialised in the production of cheap images, and especially in portraits of famous contemporaries, destined for the urban audience of the cities.

The culture of celebrity that emerged during this period was the result of both of these trends that constitute the two pillars of modernity: on the one hand, the social and commercial emergence of a public – not only a critical public of readers but also a public of buyers and consumers –, and on the other, the birth of privacy, intimacy, and the ideal of the authentic, singular individual. The market and the self were intimately bound.

In Figures publiques. L’invention de la célébrité (1750-1850) (Fayard, 2014) I explore the emergence of this celebrity culture. ‘Celebrity’ is often assumed to be a recent phenomenon, associated with the development of mass media and the ‘society of the spectacle’. I argue, however, that this specific form of public visibility emerged in the eighteenth century, and was different from both the traditional glory of heroes and great men and from mere reputation. Celebrity was a radically new form of renown, characterized by a wide and largely uncontrolled circulation of the name and image of an individual, far beyond the networks of reputation and the judgement of peers. Celebrity did not remain confined to a specific social space, but instead reached a broad, often anonymous audience. Its characteristic form was asymmetrical, as Chamfort pithily described: ‘Celebrity is the avantage of being known to people who do not know you’ [2]. It created the illusion of proximity to intimacy with the famous person. But it was also a new and sometimes disturbing experience for those who were confronted with the broad dissemination of their image and name. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was one of the most famous public figures of his time, conceived of his own celebrity as a burden, and harshly denounced its effects.

My argument is also about the public sphere. The classical habermasian narrative opposes the critical and rational public sphere of the Enlightenment to the contemporary public sphere, perverted by mass media and the cultural industry. I argue that the mechanisms of publicity are simultaneously the conditions of rational criticism and the instruments of public curiosity with, even fixation on, the personalities and private lives of famous people. Thus the democratic public sphere and the public sphere of the media are indissolubly bound to one another.


This celebrity culture is not only predicated on mere curiosity. It sometimes take the form of a sentimental attachment to the famous person, it feeds a desire for intimacy at a distance, asymmetrical and imaginary. When face-to-face interactions – which were the rule in traditional societies and the basis of social reputations – are replaced by mediated communication, in which texts and images are oriented towards an indefinite range of potential recipients, new reactions and responses are produced.

By stressing the dynamics of celebrity I am exploring the counterpart of salon sociability that was the subject of my previous book, Le Monde des salons. Sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Fayard, 2005), which has just been published in an English translation, The World of the Salons. Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth Century Paris (Oxford University Press, 2015). Whereas the salons were wordly spaces, where aristocrats and men of letters tried to manage and control their reputations through their mastery of polite conversation, celebrity rested on publicity, wide audiences and the commodification of culture. Both played an important role in the cultural dynamics of the eighteenth century. From sociability to celebrity, from socialites to public figures, the public sphere was a much more complex and ambivalent phenomenon than was often assumed. We could better understand the paradoxes of today’s culture of celebrity – so eagerly sought yet so often denounced – were we to consider its origins in the social and cultural mutations of the eighteenth century.

– Antoine Lilti
EHESS (Ecole des Hautes études en sciences sociales), Paris

[1] Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique par Grimm, Diderot, Raynal, Mesiter, éd. M. Tourneux (Paris, Garnier, 1880), t.10, p.98.

[2] Nicolas de Chamfort, Maximes et pensées. Caractères et anecdotes, éd. J. Dagen (Paris, Garnier-Flammarion, 1968), p.78.

Radio programmes also of interest:

La naissance de la célébrité au XVIIIe siècle (La marche de l’histoire, France Inter)

Au XVIIIe siècle, l’émergence de la célébrité (Concordance des temps, France Culture)

‘Résumé de toute cette histoire…’: the final chapter of Voltaire’s Essai sur les mœurs

In our final volume of text for the Essai sur les mœurs [1], Voltaire delivers a further catalogue of barbaric anecdotes and atrocities. This brings the various countries of his study up to the seventeenth century and the start of his Siècle de Louis XIV.

Resumé page

Original opening of chapter 211 in 1756, Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours, vol.7, p.142.

In his final chapter, 197, ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire jusqu’au temps où commence le beau siècle de Louis XIV’, Voltaire attempts to take stock of this ‘vaste théâtre’ of his world tour, asking: ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail? quel profit tirera-t-on de l’histoire?’ In his answer he introduces new issues and arguments: for example, to settle old scores with Montesquieu, spared in the 1756 version, only a year after his death.

Originally written as chapter 211 in 1756, when the Essai and the Siècle formed one work (Essai sur l’histoire générale, et sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours) and the chapters were numbered consecutively, the slightly differently titled ‘Résumé de toute cette histoire, et point de vue sous lequel on peut la regarder’ had a more pessimistic tone, perhaps because it was written soon after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. In 1761, the chapter was then brought forward to conclude the Essai, and Voltaire composed a new ‘Conclusion et examen de ce tableau historique’ for the ensemble of his modern history texts, placed at the end of the Précis du siècle de Louis XV. The reworked conclusion to the Essai sheds some of its original pessimism, though invites the reader to share his skeptical vision of history.

Looking back over the publication history of our first seven volumes of the Essai, it seems that we, the publishing team, have also covered a ‘vaste théâtre’. Kick-started by a generous grant from the AHRC, with further financial support from the Fondation Wiener-Anspach, and after eight years’ work by:

  • four general editors,
  • twenty-eight Voltaire specialists, from ten countries, dealing with nine centuries of history,
  • seven preface contributors,
  • three typesetting companies,

and a publishing team of online researchers, bibliographical specialists, translators, indexers, copy-editors, proof-readers, typesetters, printers and distributors… the last volume of chapters has finally been published.

We, too, have taken in the world: our team of editors were based in countries as widespread as Hungary, Spain and the USA; in our research, we drew on special links with eleven libraries worldwide – most notably the National Library of Russia, Saint Petersburg, for illustrations of Voltaire’s handwritten marginalia taken from volumes in his library, as well as for vital descriptions of manuscripts.

Conceived in the 1740s, the Essai was continually reworked by Voltaire throughout his life, with major revisions published in 1753, 1754, 1761, 1768 and 1775. The reproduction of the different readings from these and further editions required the collation of thousands of variants from some sixteen editions and four manuscripts – supplemented with hours of on-screen ‘tagging’ of text to ensure that each of the variants appears at the correct point to correspond with the base text. Hundreds of historiographical sources contemporary to Voltaire were trawled for evidence as to where he had found his material – an enormous task, made easier by the appearance online of an increasing number of works as our project progressed.

As project manager, I can vouch for the team’s sense of achievement – not to say relief – as we reach this landmark point in such a monumental enterprise. ‘Quel sera le fruit de ce travail?’ Perhaps history will tell us.

– Karen Chidwick

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (Voltaire Foundation, Oxford), vol.26C: chapters 177-197.

Subscription – An idea whose time has come again?

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming publisher John Mitchinson to the Voltaire Foundation for a particularly enlightening and enjoyable talk. Like Voltaire at Ferney, Mr Mitchinson is a keen amateur beekeeper, and like him he also keeps livestock, and the similarities do not end there.

Henriade title page.

La Henriade, 1728: title page.

John Mitchinson’s latest venture in the fast- and ever-changing world of publishing is a company based on the principle of crowd-funding, which goes by the name of Unbound. By means of short videos hosted on the company’s website, prospective authors introduce themselves and pitch their respective projects, and members of the public are invited to pledge money for the direct funding of the projects that they would like to see come to fruition. This is a very creative and efficient way of bringing authors and readers together and of cutting out unwieldy, expensive and sometimes downright parasitic chains of intermediaries.

Henriade list of subscribers.

La Henriade: first page (out of 10) of the list of subscribers.

In the four years that Unbound has been in existence, Mr Mitchinson and his team have scored some real successes, most recently with the publication of Letters of Note (by Shaun Usher) and The Wake (by Paul Kingsnorth).

Unbound may use state-of-the-art IT to drive its business but in its own way it has renewed a tradition that was well established in the 18th century, that of publishing books by raising money by subscription (Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson come to mind). This is where the third similarity between our recent visitor and Voltaire lies.

Henriade dedication.

La Henriade: last page of the dedication to Queen Caroline.

For Voltaire himself famously used this method to get his epic poem La Henriade published in England in 1728, using the contacts that he had made among the great and the good during the very busy two years he spent in the country. The edition boasted a long and impressive list of subscribers (among whom were George Berkeley and William Congreve) and it was dedicated to Queen Caroline. Of course, with the advent of the Internet, the pool of would-be subscribers need not be as exclusive as it was in Voltaire’s time: anyone with five pounds to spare can decide to back a project on the Unbound website, even cobblers and servants! [1]

In a publishing world where abundance is not always synonymous with diversity or originality, it is reassuring to see forgotten avenues being explored anew so authors and readers can be empowered to communicate, collaborate and venture off the beaten track together.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘On n’a jamais prétendu éclairer les cordonniers et les servantes’ (‘It was never our intention to enlighten cobblers or servants’), Voltaire once wrote to D’Alembert (15 June 1768).