‘Vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant’: portraits in Voltaire’s bedroom

Voltaire had many bedrooms during his long life, but the best documented is the one at the Château de Ferney, where he spent a considerable portion of his last twenty years, sleeping, working, or entertaining guests.[1]

The team recently restoring the château faced a quandary. Since Voltaire’s death, the pictures hanging in his bedroom have been changed and a cenotaph added, some of the room’s walls knocked down, and finally its contents transferred to a different room altogether. It was decided that, rather than recreating a room from the 1760s or 1770s that no longer exists, Voltaire’s ‘bedroom’ should be kept much as visitors have known it since the mid-nineteenth century.

Voltaire’s bedroom in his lifetime

Perhaps Voltaire’s bedroom at Ferney was originally hung with portraits of family members, including those done in pastel by his youngest niece, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine, of herself and of her son, as had been the case at Les Délices. Perhaps Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait was also there from the start.

By 1765, some friends in Paris had come up with the idea of getting Carmontelle’s gouache of the Calas family in prison engraved to raise money for the Calas family. On 17 January 1766, Voltaire wrote to Calas’s widow that he would keep the planned engraving at his bedside, even though he had never met her, ‘et le premier objet que je verrai en m’éveillant sera la vertu persécutée et respectée’. This in due course he did, writing on 9 May: ‘J’ai baisé votre estampe, Madame, je l’ai placée au chevet de mon lit. Vous et votre famille vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant. Monsieur votre fils Pierre est parfaitement ressemblant, je suis persuadé que vous l’êtes de même’.

Jean Huber was no doubt the first to depict Voltaire in his bedroom, in a painting (or three) that displeased its main subject. This irreverent image of him in his nightclothes proliferated in the form of engravings: there is one with a maid, one with verse designed to irritate Voltaire, even one with a portrait of his arch-enemy Fréron hanging on his wall. Grimm reported in his Correspondance littéraire of 1 November 1772 that Voltaire had not yet forgiven Huber for this loss of control over his public image. But how faithful was the depiction of his bedroom? The version in the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum has red curtains, while the one at the Musée Voltaire has blue. Musée Carnavalet also has blue, but shows an engraving of Carmontelle’s painting of the Calas family in prison hanging near the head of the bed.

Le lever du philosophe de Ferney

Le lever du philosophe de Ferney, one of many engravings based on a painting by Jean Huber. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

In 1774, a new portrait was given the distinction of being placed close to Voltaire’s bed. This time it was the actor Lekain as Nero drawn in pastel by Pierre Martin Barat: ‘Vous êtes à côté de mon lit, mon cher ami, et le souvenir de vos talents et de votre mérite sera toujours dans mon cœur’.

In June 1775, Amélie Suard mentioned two other images, Mme Du Châtelet’s portrait and a second Calas engraving, the one by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki entitled Les adieux de Calas à sa famille, again inside Voltaire’s bed: ‘dans l’intérieur de son lit il a les deux gravures de la famille des Calas. Je ne connaissais pas encore celle qui représente la femme et les enfants de cette victime du fanatisme, embrassant leur père au moment où on va le mener au supplice; elle me fit l’impression la plus douloureuse, et je reprochai à M. de Voltaire de l’avoir placée de manière à l’avoir sans cesse sous ses yeux’. Mme Suard nevertheless went on to heap praise on Voltaire for the good he had done the whole of humanity. No doubt the engraving was to Voltaire as much a reminder of success as of ‘la vertu persécutée’.

In January 1776, another flurry of engravings set in Voltaire’s bedroom incurred his displeasure. Vivant Denon had visited in early July 1775 and showed Voltaire sitting up in bed, surrounded by members of his household and a mutual friend, the composer Jean-Benjamin de Laborde (although he had not been present at the time). Only the first Calas engraving can be seen inside Voltaire’s bed curtains. Was it the invasion of a ‘private’ space that Voltaire objected to? Or the juxtaposition of the serious Calas image and a frivolous social one? In any case, he complained to Vivant Denon that ‘Un homme qui se tiendrait dans l’attitude qu’on me donne, et qui rirait comme on me fait rire, serait trop ridicule’.

Le déjeuner de Ferney

Le déjeuner de Ferney, based on a picture by Vivant Denon, and engraved as part of a set with the Lever de Voltaire (above). The ‘déjeuner’ seems to consist of just one hot drink between, from left to right, Père Adam, Laborde, Voltaire, the servant known as la ‘belle Agathe’ (Agathe Perrachon, née Frik), and Mme Denis. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

The inventory that was made of Voltaire’s property after his death lists ‘four medium paintings with gilded frames’ in his room, but only identifies one of his mother, Marie-Marguerite Arouet (possibly this painting), and one of his eldest niece and companion, Mme Denis (possibly the fourth image on this page, formerly attributed to Carle van Loo and now, tentatively, to François-Hubert Drouais,[2] and copied in pastel by Mme Denis’s sister, Mme Dompierre de Fontaine).

Voltaire’s bedroom after his death

The marquis de Villette soon bought the château and owned it until 1785. On 23 November 1779, the Mémoires secrets gave an extract from a letter stating that he had kept Voltaire’s room just as it was – while at the same time installing a cenotaph (later moved to the main salon) and assembling Voltaire’s favourite portraits there: apparently these included those of Catherine the Great, Frederick, one of Frederick’s sisters, Mme Du Châtelet, Lekain, D’Alembert, d’Argental, as well as Villette himself and his wife…

A 1781 engraving which seems to take artistic licence with the room’s layout shows the cenotaph and no fewer than forty easily identifiable portraits of illustrious contemporaries, men and women, lining the walls. A portrait of Mme Denis which looks very like a detail of the Vivant Denon engraving hangs in the place of honour at the head of the bed. No Calas engravings are visible.

Chambre du cœur de Voltaire

Chambre du cœur de Voltaire, drawn by Duché and engraved by François Denis Née, 1781. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

The room looks quite different in an engraving from the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The bed curtains and cover have visibly shrunk as successive visitors cut small mementoes for themselves, and the portraits on show are limited to five: Catherine the Great’s portrait woven in silk by Philippe de Lasalle (given to Voltaire by Lasalle in 1771), Frederick the Great painted in oil by Anna Dorothea Liszewska Therbusch (sent by Frederick, at Voltaire’s request, in 1775), the previously mentioned pastel of Lekain by Barat (1774), a pastel of Voltaire attributed to Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1735?), and an oil painting of Mme Du Châtelet by Marie-Anne Loir (presumably before 1749).

Chambre de Voltaire à Ferney

Chambre de Voltaire à Ferney, by Charles Philibert Lasteyrie du Saillant, c.1820. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

This matches the description by a visitor published in The New Monthly Magazine in 1824, which also lists the prints ‘on each side of the window which faces the bed’, i.e. the fourth wall not on the engraving. The line-up is now thoroughly male: Diderot, Newton, Franklin, Racine, Milton, Washington, Corneille, and Marmontel on one side, and Thomas, Leibnitz, Mairan, D’Alembert, Helvétius, and the duc de Choiseul on the other. The first Calas engraving and a ‘sort of emblematical print of the tomb of Voltaire in Paris, dedicated to la marquise de Villette, dame de Ferney’ complete the set for this wall.

The visitor then mentions two more pictures somewhat at odds with the royals and intellectuals filling the walls: ‘In another part of the room are two very pretty pictures of a boy and a Madonna-looking girl, which our old Cicerone said were painted by order of Voltaire. The boy is a Savoyard, with a tattered cocked-hat, and the young woman, we were told, was ‘La blanchisseuse’ […] If it were really of the blanchisseuse, I can only say that Voltaire had a very pretty washerwoman’. Another engraving situates a ‘repasseuse’ and a ‘ramoneur’ (no doubt the same blanchisseuse and Savoyard) on the left-hand side of the room.

Intérieur de la chambre de Voltaire à Ferney

Intérieur de la chambre de Voltaire à Ferney, painted by Jean DuBois and engraved by Spengler & Cie, c.1840. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

Twenty years later, Jules Michelet’s guide must have had a more vivid imagination, since the historian noted in his journal for Monday 14 August 1843 that Voltaire had launched the career of the ‘savoyard’ who became an ironmonger on the corner of the rue de Beaune and that the ‘blanchisseuse’ was in fact a daughter he had had with one of Mme Denis’s chambermaids… In his Dictionary of pastellists, Neil Jeffares identifies her as the wife of Voltaire’s secretary Wagnière.[3] The Savoyard still hangs in Voltaire’s room and is sometimes identified as the pastel by Voltaire’s youngest niece of her son d’Hornoy that she sent him in 1755. It is clearly derived from Drouais’s Jeune garçon au tricorne and, since Mme Dompierre de Fontaine copied the Drouais painting of her sister, this doesn’t seem entirely implausible.

Flaubert left a soulful description of his visit to the château in 1845, carefully itemising the bed, the pictures, and the cenotaph, as so many had done before him, but also mentioning the wall hangings: ‘la tenture est de soie jaune à fleurs’ (the blue background having faded beyond recognition): ‘On voudrait y être enfermé pendant tout un jour à s’y promener seul. Triste et vide, le jour vert, livide du feuillage, pénétrait par les carreaux; on était pris d’une tristesse étrange, on regrettait cette belle vie remplie, cette existence si intellectuellement turbulente du dix-huitième siècle, et on se figurait l’homme passant de son salon dans sa chambre, ouvrant toutes ces portes…’

He must have been one of the last visitors to witness it in this state. Voltaire’s and his housekeeper’s rooms were soon knocked through and Voltaire’s room set up again in the now more appropriately sized ‘cabinet de tableaux et du billard’ on the other side of the central salon, where the large portrait of Queen Maria Theresa was presumably already set into the wall. Catherine the Great was hung at the head of the bed and Lekain under the little that was left of the canopy crown.

La chambre à coucher de Voltaire à Ferney

La chambre à coucher de Voltaire à Ferney, after a drawing by de Drée, 1869? Other drawings of Ferney by de Drée appeared in Le Monde illustré on 30 January 1869. Courtesy of the Centre d’iconographie of the Bibliothèque de Genève.

Later changes, which I won’t go into, are documented by photographs, like this postcard for the early twentieth-century tourist.

Château de Ferney – Chambre à coucher de Voltaire

Château de Ferney – Chambre à coucher de Voltaire, postcard by Charnaux frères et Co., Geneva. Courtesy of ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv.

Voltaire’s bedroom today

Today Maria Teresa still dominates the room, but the silk wall hangings and bed curtains and cover have been beautifully restored and Carmontelle’s Malheureuse famille Calas reclaimed its place inside the bed curtains. The other four pictures retained to decorate the room, besides various prints, are Voltaire himself and Lekain on the one side and Mme Du Châtelet and the Savoyard on the other. But if, like Flaubert, you wish to imagine Voltaire passing from his salon to his bedroom, you might want to stand in what is now the ‘cabinet de tableaux’ (moved into the much larger space of the two bedrooms knocked together) to do so.

– Alice Breathe

[1] Christophe Paillard, ‘Entre tourisme et pèlerinage, voyage d’affaires et expérience littéraire: Jean-Louis Wagnière, acteur et témoin de la “visite à Ferney”’, Orages 8, March 2009, p.21-50.

[2] With thanks to Neil Jeffares for pointing out that the oil painting of Mme Denis is no longer at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont.

[3] Ref. J.9.2901.

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One thought on “‘Vous êtes la première chose que je vois en m’éveillant’: portraits in Voltaire’s bedroom

  1. Everything about Voltaire is always trickier than it seems. A few very brief comments.
    For the pastel of Mme Denis, see J.2782.102 in the Dictionary of pastellists online (www.pastellists.com; just Google the J number to get to the pdf document and search again within). The related oil is no longer in the Shelburne museum, having been deaccessioned on the date I give; the discussion about its attribution between Vanloo and Drouais remains incomplete, but I will leave it to another scholar to publish her summary.
    The full-length portrait of Maria Theresia, although in oil, is by the Belgian pastellist Pierre-Joseph Lion; it is inscribed “peint à Dinant/par Pierre Lion peintre de/Sa Majesté reine J:R:A/donné à M de Voltaire/le 15 juillet 1770”
    The “blanchisseuse” is in fact a portrait of Mme Wagniere: you can find it reproduced, with an explanation of her guise as the Virgin, among the French anonymes, as J.9.2901.

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