‘Élargissez Dieu’

In the stained glass of the chapel at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, the phrase ‘Élargissez Dieu’ – Make God bigger – appears several times. I confess that, despite being Principal of the college for the past four years, I had not paid any attention to it until recently when Professor Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, was visiting and pointed it out.

Close-up of the stained glass window at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, showing the quotation ‘Élargissez Dieu’ from Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques.

The phrase is from the eighteenth-century French philosopher Diderot, from his Pensées philosophiques, fragment 26. This was Diderot’s first original work (he had worked on translations up until then) and it appeared anonymously in 1746. But, despite the attempt at anonymity, his name as author leaked out and its arguments in favour of deism and materialism, along with its critique of Christianity, caused trouble for him and he soon landed up imprisoned.

What is a quotation from one of the Enlightenment’s most sceptical philosophers (and a French one, at that) doing in stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones, in a very English, late nineteenth-century arts and crafts chapel?

This chapel – although built in the late nineteenth century when Manchester College (as it was then named) came to Oxford – has its roots in the Enlightenment because the college was founded at the height of the Enlightenment in the 1780s. It was begun by and for those who could not accept the dogma of any denomination; those who had absorbed the words of Diderot and other Enlightenment philosophers and found themselves questioning many aspects of Christian theology.  In practice, many of those people were Unitarians.

The Unitarians shared Diderot’s quest for an expansive God. It is no surprise, then, that this quotation from Diderot was a favourite of James Losh (1763–1833) a Unitarian lawyer, reformer, and ardent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, who was much influenced by the Enlightenment and visited revolutionary France in the 1790s. Losh was the grandfather of James Arlosh (1834–1904), a prominent Unitarian and trustee of Manchester College in the 1890s when the chapel was built. James and his wife Isabella funded the six days of creation windows in memory of their son, Godfrey, who had died in a riding accident on Port Meadow in Oxford. At the top of each of these six windows, Diderot’s words ‘Élargissez Dieu’ are inscribed. The portraits of James, Isabella, and Godfrey are in the college’s dining hall, named the Arlosh Hall in acknowledgement of their generosity to the college.

Harris Manchester College Chapel, Oxford.

In Harris Manchester College chapel, Diderot’s words in the stained glass stand as a reminder of the deep influence of the Enlightenment on the liberal and reformed thinking of the college’s founders and benefactors. And that influence came not just from the English Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley, who was one of the college’s tutors, but also the French philosophes.  In the spirit of both the Unitarians and Diderot, we might translate ‘Élargissez Dieu’ as ‘You – make your God bigger!’

Jane Shaw, Principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford

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Wisdom in wax: eighteenth-century waxworks of Voltaire

In the late 1780s, Londoners had a rare opportunity to see the great writer and philosopher Voltaire with their own eyes for the cost of just one shilling. The fact that he had died eight years earlier was of no concern, for this Voltaire was sculpted entirely from wax.

Voltaire had been rendered in wax by one Mr Sylvester – an ‘eminent Artist’ who had recently trained at the Royal Academy in Paris – and housed in his Wax Work Cabinet. The Cabinet had first been on display in Paris, before moving to ‘Mr. Ansell’s Large Room, Spring Gardens, London’ – a street at the southeast extreme of St James’s, crossing the eastern end of The Mall, a fashionable quarter of the city inhabited by civil servants and politicians. The Cabinet was described as being ‘an assembly of the most distinguished potentates and characters in Europe’ including royalty from across Europe, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Madame du Barre, the goddess Venus, and the Countess de la Motte accompanied by a fortune teller.

Bodleian Library, Bodleian Library Waxworks 3 (12c), ‘For the inspection of the curious grand exhibition of royal wax-work’ (1794).

In January 1786, notices were placed in local newspapers declaring that Mr Sylvester’s Wax Work Cabinet was being moved ‘to that more centrical situation, the Lyceum, in the Strand’, a grander venue just a ten-minute walk from Spring Gardens. The Lyceum had been built in 1772 as an exhibition room for the use of the Royal Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, having been designed by the architect James Paine to rival the ‘grand salons’ of Paris. It quickly became clear, however, that the Lyceum was a financial disaster as it could not compete with the Royal Academy. The building was subsequently sold in 1777, becoming an exchange, exhibition space, debating room, and gallery. It was while the Lyceum was in this state that Mr Sylvester moved his collection of wax works into the Grand Saloon in 1786, but it was not to last long; the Lyceum was put up for auction in March 1790 and though it did not sell, the space was instead repurposed, coming to house a Phantasmagoria that featured a menagerie of exotic animals, Mr Diller’s Philosophical Fireworks, and an Irish giant.

Advertisements for Mr Sylvester’s exhibition of the Wax Work Cabinet at the Lyceum proclaimed that the spectacle was designed ‘for the Inspection of the CURIOUS’ and it was here that Voltaire’s waxwork was prominently displayed alongside a host of other wax curios including ‘an exact Representation of The Seraglio’, the rulers of Germany, Russia, France, Spain, Prussia, Naples, and the Netherlands, and a rendition of the goddess Venus sleeping, though one newspaper reported that the most popular figures were those of the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, the Countess de la Motte, le Montrofin, and the Countess du Barre. Indeed, Mr. Sylvester was noted for his specialism in the life-sized reproduction of royal figures, making his inclusion of Voltaire in the midst of such royalty notable, and these noble figures were much admired by spectators. The actor and theatrical manager Henry Irving, for instance, visited the exhibition in November 1790 just before its closure and remarked upon the visit in the following way:

‘The enterprising Mr. Sylvester, always anxious to gratify the Curiosity of a generous Public, has added to his grand Exhibition a Model of the Head of the late Governor of the Bastille. He received the exact likeness from the same Gentleman who sent him the likeness of Baron Trenck, who happened to be on the spot when the Governor was executed, and got permission of the mob to take it off in plaster, which Mask he sent to Mr. Sylvester. N.B. Mr. Sylvester returns his most grateful Thanks to the Nobility and Gentry, and Public in general, for the very great encouragement he has received; and as he means to close his Exhibition very soon, admits Servants and Children at Half Price, viz., Sixpence only. That much admired Figure of the Sleeping Venus at Full Length.’ (Brereton, 1803, p.18)

From this account, it is clear that the exhibition was ever-evolving, adding new figures to an illustrious cast of which Voltaire was a steady constant.

The closure of the exhibition at the Lyceum did not signal the end of the Wax Work Cabinet, however. A newspaper advertisement from 1794 noted that the exhibition had moved to ‘No. 341, near Catherine-street, in the Strand’ and was now being run by Mrs Sylvester, the former proprietor’s wife. The Cabinet appears to have been well-travelled between its departure from the Lyceum and its arrival on the Strand, with the advertisement noting that the exhibition – including Voltaire – had been ‘displayed with so much éclat at Dublin, Edinburgh, and most of the principal Towns in England, and approved of by the most curious Connoisseurs, and chiefly by the most eminent Artists in most parts of Europe’. And, as was ever the case, the Cabinet continued to evolve and grow in size, now totalling fifty-two figures and including renderings of recent events such as the British naval victory over the French on 1st June 1794. The advertisement reported that the additions and alterations made by Mrs Sylvester had been well received, being ‘deservedly esteemed by an impartial Public, to be the first productions of the kind’.

This was not the first time that Voltaire had been rendered in wax and it certainly would not be the last. He had been the subject of the very first waxwork crafted by the now famous Marie Tussaud in 1777 when she was just 16 years old, for instance. Tussaud had made the cast of Voltaire’s face just two months before his death, and the resulting waxwork was initially displayed in the Salon de Cire sat at a desk surrounded by books. Voltaire himself had insisted on sending his own clothes to dress the waxwork and onlookers often remarked that his model was significantly scruffier than others on display (Pillbeam, 2006, p.29). Tussaud later brought both the Voltaire mould and waxwork to England, where they remain today, and one catalogue for her London exhibition remarked that ‘the most admirable specimen of her talent in the present collection is the portrait model of the most famous wit Voltaire’ (Pillbeam, 2006, p.173). Clearly her wax rendering of Voltaire was a big hit.

Tussaud’s uncle, Philippe Curtius, also created a wax figure of Voltaire but for a much more sombre purpose, this time to be used in his funeral procession. Here, the model of Voltaire lay on a sarcophagus placed in a funeral chariot that was drawn by twelve white horses, offering mourners one last chance to glimpse the writer before his burial. Unfortunately, heavy rain caused the vermillion robes in which the waxwork had been clothed to run, turning the effigy a somewhat grotesque shade of purple. So well-received was this figure, however, despite its ghoulish hue, that Curtius instigated a boom for wax effigies in funeral processions, with tourists attending funeral processions specifically to view the waxworks on display, as if they were carnivalesque floats. The advertisements for the Cabinet certainly were not wrong when they described the audience for waxworks as curious.

Waxworks of Voltaire were also made in miniature. In c.1790, for example, Francesco Orso created a set of miniature waxworks that included Voltaire, the only example of his waxwork to survive today. Orso was not so concerned with accuracy here as he was allegory and genre, situating his miniature Voltaire in a pastoral scene besides the other spiritual fathers of the French Revolution – Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin – and two children. This peaceful scene exudes an air of new beginnings and the blossoming of Spring after a long, hard winter. Other miniature waxworks of Voltaire were more gruesome, such as the 55 x 48.5 cm wax relief of Voltaire on his death bed produced by Samuel Percy in England in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century, modelled on an earlier example by Philippe Curtius. Here, Voltaire is not delightfully posed in an allegorical pastoral scene but instead lies awkwardly across a green canopied bed as a maid enters to the left, raising her hands in horror at the sight. This was not a waxwork designed to glorify a great man as much as it was a scene intended to invoke an emotive response, with the artist depicting Voltaire as a frail, pained, and pitiful figure lacking any dignity in his final moments. Even more disturbing is a waxwork produced by Kaspar Berhard Hardy in c.1780, again of Voltaire on his deathbed. This time, the wider scene of the bedroom has been stripped away and the waxwork centres on Voltaire’s face and upper body, reclining ungracefully, his expression pained, as he takes his last breaths. Again, we see no glory in this 24 x 7 x 23.5 cm cased waxwork figure, no triumphal or defiant display in the face of his own mortality, but rather a pained and frightened Voltaire fearfully awaiting his death. There is an intimacy here, and a humbling of a great literary figure, stripping back the layers of celebrity to reveal a mere mortal, not so dissimilar to the viewer.

But why should waxworks of Voltaire have created such a draw for visitors? What was it about lifelike waxworks that proved to be such an attraction? And did visitors attach any emotion to their viewing of such figures? In the advertisement for Sylvester’s exhibition, Voltaire is described as ‘that justly admired French Genius, who died in Paris in the Year 1778, aged 85, and has been in his Life-time an intimate Friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’. He was not only an admired individual but also an influential one. Certainly, this celebrity could have been enough of a draw in and of itself, offering the public the chance to see great figures for themselves, with their own eyes.

There is, however, as Michelle E. Bloom has noted, something captivating about waxworks simply for their ability to blur boundaries (Bloom, 2003, pp.xi-xiii). No longer is the spectator sure of the dividing line between human being and inanimate form, life and death, celebrity and normality. The viewer knows that the Voltaire they are seeing is a mere artistic representation, that the real Voltaire has been dead for many years, and yet there is something so lifelike about the waxwork that it is as if the veil between life and death has been lifted, just for a moment. Indeed, waxworks had their origins in funeral effigies rather than art, being carried atop royal coffins across medieval and early modern Europe in order to provide onlookers with one last chance to catch a glimpse of someone of status. These effigies would often be displayed by the tomb of the deceased royal or elsewhere in the church after the funeral, becoming a popular attraction that visitors would sometimes have to pay to view. For many who had never seen a royal figure before, such displays of effigies in churches provided the rare opportunity to see the majesty of royalty for themselves, to get up close to a member of the royal family in a way that they never could have done in life, momentarily dismantling social divides.

Waxworks thus seem to be intimately intertwined with possibility. For many, it is unlikely that they will ever meet a celebrity. Yet a waxwork provides the opportunity to at least stand shoulder to shoulder with their likeness. At the same time, waxworks break down the barrier between celebrities and normal people. These were not attempts, necessarily, to glorify; waxworks did not smooth wrinkles, remove scars, or reverse time as lofty marble busts may have done. Instead, they portrayed the subject in intimate and realistic detail. When viewing a Voltaire waxwork, therefore, the spectator was not viewing a great marble effigy designed to instil a sense of grandeur – such as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Seated Voltaire – or a trinket sized piece of memorabilia – like the statuettes featured in a recent study by Antoine Lilti – but rather a humbling glimpse of the real man behind the vast writings, warts and all. Such realistic representations were not always well received. Antonio Canova and commentator on the visual arts James Ralph both thought that waxworks were undignified, ‘expressing neither figure like statuary nor colour like painting’ (Craske, 1997, p.192-94).

But perhaps the purpose of the waxwork was never meant to be art. Perhaps instead the place of the waxwork was firmly entrenched in the juxtaposing notions of celebrity and humility. The ability to look a great celebrity in the eyes, to stand in their presence, and yet see them exactly as they were (a human being just like the viewer) was perhaps equally as emotive, albeit in a different way, as viewing a painting produced by a great master of a beautiful and idealised figure.

(L) Jean-Antoine Houdon, Seated Voltaire, ca.1779-1795, (R) Voltaire waxwork at Madame Tussaud.

Waxworks create a world of make-believe that somehow feels very real. The viewer knows that the slightly iridescent flesh and glassy eyes they are staring at have been shaped by human hands and yet there is the unnerving sense that when one turns ones back on a waxwork it may just come alive. To view figures like Voltaire in this way, to gaze upon them more intently than one ever could in polite society, and to note the most intimate details of their faces, blurs the boundary between normality and celebrity, life and death, mortality and immortality. It offers a unique and humbling chance to see notable figures as the human beings that they are or were and, as the advertisement for the Wax Work Cabinet proclaimed, was undeniably an experience for the curious.

Zoe Screti, Astra Foundation Research Fellow in Manuscript Studies at the Voltaire Foundation

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Learning art in Rome… à la française

Can art be taught? Certainly. The larger question is, can it be learnt? And if so, how?


Charles-Joseph Natoire, Life class at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (detail), 1746, The Courtauld Institute, London

From at least 1298, when Philip IV sponsored a court artist’s study-tour of Italy, French monarchs and ministers believed art was best learned by reproducing the frescoes, paintings, statuary and Roman ruins found beyond the Alps. While the origins of Philip’s respect for Italy are unclear, not so that of the Valois kings who profited aesthetically from sixty-five years of warfare on the peninsula (1494-1559) and issued invitations to Italian masters upon their return. Perhaps inspired by their work, French artists and architects made their separate ways to Florence and Rome during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some with government support, others on their own. Whether they selected a mentor or allowed curiosity to lead them, their experiences were necessarily uneven, but the glories of French Renaissance and Classical art and architecture leave no doubt that they did indeed ‘learn’.


Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)

Individual artists continued to study Italian masterworks throughout the Ancien Régime, but in so far as official France was concerned, structured curricula replaced independent study – even in Rome itself. In Charles-Joseph Natoire and the Académie de France in Rome: a re-evaluation I discuss how Jean-Baptiste Colbert instituted advanced training in the papal city for a select group of young men who had been awarded Grands Prix by the Académies royales de peinture et de sculpture (1648-1793) and Architecture (1671-1793).

For some twenty years, Grands Prix painters and sculptors were further prepared for Rome through the government-sponsored programme at the Ecole royale des élèves protégés in Paris (1751-1774). Each step in the educational programme decreased students’ control over their art, for financial support brought obligation. Even if, from 1676 onward, the Académie de peinture reviewed portfolios to determine who had to compete for that year’s Grand Prix, students were still at liberty to conceptualise and develop the topics assigned. As the king’s protégés, however, they copied artwork held in the Louvre and, in general, chafed under the rules Colbert had developed for the pensionnaires of the Académie de France in Rome (1666-1793), whose goal was to form artists ‘capable of serving the king well’. Colbert interpreted this literally.


In its early years, the Académie de France functioned more like a boot camp than an art school, as students reproduced ‘everything beautiful’ in the city and Colbert dispatched cargo ships from Marseilles to collect work intended to enhance the halls and gardens of the king’s multiple properties. That need eventually diminished: in 1742, Philibert Orry, who then directed the Bâtiments du roi, served notice that no more copies of antique statuary were required. The pensionnaires were still not free to explore their own interests, however. In 1752, Bâtiments director Marigny, told Natoire that students’ ‘real business’ was to copy the work of the great masters and do this ‘without ceasing’.

Did students learn from these experiences? Certainly, all were competent and many became successful, as Bourbon France defined that success: admitted to the royal academies, exhibiting at the Salons and working for French and European courts. Looking back, though, only the autonomous Jacques-Louis David has proved as influential as certain seventeenth-century painters such as Nicolas Poussin and Charles Le Brun, whose independent study in Rome transformed the Ecole française.

– Reed Benhamou, Indiana University

Further reading:

Reed Benhamou, Regulating the Académie: art, rules and power in ancien régime France, ISBN 978-0-7294-0972-8 (SVEC 2009:08)

Rococo rivalries: Germany v. France

As an American who studies European art, I must confess to a particular fascination with how European societies characterize each other. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and politically charged allegiances inflect all aspects of European culture. In eighteenth-century studies, we encounter this most commonly in the appreciation and animosities exchanged between Britain and France. My recent research on the Rococo took me to explore a different yet equally charged rivalry – that of Germany and France.


The palace of Amalienburg. Photo: M. Yonan.

Bolstered by the art of Oppenord, Meissonnier, Watteau, and Boucher to name just a few, the Rococo’s place in French art history is secure. Harder to explain has been its popularity in Germany. German patrons built hundreds of richly decorated palaces outfitted with gorgeous rococo interiors, and the Germans went a step further by incorporating rococo ornament into religious edifices, something encountered only rarely in France. Both can be seen in Catholic Munich, where the urge to adopt rococo forms occurred early and eagerly. The palaces of Nymphenburg, Amalienburg, and Schleissheim, all in or near that city, contain room after room of beautifully ornamented rococo art. Travel a short distance outside Munich and you will encounter rococo pilgrimage churches, perhaps the most famous of which is the stunningly beautiful Wieskirche. But it is just one of hundreds. In short, the Germans loved the Rococo. A colleague once even described Bavaria to me as ‘Rococo Paradise’, so abundant is the style in that region.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

The Wieskirche. Photo: M. Yonan.

In my contribution to the volume Rococo echo: art, theory, and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, ‘The Uncomfortable Frenchness of the German Rococo’, I explore specifically how German writers dealt with the problem of the Rococo’s French origins, and how that Frenchness became a thorn in the side of German art history for almost three hundred years.

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola

German writers have struggled to explain the abundance of the Rococo in their homeland, and as nineteenth-century scholars began to write Germany’s national art history, they found the Rococo highly problematic, since it could not be easily characterized as German. And you might guess what happened: some rather creative attempts to explain (or explain away!) the Rococo’s Frenchness. When commenting on rococo southern German palaces, writers such as Cornelius Gurlitt and Hermann Bauer argued that the style was really German. In contrast, an earlier writer, Johann Friedrich Reiffenstein, complained that as a whimsical foreign import the Rococo was alien to the German character and therefore damaging to serious German art. Gottfried Semper tried to claim that it was the Germans who had invented rococo art, not the French, and thereby Germanized its origins. Stereotypes, rivalries, projections, and even military themes abounded. Writing this essay reminded me of how subversive Rococo art really is, and how much it challenges simple categorization, be it about quality, technique, subject matter, or national identity.

– Michael Yonan, University of Missouri

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