Voltaire’s Nude

July 6, 2013

Voltaire by Jean Baptiste Pigalle, Louvre

“There was a statue made not long since of Voltaire, which the sculptor, not having that respect for the prejudices of mankind which he ought to have, has made entirely naked and as meagre and emaciated as the original is said to be. The consequence is what might be expected; it has remained in the sculptor’s shop, though it was intended as a public ornament and a public honor to Voltaire, as it was procured at the expense of his contemporary wits and admirers.”

(Reynolds, “Seven Discourses on Art“)

Fortunately, since Pigalle’s Voltaire now neighbors Michelangelo’s Slaves in the Louvre with the blessing of a reputed curator, Reynold’s valuation of the peace doesn’t prove equitable enough to concur immediately. Indeed, the great philosopher’s nude realistically depicts the atrophied, skeletal physique of a septuagenarian crooked by age, secular and spiritual difficulties to an admirably small degree. No attempt to idealization being made, François-Marie Arouet‘s body appears feeble, humane in what may seem a depreciating way, as the English portraitist put it. Besides these features of decay, though, one can find that the sagacious expression on his face, together with a dynamic pose, redeem the decrepit members so as to convey the “triumph of mind over matter”.

And it was this victory Jean Baptiste Pigalle wanted to illustrate when “a literary society whose members included Diderot and d’Alembert (the authors of the Encyclopédie) decided to pay tribute to Voltaire” by commissioning a “marble statue in his likeness”.

Drawing inspiration from the majestic masterpieces of Greek and Roman art, Pigalle’s idea was to sculpt his model “entirely naked except for the flowing drapery that crosses his left shoulder and covers his loins. Such a portrayal, unprecedented in the modern period, caused a scandal and prompted a multitude of sarcastic comments, King Gustavus III of Sweden offering to contribute to the cost of a coat. Fearing ridicule, Voltaire attempted to dissuade the sculptor, but finally agreed to his project in the name of artistic freedom.”

But there’s no surprise such an “overly naturalist portrayal of the patriarch philosopher prompted unanimous disgust and rejection” since only “Jean-Antoine Houdon approach to the problem with a statue of Voltaire Seated, his whole body wrapped in swathes of timeless cloth”  met with general approval and was finally displayed in the foyer of  the Comédie Française.

It remained with the notorious sitter who eventually “bequeathed the work to his grand-nephew”, reaching the Louvre due to a donation at the beginning of the 19th century.

(Incidentally, the Louvre has an extended version of this article on its public site, from which descend all quotes here employed, plus a few more.)

So, what’s your personal opinion of it?

Mere tasteless representation of an old Voltaire or an image that rightfully invites to ponder on the triumph of mind over matter?

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