Voltaire and the first statue of liberty

It is fifty years since the Musée du Louvre in Paris acquired and put on public display a notorious statue of the French philosopher Voltaire.

Poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, satirist, philosopher, and indefatigable letter-writer Jean Marie Arouet – known to the world as Voltaire (1694-1778) – was one of the geniuses of what came to be known as the Enlightenment. Towards the end of his life, his friends decided to erect a stature in his honour, an idea that originated with Suzanne Curchod (left), wife of the rich Protestant banker Jacques Necker and hostess of a literary salon frequented by leading philosophes of the day. A public subscription was launched. Voltaire was flattered, but concerned that at the age of 76 he would die before it was completed: “It is not likely,” he wrote to the mathematician Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, “that it will be To the living Voltaire; it will be To the dying Voltaire.”

The sculptor chosen for this tribute was Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714-85), who enjoyed the patronage of both Louis XV and his mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Voltaire’s colleague, the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-84) suggested to Pigalle that he portray Voltaire naked, “because flesh is more beautiful than the most beautiful drapery… By portraying a person naked you distance him from the crowd, you recall a more innocent, simpler age.” Pigalle visited the French village of Ferney, close to Geneva, where Voltaire was living in self-imposed exile, returning with a plaster head of the philosopher which was considered a good likeness.

Pigalle then sculpted the body, whose bony arms and legs contrast shockingly with the elevated, serene expression of the face. At Voltaire’s feet are the mask of Comedy and the dagger of Tragedy, while the pen in his right hand and the voluminous scroll of paper witness the extent of his writings.

By 1776 the statue was finished. It caused an immediate scandal, prompting a multitude of sarcastic comments (for example, Gustavus III of Sweden offered to contribute to the cost of a coat). No one could agree where the statue was to be placed, so for the time being it stayed in Pigalle’s studio. Later it passed to Voltaire’s heirs, the family of his niece Mme Denis (who was Voltaire’s mistress). In 1806 they, in turn, gave it to the Institut de France where it languished in obscurity.

Finally, in 1962 the statue was acquired by the Louvre and received the public acclaim it deserved. Voltaire gazes into the distance, eyes bright with intelligence, a smile illuminating the face of a man who took impish delight in tweaking the noses of his contemporaries while simultaneously seeking their approbation and support. His life history is well worth reading and can be found in Voltaire: A Life (2010), Ian Davidson’s well-crafted tribute to a man who believed in tolerance and who “became a champion of the principle of freedom of speech, at least for himself; and towards the end of his very long life he went on to become the champion of justice for others.” One wonders what he would have made of the Europe of today.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

One thought on “Voltaire and the first statue of liberty”

  1. I am currently reading a contemporary comic novel about Voltaire written by someone from my writing group here in Geneva. “Contemporary” in that the premise is that Voltaire appears as a ghost and moves in to live with a homesick New York writer recently transplanted by her Swiss husband to live in St-Cergue outside Geneva. It is a delightful, totally unbelievable, and thoroughly enjoyable read. “A visit from Voltaire: a comic novel about the unlikeliest of friends” by Dinah Lee Küng.

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