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Voltaire nu

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Pierre Philibert

Sculptures
France, 17th and 18th centuries

Author(s):
Valérie Montalbetti

The first example of a statue erected to a living writer, Pigalle's work caused a scandal. The artist sculpted the emaciated naked body of an old man, with no attempt at idealization. Voltaire submitted to the artist's will in the name of artistic freedom. Yet the beauty of the expression on the face and the dynamic pose redeem the decrepit body, illustrating the triumph of mind over matter.

The statue of a writer

In April 1770, a literary society whose members included Diderot and d’Alembert (the authors of the Encyclopédie) decided to pay tribute to Voltaire with a marble statue in his likeness. A public subscription was launched to pay for the statue; despite his turbulent relationship with the model, the King of Prussia Frederick II made an immediate contribution to the fund.

This was the first time that a living author was to be honored with a statue—previously a royal prerogative. The work was commissioned from Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, one of the greatest sculptors of his day. He set out for the Swiss village of Ferney, where Voltaire was living in exile, and returned with a plaster head of the philosopher which was considered a fine work and a good likeness.

An anatomical study

Pigalle's idea was to sculpt Voltaire entirely naked except for the flowing drapery that crosses his left shoulder and covers his loins. Such a portrayal was unprecedented in the modern period; it 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.

For advocates of a return to classicism, the nude boasted prestigious antecedents: it was usual in Greece to represent heroes naked, the human body being considered supremely beautiful. But such a portrayal was deemed unsuitable for an old man, especially as Pigalle made no attempt at idealization, representing his model in all his physical decrepitude: emaciated body, sagging flesh, prominent veins… No doubt he followed Diderot's advice and found inspiration in the statue of a naked old man thought to be the dying Seneca (Old Fisherman, Musée du Louvre), that could be seen in Rome at that time.

The overly naturalist portrayal of the patriarch Voltaire prompted unanimous disgust and rejection. Some ten years later, Jean-Antoine Houdon approached the problem differently with a statue of Voltaire Seated (Comédie Française), his whole body wrapped in swathes of timeless drapery—a work that met with general approval.

The triumph of the mind

Today, however, Pigalle's sculpture is recognized as a masterpiece. The composition is sober, the marble expertly crafted. The back view presents a beautiful cascade of drapery, the emaciated body is a remarkable study of anatomy, and the pose is dynamic: leaning leftward, weight on one leg, right foot poised as if about to stand. The sculpture is magnified by the almost ecstatic expression of the face: head lifted skyward, Voltaire gazes into the distance, eyes bright with intelligence, a hopeful smile illuminating his face. There is no sarcasm here, contrary to other representations of the author.

The statue seems to proclaim the triumph of the mind over the limitations of the body. Voltaire bequeathed the work to his grand-nephew, who donated it in turn to the Institut de France in 1807. It was acquired by the Louvre in 1962 in exchange for Mazarin’s tomb, which was then replaced under the dome of the Institute.

Bibliography

- COLTON Judith, « Pigalle’s Voltaire : realist manifesto or tribute all’antica ? », Transactions of the fifth international congress on the Enlightenment, IV, Oxford, 1980, pp. 1680-1687.

- GABORIT Jean-René, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. Sculptures du musée du Louvre, cat. exp. musée du Louvre, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris,1985, pp. 70-74.

- HONOUR Hugh, Le Néo-classicisme, trad. de l’anglais par Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat,  Librairie générale française, Paris,1998, pp. 142-145 (éd. anglaise, 1968).

- REAU Louis, J.-B. Pigalle, avec une préface de Francis Salet,  P. Tisné, Paris, 1950, pp. 60-67.

- ROCHEBLAVE Samuel-Élie, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle,  E. Lévy, Paris, 1919, pp. 277-288.    

Technical description

  • Jean-Baptiste PIGALLE (Paris, 1714 - Paris, 1785)

    Voltaire nu

    1776

  • Marbre

    H. : 1,50 m. ; L. : 0,89 m. ; Pr. : 0,77 m.

  • Dépôt de l'Institut de France, 1962 , 1962

    Ent. 1962. 1

  • Sculptures

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Pigalle
    Room 24

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