This painting, Quiller Orchardsons 1882 Voltaire (which I saw in Edinburghs National Gallery on my 2006 trip), is one of my favourites; but I wouldnt blame you for wondering why, for this rather indistinct print the best one I could find online scarcely does it justice. (Click to see it slightly larger.)
The painting illustrates the following famous anecdote:
One night at the Opéra the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, of the famous and powerful family of the Rohans, a man of forty-three, quarrelsome, blustering, whose reputation for courage left something to be desired, began to taunt the poet upon his birth …. To which the retort came quickly, Whatever my name may be, I know how to preserve the honour of it. The Chevalier muttered something and went off, but the incident was not ended. Voltaire had let his high spirits and his sharp tongue carry him too far, and he was to pay the penalty. …
Voltaire, dining at the Duc de Sullys, where, we are told, he was on the footing of a son of the house, received a message that he was wanted outside in the street. He went out, was seized by a gang of lackeys, and beaten before the eyes of Rohan, who directed operations from a cab. …
The sequel is known to everyone: how Voltaire rushed back, dishevelled and agonised, into Sullys dining-room, how he poured out his story in an agitated flood of words, and how that high-born company, with whom he had been living up to that moment on terms of the closest intimacy, now only displayed the signs of a frigid indifference. The caste-feeling had suddenly asserted itself. Poets, no doubt, were all very well in their way, but really, if they began squabbling with noblemen, what could they expect?
Theres more to the story. When Rohan subsequently learned that Voltaire was practicing his fencing, he heroically arranged to have Voltaire arrested and exiled without trial an event that resulted in one of the classics of the Enlightenment, Voltaires Letters from England, so it was all worth it from our point of view, if not perhaps from Voltaires.
This painting depicts the moment when Voltaire (right) has just been beaten up by Rohans thugs outside and is asking his patron and supposed friend the Duc de Sully (slumped passively in his chair, left) and his aristocratic associates to bear witness on his behalf, only to be met with their indifference and contempt. One might call it Voltaires moment of radicalisation.
What you cant see in this reproduction is the fiery indignation in Voltaires face: not Voltaire the courtier but Voltaire the fighter. Thats the most notable feature of the painting when one sees it in person, and its just completely invisible here; only a close-up could really convey the proper effect that makes it my favourite Voltaire portrait.
So if youre in Edinburgh, I recommend a visit; as I recall, it was on the basement level, down the left-hand ramp as one enters.