Mr. Orchardson, I’m Ready For My Close-up

This painting, Quiller Orchardson’s 1882 Voltaire (which I saw in Edinburgh’s National Gallery on my 2006 trip), is one of my favourites; but I wouldn’t 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.)

VOLTAIRE by William Quiller Orchadson

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 Sully’s, 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 Sully’s 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?

There’s 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, Voltaire’s Letters from England, so it was all worth it from our point of view, if not perhaps from Voltaire’s.

This painting depicts the moment when Voltaire (right) has just been beaten up by Rohan’s 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 Voltaire’s moment of radicalisation.

What you can’t see in this reproduction is the fiery indignation in Voltaire’s face: not Voltaire the courtier but Voltaire the fighter. That’s the most notable feature of the painting when one sees it in person, and it’s just completely invisible here; only a close-up could really convey the proper effect that makes it my favourite Voltaire portrait.

So if you’re in Edinburgh, I recommend a visit; as I recall, it was on the basement level, down the left-hand ramp as one enters.


20 Responses to Mr. Orchardson, I’m Ready For My Close-up

  1. Aster February 14, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    Voltaire rocks! Thanx Roderick.

    When Rohan subsequently learned that Voltaire was practicing his fencing, he heroically arranged to have Voltaire arrested and exiled without trial[.]

    Fight oppressive government rapier control laws!

    Letters from England just went to the top of my reading list.

    • Roderick February 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

      It also goes by the titles Letters on England, Letters Concerning the English Nation, and Philosophical Letters.

      • dennis February 15, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

        Who was the brilliant scientist (if the term even existed at the time) who was Voltaire’s patron and lover? I can’t remember her name, but as I recall she made some important discoveries in physics.

      • Joel Schlosberg February 20, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

        Also “Letters on the English”.

  2. Anon73 February 15, 2010 at 10:52 pm #

    I thought Rousseau was the one who sucked up to elites; according to the Mises Institute Voltaire made a living as an “honest businessman”.

    • Aster February 16, 2010 at 8:08 pm #

      The first thing one notices upon crossing the threshold of VMI´s website is Ludwig von Mises’ coat of arms prominently displayed in the foyer. The title was originally awarded to von Mises’ great-grandfather by the emperor Joseph I of Austria. This has nothing to do whatsoever with sucking up to elites.

  3. Joel Schlosberg February 20, 2010 at 12:37 am #

    The case of artworks that are in the public domain, but which can’t be photographed without the owner’s claiming copyright, is an interesting IP issue itself. Ironically one artwork that falls under that category is another portrait of another key classical liberal: James Tassie’s profile of Adam Smith, which is also the source for many depictions of Smith since it’s one of the few firsthand sources of what he looked like.

    • Roderick February 20, 2010 at 1:11 am #

      This case addresses some of those issues, though not all of them.

      • Joel Schlosberg February 20, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

        I forgot about that … although the Tassie case just squeaks by being covered since it’s a 3D sculpture (if a flattish one) and Bridgeman v. Corel specifically applies only to 2D works (plus it only applies to US law).

  4. P.M.Lawrence February 21, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    Actually, Voltaire’s interpretation of upper class motivations is (perhaps unsurprisingly) way off. The group were almost certainly reacting to him with contempt for his action in seeking their help against another rather than standing up for or containing himself without seeking to involve them, just as they would have reacted if the most aristocratic in the land had done so; they were not siding with class and caste. Voltaire could not help what had happened, but he was entirely responsible for his despicable loss of dignity and self-control. As Lord Melbourne remarked in relation to his own ill fortune, “I have always thought complaints of ill usage contemptible, whether from a seduced disappointed girl, or a turned out Prime Minister”. A faithful picture would not have shown Voltaire displaying righteous indignation but impotent supplication.

    • Aster February 21, 2010 at 6:11 am #

      You’re trolling, right? Please tell me that you’re trolling.

      • P.M.Lawrence February 21, 2010 at 7:56 am #

        No, I’m describing what actual aristocrats do and how they think, from my own limited contact with them (I must have met five or six peers of the realm before I ever met an elected politician, but only as acquaintances), but supporting it with an actual accessible quotation from history rather than my own experience which might be dismissed. The thing is, the point at issue isn’t what Voltaire thought he was bringing to the aristocrats and what he thought he was asking of them, but the fact that he wasn’t comporting himself as they thought a gentleman should (notice how Lord Melbourne thought even a genuine victim could be contemptible – but not for being a victim, for seeking redress in that particular way).

        So there is indeed an aristocrat thing going on, but it’s not Voltaire being marked off as an outsider and so not to be supported; rather, anyone coming for that would have been rejected as being no gentleman – even someone of high birth (as opposed to which, one recently ennobled Frenchman once put down a jibe from someone with a distinguished lineage by remarking “je suis un aieul” – “I am an ancestor”).

        Voltaire could easily have increased their respect for him by laughing at what had happened but not forgiving it (even if he had faked it) and asking them discreetly what steps he should take. It would have been even better if he had already known the steps and hadn’t had to ask, but had asked someone to help him arrange a duel or whatever other thing was customary – we see he came close to doing that anyway, but only after botching his natural reaction, in fact revealing his nature.

        • Roderick February 23, 2010 at 11:58 am #

          Well, there are two questions here: a) what was the aristocrats’ motivation? and b) was that motivation justified? You may well be right about (a), but you also sound as though you agree with (b) — e.g., when you talk of “revealing his nature” — and I find (b) a good deal less compelling. “I’m allowed to be indifferent to injustices inflicted upon my friends unless they act as though they don’t mind them” seems like an unpromising moral principle; and there’s something dubious about a class of people who, thanks to their privileged position, are less likely than most to be subjected to this sort of indignity formulating rules for people who are more likely to suffer it.

    • JOR February 21, 2010 at 9:28 am #

      Er, faithful to whom? If Voltaire was indeed mistaken about their motivations then the picture showing righteous indignation on his face may well still be faithful. One would think his face would be expressing the feeling of his (perhaps mistaken) interpretation of their motives, not their interpretation of his (or their interpretation of theirs, for that matter).

      • P.M.Lawrence February 21, 2010 at 7:52 pm #

        Let me put it this way. Voltaire may well have supposed he felt and showed righteous indignation, and mistakenly not seen anything else. However, being what they were, the group beholding him would only have seen whingeing and self pity. What is at issue is the artist’s choice of what to render. If the artist had been faithful to showing the dynamics in effect he would have respected both Voltaire’s inner life and what was reaching the group, not merely the former. If the artist had only meant to convey what happened right then, he could have confined himself to the latter. But just showing Voltaire’s own view only serves in relation to how Voltaire developed and what he did later, which could only work as part of a larger Hogarthian series of pictures – and that wasn’t what the picture was.

        • Aster February 22, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

          Well, some individuals might prioritise human rights, elementary compassion, and the defence of one of the kewlest people ever over the petrified sensibilities of a clique of privileged exploiters. But then a nominalist of unrefined sentiments has no standing to offer an informed opinion here.

          There’s a posh accessories shop on Lambton Quay in Wellington´s business district which sells all sorts of outrageously decorative hats, bags, pins, combs, and such, all elaborately displayed, with the obscene price tags cunningly hidden. I bought a comb there a few months ago for a photo shoot, and keep stopping by every once in a while to admire the inventory.

          The other patrons at the store are a very odd sort. There´s nothing here to shop for here except utterly useless pretty things, and yet these women are dressed with such deliberately unimaginative formal ugliness that apparently they feel that their hat or handbag has to do all the aesthetic work for them. And the staff are even more priceless; apparently they firmly believe that they are more likely to succeed in business if they treat their customers with that peculiar icy kind of passive-aggressive rudeness which communicates that it is a privilege to lose half a week´s rent to their establishment.

          Anywho, I stop by every once in a while, because there´s this decadent thing with a black rose on a shelf in the back and we wants it, precious. Recently I was in the store showing the place to a friend, and I happened to remark rather loudly that I´d bought an as-new precise duplicate of one of their $219.99 hats for $2.00 store credit at our anarchist thrift shop. Oops. Apparently I´d shown an undignified concern for necessity or something. They were not amused. I however was having a great time and made sure that they and all their customers were very aware of this.

          Today at the thrift store I found this wicked piece of glassware which does this tuning-fork-thing when you ping it with your finger. I took it home with me for 50c credit.

          On another note- Charles, I think I just shifted a notch towards your position on class issues. A certain Monty Python skit comes to mind….

        • JOR February 22, 2010 at 7:35 pm #

          Leave aside the question of whether their actual motives were really any less worthy of indignation than those Voltaire mistakenly attributed to them (either from his perspective or ours or objectively); whether it is in fact contemptible to expect one’s hosts to intervene when one is beaten, and whether there’s any real dignity or virtue in settling a dispute unrelated to fencing skills in favor of whoever is better at shoving a pointy metal stick into the other guy. Then we’re left with nothing but the internal views of Voltaire and the aristocrats and no reason to treat one as more central to a faithful representation than the other.

          Given this, a faithful portrait might well portray the aristocrats differently (perhaps showing more smug disdain on their part than it does), but Voltaire would still be expressing what he was actually thinking and feeling, and not what the aristocrats thought they saw, or how they interpreted it (just as it would show them expressing their own thinking, and not Voltaire’s interpretation of it).

          Now it might be true that you couldn’t show how the aristocrats truly perceived the situation without being dishonest about Voltaire’s motives and expression (because their perception involved some self-deceptive shunting of a man’s motives into irrelevant or at least inapplicable psychoanalytical categories), but that’s a good reason to not care about their perceptions beyond your portrayal of them if your goal is to show a faithful picture.

        • Aster February 23, 2010 at 3:46 am #

          Oh, here’s the skit!:

          This also comes to mind:

          BTW, is there any reason whatsoever why horse racing involves any more development of the human talents than stock car racing?

  5. Joel Schlosberg April 16, 2010 at 11:05 pm #

    There’s an exhibit currently running at the NYPL about the 250th anniversary of Candide that’s been there for a while (and closes on the 25th), but which I finally saw; one of the illustrators is featured is Rockwell Kent who also did art for the modern school movement.

    Voltaire is a frustrating case because there’s not as much about liberty in his works as one wishes there was, given his key status in the Enlightenment (somewhat comparable to Bastiat, both French authors being known as witty critics of the fallacies of the old order, and he was of course a contemporary of Turgot) and how he’s admired by people for his role in freethought; the heroine in Carl Sagan’s Contact, Eleanor Arroway, is named after two of Sagan’s personal heroes: Voltaire (“Arroway” is a sound-alike of Voltaire’s surname “Arouet”) and Eleanor Roosevelt. In this interview Jim Powell says he wanted to include a chapter on Voltaire in his book The Triumph of Liberty but simply couldn’t find enough material from Voltaire relevant to liberty to make it work; he was able to pull together similar material about liberty for writers such as Mark Twain where the relevant information is not usually focused on and takes work to dig out from the sources (interestingly the other figure who he wanted to do a chapter on but wasn’t able to was Simon Bolivar):

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes