Naked Voltaire or the Ideal Old Man

Naked Voltaire or the Ideal Old Man

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Title: François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire naked.

Author : PIGALLE Jean-Baptiste (1714 - 1785)

Creation date : 1776

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 150 - Width 89

Technique and other indications: Marble sculpture

Storage place: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Hervé Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 01-018457 / ENT1962-1

François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire naked.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Hervé Lewandowski

Publication date: April 2013

Historical context

François Marie Arouet dit Voltaire (1694-1778) is the philosopher of the Enlightenment par excellence. The Henriade, created in 1723 and inspired by great epic tragedies, solidifies his position as a national author. His knowledge of English social and economic practices acquired during his exile in Great Britain gave birth to the Philosophical letters and he affirms an identity as a thinker that he will maintain throughout his long career.

The various representations of this philosopher, writer, historian and poet honored during his lifetime (we go to Ferney, in Switzerland, to see the master) show both the fascination he exercises and the will to fix for Immortality the features of the Great Man. At the origin of the creation of a full-length statue (other portraits of the artist had been made in bust by Houdon) are seventeen intellectuals of the Enlightenment including Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d´Alembert; in 1770, a subscription was launched. Many personalities such as Frederick II of Prussia, in whom Voltaire once saw the incarnation of the enlightened monarch, participate. The Republic of Letters uses public statuary to show that the philosopher has his place among the greatest geniuses in history; this privilege, then exclusively reserved for kings and war heroes, sublimates the Genius. Indeed, the greatest ancient philosophers were immortalized through sculpture; creating a full-length statue of Voltaire inscribes the thinker and, at the same time, France, among the heirs of ancient culture, then ideal to achieve.

Image Analysis

In 1770, Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, one of the most brilliant artists of his generation, received the commission for this statue. On the base reads the inscription wanted by the sponsors: "Monsieur de Voltaire, through men of letters, his compatriots, and his contemporaries. 1776. »

From the start, his idea was to represent the great man in the old days; he is supported and even encouraged in this project by Denis Diderot, who refers to a statue from Antiquity representing a naked old man in whom the time recognizes Seneca opening his veins in his bath (Old fisherman, said the dying Seneca, IIe century apr. BC, black marble, enameled eyes and alabaster belt, 121 cm without the basin, Paris, Louvre Museum).

Admirably similar, the head was sketched by the sculptor in the presence of the septuagenarian at Ferney; however, the body was executed in his Paris studio from a model. Pigalle opts for a radical choice, obtaining the permission of the philosopher to represent him in the manner of the antique without resorting to the heroic nude, that is to say without idealization of the body. Voltaire is therefore sitting naked on a tree trunk, the roots of which form part of the base. A simple drape, casually placed over his left arm, reveals the naturally thin and gaunt body of an old man. Yet the pose given shows him in a meditative and voluntary attitude, full of nobility, as he holds a scroll in one hand and a feather in the other, necessary tools for his art. Other literary attributes can be recognized by his feet: the mask of Thalia, the Comedy, as well as the dagger of Melpomène, the Tragedy. Books, scrolls, a laurel wreath as well as a lyre (on which Pigalle sign) are all symbols of the philosopher, historian, writer and poet.


While the return to antiquity and the writings of Johan Joachim Winckelmann highlight the ideal Beauty, that is to say the idealization of figures, inspired by Antiquity, who embody the greatest human qualities, the Pigalle statue offers a contrast between the Enlightenment man and the representation of an old man with a decrepit body. Visible in the artist's studio in 1770, the plaster sketch immediately caused a scandal. Although there is unanimity around the head, considered "sublime", the question of costume or rather its absence is raised, especially since Pigalle maintains and defends its naturalistic representation. Despite Voltaire's approval and his respect for the sculptor's creative freedom, subscribers like Mme Necker and Eugène Suard do not understand the artist's choice and accuse him of preferring a piece of anatomy (critics even use the term "skeleton") rather than a beautiful work. Although Pigalle undoubtedly seeks with reason to demonstrate his virtuosity in the anatomically true representation of the body of an old man, he achieves a tour de force in this opposition between the face, still possessing the vitality and liveliness of this beautiful spirit, and the decay of the body. This confirms the first desire of the sculptor and the subscribers to pay homage to the Genie above all. The body is but an envelope of flesh and blood, while the ideas of Voltaire will remain forever etched in the memory of men.
The work is finally offered to Voltaire and does not become a public monument. A time in the family of the philosopher, it is given in the XIXe century at the Institut de France, which then deposited it at the Louvre at the end of the 20th century.e century. In 1781, a second order was placed by Mme Denis, Voltaire's niece, to Jean Antoine Houdon in order to realize a new immortal image of Voltaire (Voltaire seated, 1781, marble, 140 x 106 x 80 cm, Comédie-Française). The sculpture achieved rave reviews; Voltaire "is seated in an antique armchair, draped in the mantle of filoshophe [sic] and the head seises [sic] of the ribbon of immortality ", hiding any physical degradation of the author of The Henriade.

  • Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, said)
  • Lights
  • sculpture
  • writers
  • antiquity
  • naked
  • philosophers


Hugh HONOR, Neoclassicism, trad. of English by Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat, Paris, Librairie générale française, 1998, p. 142-145 (English ed., 1968).

Anne L. POULET (dir.), Houdon 1741-1828, sculptor of the Enlightenment, catalog of the exhibition of the National Museum of the Palace of Versailles, March 1-May 31, 2004, Paris, R.M.N., 2004.

Guilhem SCHERF, Voltaire naked, Paris, Somogy, coll. "Solo", 2010.

· Saskia HANSELAAR, "Types of the old man in art around 1800" in The Ages of Life from dawn of Renaissance to dusk of Enlightenment, collective under the dir. by Pauline Decarne and Damien Fortin, published online in December 2011 on the CELLF 17th-18th site, UMR 8599 du C.N.R.S. and the University of Paris-Sorbonne, p. 115-131: http: //

To cite this article

Saskia HANSELAAR, "Naked Voltaire or the Ideal Old Man"

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