The cultural portrait
If wealth and position were the key to status, then it was the power of human thought that was celebrated in the cultural portrait, and that was part of a trend in which merit and talent were given equal importance to wealth or breeding. The French Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire (1694–1778), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), and Denis Diderot (1713–84) opposed religious, political and social intolerance with the arguments of reason and opened up new visions of human relationships on many different levels.
The appreciation of art became an essential mark of the civilised man. While the Grand Tour to Italy might have been a preserve of the aristocracy, a writer like Johann Winckelmann (1717–68) devoted himself to the study of Greek art, claiming for it a spiritual quality in its sense of proportion and simplicity. Writings about art became an essential part of the educated person’s library.
Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, Voltaire Naked, 1776. Marble, 150 x 89 x 77 cm.
Département des Sculptures, Musée du Louvre, Paris (Institut de France deposit), ENT. 1962.1 Photo: Musée du Louvre, Paris/PhilibertPoet, essayist, novelist, playwright, satirist, philosopher, Voltaire was the universal genius of the Enlightenment. To erect a statue to a writer while he was still alive was unheard of, but it was the plan of Diderot and other figures from the literary world, who organised a subscription for that purpose. It was Diderot who suggested to the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (1714–85) that he portray Voltaire naked. ‘It is 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’s conception was not an idealised classical body, but that of an old man. After modelling Voltaire’s head from life, he used a veteran soldier as a guide to the figure. The emaciated, bony arms and legs make an almost shocking contrast to the elevated, serene expression of the face, but the decrepit body is redeemed by the flowing drapery which covers the back, folds over the shoulder and sweeps down between the legs. 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 assert the profusion of his work.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department publication
Citizens And Kings: An Introduction to the Exhibition (0.8 MB)