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Gabriel Jacques de Saint-Aubin

(1724–1780, Paris)

Circle of. Voltaire Arriving in Hell. Etching. 16.3 x 19.1 cm. Circa 1780. Gustave Desnoiresterres, Essai d’iconographie voltairienne, Paris 1879, p. 92; Garry Apgar, “ ‘Sage comme une image’. Trois siècles d’iconographie voltairienne”, Nouvelles de l’estampe, no. 135 (July 1994), pp. 5-41, cat. 20, with bibliography.

Although the precise meaning of this fascinating work remains enigmatic, its composition could be interpreted as a satirical comment on the death of both Voltaire and Rousseau in 1778. The inscription beneath the image is an all but literal quotation from the fifth chant of Voltaire’s La Pucelle, in which the Franciscan monk Grisbourdon, who had attempted to rape Joan of Arc, relates his adventures to the devils in hell. The composition shows Voltaire and a cleric, possibly Grisbourdon, arriving in triumph as well as the back of another man crouching at the feet of Satan in hell. It is conceivable that the designer of the print had in mind the ‘Epitre du diable à Voltaire’, published regularly from 1760 onwards and attributed to Claude-Marie Giraud and the Chevalier de Rességuier. In this poem the devil ensures the famous philosopher that, once his time has come, his arrival in hell will be celebrated with great dignity and that all demons will ‘learn at his school and profit from his lessons.’ In this print we see devils feasting on the left, whereas a bespectacled creature on the right is reading a book, possibly a work by Voltaire. A noteworthy detail is discernible in the foreground, where a demon induces the crouching man to swallow books. It has been suggested (see inter alia Apgar 1994, p. 37) that this person is the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The latter died just two months after Voltaire and the figure’s head bears a resemblance to existing portraits of Rousseau. But, more importantly, the image of Rousseau on all fours had by then obtained some notoriety as a symbol of the rivalry between the two philosophers. Voltaire himself had criticized the Discours sur l‘origine et les fondements de l‘inégalité parmi les hommes (1755), in which Rousseau advocates the return of mankind to nature, and wrote that ‘to read your book makes one long to go on all fours’ (letter by Voltaire to Rousseau, 30 August 1755). In Palissot’s comedy Les Philosophes (1762) it was Rousseau himself, represented by the person of Crispin, who enters the stage on all fours eating lettuce leaves.

The author of the present very rare print is unknown, but Desnoiresterres rightly points out the stylistic closeness to the work of Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. A fine, early proof impression with narrow margins, before the crosshatching on several leaves and buds which partly cover the oval stone frame. Minor soiling, some slight abrasions in the margins, apart from that in good condition.

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