From Sublime to Ridiculous — Enlightenment


Voltaire swore to Catherine of Russia that he adored her, and as the evidence he sent the Empress a picture of himself looking at her portrait. In the etching below, made after a water-color by Denon, Louis XVI pays his respect to Voltaire in the same virtual way — the two of them had never met. Voltaire hated this drawing. “I know that you have done me a great honor,” he wrote to Denon, “even though my friends and family suggest that you may be making fun of me.” Breakfast in bed, which celebrity today would protest a photograph taken under such circumstances? What’s wrong? Why protest? Does Denon’s “caricature” tell us something new about the Enlightenment?

Twenty years later, in 1794, Robespierre inaugurated a new religion that was to bring us all peace and happiness. The celebration of the cult took place first as a procession from Tuileries to the Fields of Mars; there Maximilian Robespierre, all clad in light-blue and holding a bouquet of thorns and flowers, advanced toward the Statue of Wisdom; at her feet he set fire to the mannequins of Atheism, Egoism and Ambition; the President of the National Assembly was at the apogee of power; but in the group of the elected officials reigned disorder, the deputies cracked jokes and refused to keep in step, they were seconded by the ever-jeering Parisian crowds. None other than Jacques-Louis David was behind the event’s conceptual realization. Denon played the role of an assistant.

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