The naked philosophe and the shameless Prussian: Diderot's portrait sitting.
That trouble proved to be of the lasting kind. Diderot's portrayal of the artist and her work was such that it gave Therbusch an unsavory immortality. Indeed, a peculiar reincarnation of her has resurfaced in a recent play by the French-speaking German playwright Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt entitled Le Libertin, which was turned into a homonymous film by Gabriel Aghion (2000). (1) Both works portray Therbusch, played by Fanny Ardant in the film, as an artistic sham, a seamy seductress, and a swindler. Under the pretext of painting his portrait, Therbusch seduces Diderot into posing nude for her and then engages with him in a game of sexual banter that extends over a sequence of sittings that are repeatedly disrupted by various incidents and repeatedly adjourned. The portrait turns out to be a rough sketch of his private parts. However, Therbusch's real intent is not so much to seduce the philosophe as to steal from him a collection of valuable paintings that he is about to ship to Catherine of Russia. Diderot uncovers the scheme and exposes the charming impostor. The play predictably ends with a romp in bed, with Therbusch finally allowing herself to be tempted by Diderot, who, of course, is nothing if not irresistible (a young and implausibly fit Vincent Perez plays him in the film). Both the play and the film are generous servings of that kind of fatuous fluff that contemporary audiences often associate with pre-revolutionary libertinage and with the ethos of the aristocratic lifestyle.
It should not come as too much of a surprise that the actual story of the relationship between Diderot and Therbusch was infinitely more interesting and fraught. What I am hoping to show here is that Therbusch is the focal point around which revolve a great deal of unspoken and perhaps unspeakable concerns and fantasies on Diderot's part. In exploring the meandering, contradictory, and at times unbalanced response of Diderot toward Therbusch, I would like to highlight on the one hand his profound and very personal anxiety about the woman artist's gaze as a vehicle for desire and knowledge--on the other, his ambivalent feelings toward female sexual education, in particular his own daughter's.
Mme Terbouche, as Diderot calls her, was an adventurous and ambitious artist. She had been trained, like her sister and brother, by her father, the portrait painter Georg Lisiewski (1674-1751), and later by Antoine Pesne in Potsdam. At the age of forty, with the consent of her husband, she left him and their three grown children in Berlin in order to further her career at the courts of Stuttgart, Mannheim, and Potsdam. Unlike French women painters, who were limited by enforced proprieties to working on still lifes and portraits, Anna-Dorothea Therbusch painted in a variety of genres that were forbidden to women, such as mythological scenes, mostly in a rococo style influenced by Coypel, Lancret, and Watteau. She also produced genre scenes in the manner of Gerard Dou, whose influence may be felt in some of her remarkable self-portraits that often show her framed by a stone window, surrounded by the emblems of her art, a palette and brushes, as well as books. As Patricia Crown has noted, Therbusch often fashions herself through masculine attributes, such as a scarlet velvet robe and a high-necked linen shirt typical of the learned professions. She often leans on a portfolio of drawings, thus claiming for herself the creative and cerebral activity of composition that was traditionally associated with masculinity (as opposed to color, which belonged to the realm of the sensual and the feminine, or to material craftsmanship). Prominent in her portraits are books and a monocle, a kind of trademark of hers. It is not only a sign of her failing eyesight and an explicit indication of her aging, which she does not shy away from representing, but also a metonymy of her penetrating gaze. (2)
In the most famous of her self-portraits, her body is highlighted by a conspicuous white satin gown, its luminescent folds standing out against a dark background where no source of light is visible, a morceau de bravoure that signals her virtuosity. She is sitting holding an open book in one hand; her head, covered by a gauzy muslin shawl, is turned toward the viewer. She is looking straight at the beholder through her monocle, in a somewhat challenging way, with the full impact of a forceful, self-assured presence.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
In a self-portrait from 1761, she is wearing her hair loosely tied, unpowdered and flowing on her shoulders in a manner reminiscent of the personification of "Painting" in Cesare Ripa's Iconology; she is holding a palette and brushes; but her shoulders, bared by a dark robe falling off, the transparent camisole drawing attention to her skin, and most of all her unusual, sidelong, enticing smile, all underline the representation of a woman who appears self-assured both as a sexual being and as an artist.
However, her talents, experience, ambition, and self-assurance did not ensure her success in the competitive and sexist Parisian art world. Even though she officially became a member of the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture on February 28, 1767--one of a handful of women to be admitted to the academy in the eighteenth century--she was received as a genre painter and not as a history painter as she had hoped. The mythological reception piece she had presented, Jupiter Transformed into Pan, Surprising the Sleeping Antiope, was rejected on grounds of obscenity. Moreover, she had to fend off slanderous accusations that she had secretly enlisted the services of a male helper (a teinturier as the expression went), a charge that was commonly brought up against women artists (Diderot had raised it against Marie-Therese Vien, the wife of the painter Joseph-Marie Vien and herself a member of the academy; it would later be invoked against Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun). But in an unusual move, Therbusch pursued legal action against her accusers and asked for the judicial interrogation of the eyewitnesses who had watched her work in her studio. (3) Diderot did not mention that incident explicitly, but he portrayed Therbusch as a troublemaker, a spendthrift, and a hysteric. Yet he also presented himself as her patron and supporter. Indeed, the philosophe had been playing for some time the role of art broker, that is, of go-between putting artists in touch with wealthy patrons. Within the framework of his collaboration with Frederic Melchior Grimm, Diderot consigned his critique of the Salon artworks to the Correspondance litteraire, the manuscript newsletter distributed among a few European potentates and potential buyers, which counted Catherine of Russia as one of its recipients. It was there that he published the Salon of 1767, which contained his narrative of Therbusch's stay in Paris. In 1772, when the Hermitage Museum acquired the splendid collection of Antoine Crozat, baron de Thiers, who had died two years earlier (which had been put together by his uncle Pierre, the famous financier, collector, and patron), negotiations were conducted through Diderot himself.
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
Therbusch apparently turned to Diderot when she failed to attract the attention of the king and the court. In an exchange between the Marquis de Marigny, the brother of Mme de Pompadour and the Directeur des Batiments du Roi, and Charles-Nicholas Cochin, his advisor and the secretary of the Academie Royale, the latter praised Therbusch as a curiosity worth seeing because she showed "a talent far above what one might expect from a woman" and had dared to "paint history and the live [male] body like a man." We will soon get to the implications of that remark. Yet Cochin's recommendation that she be commissioned a small painting for the king yielded no result. (4) Therbusch suffered economic hardship and had to fall back on the network of Diderot's friends and acquaintances for commissions that would allow her to support herself through her stay in Paris. Diderot claimed that he had moved heaven and earth on her behalf; his letters show that he suggested to his friends--Mme d'Epinay, for example--that Therbusch would offer her services at bargain prices, since she was in no position to do otherwise:
Mme Terbouche has until this day practiced her art with liberality. She does not put a price on her work. She does her best, and you may do with her as you wish. You will have a Greek courtesan as a pendant to a Roman vestal virgin; you will be the judge of the rapport between her work, her talent and the paltry price she gets for it; but a louis, an ecu, everything has its price according to the circumstance, even virtue.... Give Mme Terbouche work to do; she needs it. (5)
Hence Diderot's sense that he "owned" her and that he had acquired the right to impart to her some of his lessons on color and composition. Thanks to the network, more precisely to Mme d'Epinay's generosity, Diderot had commissioned Therbusch to do a bust-length portrait of himself that he intended to offer to Grimm, Mme d'Epinay's lover.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
Diderot wrote that it was the best portrait anybody had ever painted of him, much superior to the work of eminent portraitists of the Academy such as Alexandre Roslin and Louis-Michel Vanloo:
I am naked down to my chest. Her vigorous brushwork [fierte] and her representation of flesh show that her manner is far above that of Roslin and all the other portrait painters of the Academy.... It is so striking that my daughter told me she would have kissed it a hundred times during my absence if she hadn't been afraid of ruining it. The chest is quite vigorously painted, with nuances and muscles truthfully rendered. (6)
The circumstances of the sitting are recounted in detail:
When the head was done, it was time to do the neck, and the top of my clothing obscured it, which vexed the artist somehow. To banish this vexation, I went behind a curtain, undressed, and appeared before her in the garb of a model at the Academy. "I would never have dared to ask it of you," she said to me, "but I am glad you have done it and I thank you." I was nude, completely nude. She painted me and we conversed with a simplicity and innocence worthy of the first centuries. (7)
Diderot's behavior is puzzling from several standpoints. First of all, stripping naked for a bust portrait seems like overkill. Secondly, any such disrobing would be, by itself, an act of aggression, whatever the circumstances. Diderot makes a point of saying that he appears before Therbusch as an "academic model," but it is one thing to paint a nude professional model in a life-study academic setting and quite another to have your colleague and friend suddenly emerge naked from behind a curtain. Whatever he may say, Diderot is standing before her not as a model but as a naked man. But the circumstances here are further complicated.
For reasons of enforced modesty, women were strictly forbidden from
practicing after the live model and were thus barred from the prestigious genre of history painting. Some resorted to practicing on sculptures, but others, such as Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, limited themselves to the female figure; most painted only portraits and still lifes. (8) Therbusch, who had trained outside of France in a more liberal setting, was one notable exception, and those who had met her in France made much of that, from Cochin to Grimm, with a mixture of grudging admiration and prurience. Diderot in particular was quite taken with that aspect of her talent:
She has had the courage to summon nature and study it well. She said to herself, I want to paint, and she understood what that entailed. She gave considerations of decency no more than their due. She managed to study from the nude model. She knew that when it came to undressing a man, vice held no exclusive privilege. (9)
But Diderot's account of the sitting is in reality a delicate game of bait and switch. He is creating a sexually wrought situation only to deny that there is anything sexual about it. Diderot claims paradoxically that he has exposed himself to a woman precisely so that he can appear disembodied to her, conversing with her in the edenic innocence of a desexualized regime of philosophical virtue. As if he had not already protested too much, he then proceeds to inform us, in an extraordinary passage, that had he become aroused, he would have been, at least from a rhetorical standpoint, fully prepared:
Seeing that since the first sin of Adam we no longer have as much control over all out body parts as we do over our arms, and seeing that there are some that will do one thing when the sons of Adam will it to do another, and that sometimes fail to respond to the bidding of the sons of Adam; in case of an accident, I kept in mind Diogenes' remark to the young wrestler: "My son, have no fear, for I am not as wicked as it." (10)
Diderot brings to his hypothetical "accident" all the resources of his classical erudition, from Augustine's conception of edenic sexuality (in the state of grace, man was able to rule over his sexual organs) to an anecdote allegedly culled from the life of Diogenes of Sinope (or Diogenes the Cynic)--a false one, as it turns out, for in Diogenes Laertius's account, Diogenes of Sinope never wrestled with a hypothetical young and timid Athenian and never said those words. (11) But Diderot is so enamored with the riposte that he will have doctor Bordeu repeat it verbatim to Mlle de Lespinasse in the follow-up to Le Reve de d'Alembert. This time the context is a discussion on the necessity of masturbation for young, unmarried girls of too hot a temperament. What is a mother to do when her innocent and virtuous daughter is prone to lose her mind because of "retention of seminal fluid"? Doctor Bordeu recommends a sensible, if forbidden, method. Hence his prudent disclaimer to his interlocutor, Mlle de Lespinasse, who plays the role of the hypothetical mother: "We are chatting between you and me, without any consequence; I would tell you of my philosophy the same thing that the naked Diogenes told the young and modest Athenian boy with whom he was to wrestle: My son, have no fear, for I am not as wicked as it." (12) But is there anything in common between Diogenes's unwitting arousal, the events of the portrait sitting with Therbusch, and the predicament of a young girl cursed with extra-sensitive sexual organs?
For the time being, suffice it to say that the implication is that Diogenes's accident did not occur to Diderot, even though the text is so fraught that readers have easily been drawn into making the opposite conclusion. (13) In her insightful and carefully researched study of the relationship between Diderot and Therbusch, Bernadette Fort has convincingly argued that, far from confessing an arousal produced by posing nude for Therbusch, Diderot's wanton exhibition aires both to teach a lesson to an artist who has dared to defy feminine propriety and to humiliate her as a woman. In Diderot's account of a missed erection, Therbusch emerges as a failure both as an artist and as a sexual being: she is unable to interest him as a painter, and she cannot even excite him when he is naked. In exploring the path opened by Fort's interpretation, I would like to show that there are further layers to the narrative. (14)
Indeed, if we turn to his description of Therbusch's artwork, Diderot attributes a heavily sexualized dimension to her artistic persona. In his description of Jupiter and Antiope, the mythological painting that the academy had rejected under the pretext of obscenity, the work oozes with a disruptive, crude, and vulgar sexuality unmediated by the frame of academic propriety and the sanitized filter of classical aesthetics:
This woman thinks nature must be diligently imitated; and I do not doubt that, if her imitation were rigorous and forceful and her natural models judiciously selected, this very servitude would bestow upon her work an uncommon truth and originality. When it comes to sticking to nature as it is, taking it with its beauties and its flaws, and to scorning the rules of convention.... [T]here is no middle ground; one is either wretched, paltry, and fiat or one is sublime, and Madame Therbouche is not sublime. She had prepared a Jupiter Transformed into Pan, Surprising the Sleeping Antiope for this Salon. I saw this picture when it was ail but finished.... The neck, the short fingers, the thin legs, the feet with their deformed toes, the ignoble character as well as a multitude of other flaws made it clear that she had painted it from her chambermaid or her servant at the inn. The head would not be too bad if it were not so common. The arms, thighs, and legs are convincingly fleshy, but the flesh is so limp, so flaccid--really flaccid, really limp--that in Jupiter's place I would have regretted the effort expended on the metamorphosis.... This satyr Jupiter was but a stalwart street-porter with a flattened face whose beard she had extended, and whose feet she had cloven, and whose thighs she had made hirsute. He had passion, but it was a nasty, hideous, lascivious, disreputable, bad passion. He was in ecstasy, he admired foolishly, he smiled, he trembled with anticipation, he smacked his lips. I took the liberty of telling her that this satyr was an ordinary satyr, and not Jupiter as satyr, and that I would want him to be wanton, but somehow sacred." (15)
Diderot is used to waxing enthusiastic on the tactile seduction and the fullness of young female flesh. Here, on the contrary, he lingers with considerable amusement on the shocking unattractiveness of the heroine's body; though painted with talent, Antiope is unable to arouse the beholder. Rather than being absorbed by the painting, Diderot becomes a subversive, carnivalesque spectator who slashes through the canvas with all the violence of his satirical pen. In his account, vulgar reality violates the mythological scene with the full impact of its crudeness and earthiness; neither idealized through the perfection of Greek statues nor transcended through the sublime, it is simply vile or ignoble. Diderot insists on the impropriety (disconvenance), the mismatch between the ideal nature of the mythological characters and its depiction: that servant and street-porter are impostors who are trying unsuccessfully to pass for Greek gods and nymphs. Reality, as portrayed by Therbusch, appears as a despicable parody of the classical myth.
Moreover, Diderot's malicious ekphrasis becomes a key for reading the events of the portrait sitting. Indeed, the sitting is framed as the reversal of the Jupiter and Antiope scene. Relying on the subversive, parodistic counter-reading that he uses throughout the Salons, Diderot stages a mock-drama of his own desire with himself as Jupiter and Therbusch as Antiope. Not content with putting himself in Jupiter's place so as to both assert and deny Jupiter's desire in all its distasteful naivete, Diderot frames his relationship to Therbusch following the parameters of the painting, but reversing them. Rather than leering and lechering, Jupiter-Diderot remains inert and innocent in front of a repellant Antiope. Far from being passively subjected to his indecent ogling, Antiope is now the active observer, the one detailing and surveying Jupiter's nudity at ease; instead of a "vile, hideous, lascivious, disreputable, bad passion," we have a chaste conversation between two irreproachable, disembodied parties.
Further proof that Diderot's game of suggestiveness and retraction raises some very personal issues occurs at the end of his assessment of Therbusch's work. Their partnership has mysteriously soured; this points to something baffling in light of the fact that while Diderot was promoting Therbusch's work in his letters, he was busy undermining it in the text of the Salon, which would soon be read by Therbusch's patrons in Russia and Germany (Jupiter and Antiope was being shipped at that very moment to St. Petersburg). The violence of Diderot's resentment is tempered by the comedy of his mock-prosecutorial tone:
The poor philosopher, who is sympathetic to want because he has known it himself, the poor philosopher, who has need of his time yet gives it over to the first comer, the poor philosopher spent nine months laboriously trying to beg work for the Prussian. The poor philosopher, whose actions have been misinterpreted, was slandered and reputed to have slept with a woman who is not attractive. The poor philosopher found himself confronted with the cruel alternative of either abandoning the unfortunate woman to her rate or lending credibility to the suspicions so disagreeable to him, which could have most unfortunate consequences for she he was trying to help. The poor philosopher maintained the innocence of his actions and scorned the gossip that would have prevented another from acting properly. The poor philosopher has imposed upon the mighty and the humble, strangers and friends, in order to enable the extravagant artist to earn between rive or six hundred louis, of which not one penny was left after six months.... What is it the poor philosopher did not do for her and what has he garnered as his reward?--Why, the satisfaction of having done a good deed.--Certainly; but nothing in addition, save the vilest indications of ingratitude .... The unworthy Prussian . . . has a deranged head and a depraved heart. (16)
What we have here is almost a playlet composed in the style of a cause celebre. The script is the banal story of the wronged benefactor and the ungrateful protege. But there is nothing banal to the kind of wrong suffered by Diderot. By virtue of the peculiar dynamics of the French art world, in which female artists are often accused of trading sexual favors for professional recognition, the trouble that Diderot has endured on behalf of Therbusch could only mean, in the eyes of the public, that they are loyers. (17) That is upsetting to Diderot, who seems suddenly to have turned into an oversensitive prude. The problem, he claims, is that Therbusch does not pass for attractive. Antiope's undesirability in the painting thus foregrounded that of the artist: Diderot is as eager to disavow any desire for Therbusch as he was to distance himself as a beholder from the representation of Jupiter's vulgar passion. Hence this most unpleasant dilemma: Should he go on helping her and thus pass for the lover of a woman who has neither sexual nor artistic appeal in the public eye? Should he abandon her to her dismal destiny, thus putting an end to the gossip? Heroically, he chooses to pursue his ministrations to her. Diderot thus invites the reader to appreciate the full extent of his sacrifice, the responsibility of which he pins entirely on Therbusch: that she is not, after ail, in a position to express her gratitude for his predicament seems to irritate him even more.
The paradox, of course, is that the harder Diderot defends himself from the accusation, the more he risks accrediting the suspicion that, as the saying goes, where there is smoke there is tire. The three instances I have cited--the account of a portrait sitting, the critique of a painting, and a mock-trial rant reminiscent of a cause celebre--despite their differences in kind, ail have one thing in common: Diderot stages a sexual fantasy involving him and Therbusch, only to deflect it through mockery, denial, or simulated naivete. So our question should be: What is there about Dorothea Therbusch that troubles him so much?
One motif emerges as central: the woman's gaze on the male body and the boundaries it may be allowed to cross. Therbusch has transgressed propriety: her unusual education and training have exposed her to naked male anatomy. Diderot keeps coming back to it in his letters. A clue to his feelings is that at the same time he was involved with Therbusch, he was preoccupied with his daughter's sexual education and her exposure to the male body. Marie-Angelique was fourteen years old, but Diderot had been planning a match for her since she was twelve. We will get to her in a moment. He was also corresponding with another female artist, Marie-Anne Collot, an eighteen-year-old sculptor who, like Therbusch, was the author of a bust portrait of Diderot that he greatly appreciated. (Diderot recalls longingly his sittings for her and his delight at feeling her gaze upon him.) (18) At that time, Collot was in St. Petersburg with her mentor, Etienne-Maurice Falconet, whom she was to help execute a bronze equestrian statue of Peter the Great. She had made quite a splash at court: she not only produced several portraits of the empress, but also produced the plaster model that was selected for the head of Peter's statue, after Catherine had rejected three attempts by Falconet. Diderot wrote long, effusive letters addressed jointly to Falconet and to Collot. Indeed, he appeared to be nursing a crush for the young artist, whom he habitually addressed with a kind of avuncular flirtatiousness. The fifty-four-year-old Diderot seemed to be living an idyll vicariously through them, and he had been peskily pressing the mature Falconet to marry Collot. (19)
It is in his letters to Marie-Anne Collot that Diderot enthusiastically promotes Therbusch's daring example: "This woman has risen above prejudice. She has said: I want to be a painter, I will do whatever is necessary; I will study nature, without which we know nothing; and she has bravely undressed the model. She has looked at the naked man. You may well assume that prudes of both sexes did not hold their tongue. What's your opinion about that, Mlle Collot?" (20) And later, again, he asks her rhetorically: "We allow vice to look at nature, but we forbid it to talent. For God's sake, do not submit to that. A thousand lascivious women will take their carriages to the river in order to look at nude men; and one woman of genius will not be allowed to undress one man for her instruction?" (21)
What is striking here is not only (as Mary Sheriff has noted) (22) the identification between nature, truth, and the male body but also the antithetical polarization of the chaste, innocent, and scientific gaze of the one woman of genius and the lewd gaze of a multitude of lascivious women descending upon helpless bathing males as in a nightmarish bacchanal. It is as if Diderot were legitimizing a new possibility of seeing for the woman artist by opposing it to a scary sexual scenario of his own making. It is this same phantasmal quality that we find throughout his account of the portrait sitting with Therbusch, the oscillation between attraction and repulsion, innocence and lewdness, each pole reinforcing the other. In conclusion, I believe that the narrative Diderot constructs about Therbusch raises the issue of the woman's gaze and that this issue must be foregrounded in his educational project, both with Collot and with his only child, Marie-Angelique. The three women are thus connected within a web of echoes and allusions that point to the presence of fantasy, fear, and unwitting desire.
At the very same time Diderot was sitting for Therbusch and corresponding with Collot, he was also getting involved in his daughter's sexual and sentimental education:
I am crazy about my daughter.... I have found her so developed that, last Sunday, her mother having told me to take her out for a walk, I made my decision and I told her everything there is to know about being a woman, starting by this question: Do you know what is the difference between the sexes? ... I taught her ... what is the true basis of modesty and the necessity to convert those parts of one's body the sight of which is an invitation to vice.... She observed that, now that she had been informed, she would be all the more at fault if she lapsed, because she would no longer have neither the excuse of ignorance, nor that of curiosity.... How far could I take her mind if I dared to. Ail I would have to do would be to leave some books lying around. (23)
Diderot's education aims at cautioning Marie-Angelique against being seduced and seducing herself by an immodest display of her body; but most of ail, it aims at turning her newly acquired self-awareness into an intense awareness of guilt. Yet, Diderot does not dare go further for fear, perhaps, of crossing the boundaries from education into the fearsome territories of corruption: his language, with its almost Sadean tinge, suggests that the distinction between the educator and the libertine distributor of forbidden books is tenuous indeed. The girl's education is thus bound to remain incomplete, and the father's desire to carry it further, unfulfilled.
Indeed, the potentialities of seeing, daringly introduced by Therbusch and liberally proposed to Collot, are made available to Marie-Angelique only in a limited mode. In a later text, drafted for the project of a school for girls in Russia, Diderot follows the educational philosophy outlined in the letter I cited. In it he holds his daughter's education as an example that Catherine would do well to follow in the school she is about to sponsor. Diderot recounts that Marie-Angelique has received anatomy lessons--not, of course, by looking at nude male bodies but by practicing her study on the anatomical pieces made by a woman, the artist-anatomist Marie-Marguerite Biheron. Compared with the crude, sexually loaded, masculine nature portrayed by Therbusch, Biheron's pieces bear a typically feminine imprint. They are made with feminine materials and means; they are sort, flexible, and soothing to touch: "The models of our woman anatomist are sort, flexible, deftly shaped, colored as they are in nature; they are not as fragile as wax. She makes them with silk, wool, thread, feathers, with ail kinds of materials." (24) Marie-Angelique is thus encouraged by her father to look at the male body only as a reproduction of detached body parts that have the precise intent of robbing the young wife-to-be of her imagination and of ail desire to fantasize about sex: "That is how I nipped my daughter's curiosity in the bud," Diderot boasts to Catherine; "Once she knew everything, she no longer wanted to know anything. Her imagination went to sleep and her morals remained pure." (25) It is her father's explicit intent to cut short her sexual imagination, and he does so by showing her sanitized images of hazardous objects. Diderot thus averts for his daughter the terrible danger that threatened the excitable young woman in Le Reve de d'Alembert, who was "a well-behaved girl, too well-behaved; innocent, too innocent." (26) Unlike her, Marie-Angelique knows everything and desires nothing; her mind is content and her body remains insensitive and docile.
In the Salon of 1767, however, Diderot had noted that Marie-Angelique loved kissing her father's portrait, the beautiful eidolon painted by Therbusch, and its naked chest, its flesh so lovingly detailed by her brush. In the narrative of his portrait sitting, Diderot fantasizes that he bas exposed himself to his daughter via the mediating, but deceptive, figure of Therbusch: not as a tamed, soft, and flexible silk and wool model, but as a live academic model cursed with disruptive and potentially rigid body parts. But the arousal that he briefly evokes in the subjunctive mode is immediately denied as strongly as possible, and the woman whom he claims has invited him to undress is rudely cast aside by a surprisingly irate Diderot, as if her humiliation were meant to deflect the true vector of his desire.
Johns Hopkins University
(1.) Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, Le Libertin (Paris: Albin Michel, 1997); Le Libertin, dir. Gabriel Aghion, perf. Vincent Perez, Fanny Ardant, Josiane Balasko, Michel Serrault, and Audrey Tautou, Pathe, 2000.
(2.) Patricia Crown, "Eighteenth-Century Images of the Aged Woman Artist," The Maxine Christopher Schutz Award and Lecture for Distinguished Teaching (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003) n. pag.
(3.) See Crown.
(4.) Marc Furcy-Raynaud, ed., Correspondance de M. de Marigny avec Coypel, Lepicie et Cochin, ser. 3, vol. 20 (Nouvelles Archives de l'Art Francais, Paris: E de Nobele, 1904) 524; Reprint vol. 2 (Paris: F. de Nobele, 1973) 69. Translations mine unless otherwise noted.
(5.) "Mme Terbouche a jusqu'a ce jour exerce son art avec toute sa liberalite. Elle ne met aucun prix a son ouvrage. Elle fait de son mieux et l'on fait avec elle comme on veut. Vous aurez une courtisane grecque faisant pendant a une vestale romaine; et vous jugerez par vous meme du rapport de son travail et de son talent, avec le prix miserable qu'on y met; mais un louis, un ecu, tout tient son prix du moment, meme la vertu.... Faites travailler Mme Terbouche; elle en a besoin" (To Mme d'Epinay, October 1767. Diderot, Correspondance, vol. 7 [Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1962] 172).
(6.) Diderot, Diderot on Art, trans. John Goodman, vol. 2 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995) 224. I slightly modified the translation.
(7.) Diderot, Diderot on Art 224.
(8.) Angela Rosenthal, "'She's Got the Look!' Eighteenth-Century Female Portrait Painters and the Psychology of a Potentially 'Dangerous Employment,'" Portraiture, Facing the Subject, ed. Joanna Woodall (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1997) 151-166; Mary Sheriff, The Exceptional Woman. Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996) 116.
(9.) Diderot, Diderot on Art 221.
(10.) Diderot, Diderot on Art 224-25; trans, modified.
(11.) See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R.D. Hicks (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972).
(12.) "Mais nous causons sans temoins et sans consequence; et je vous dirai de ma philosophie ce que Diogene tout nu disait au jeune et pudique athenien contre lequel il se proposait de lutter: 'mon fils, ne crains rien, je ne suis pas si mechant que celui-la.'" Suite de l'entretien entre d'Alembert et Diderot, 1769 in Diderot, CEuvres Philosophiques, ed. Paul Verniere (Paris: Garnier, 1961) 378-79.
(13.) Besides Schmitt, Mary Sheriff and Angela Rosenthal read Diderot as confessing to being aroused while posing for Therbusch.
(14.) Bernadette Fort, "Indicting the Woman Artist: Diderot, Le Libertin and Anna Dorothea Therbusch," Lumen: Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 23 (2004): 1-37. I am much indebted to Fort's analysis and reading of the events.
(15.) Diderot, Diderot on Art 222-23.
(16.) Diderot, Diderot on Art 226-27.
(17.) Indeed, it was Diderot himself who had suggested earlier that Therbusch's personal unattractiveness and her unwillingness to play the sexual game had been responsible for her lack of success in Paris: "What she lacked was not the talent necessary to achieve the greatest success in our country. She had more than enough of that. It was youth, beauty, modesty, coquetry. She should have swooned over the talent of out great artists; taken lessons from them; she should have been well endowed with tits and bum and let them enjoy them" (Diderot on Art 223).
(18.) To Falconet, Sept. 1768, Correspondance 8: 135. For an analysis of the sexually wrought situation between a male sitter and a female painter, see Rosenthal article cited.
(19.) "Je me rejouis des succes de Mlle Collot, et quand vous m'en parlez, je me retrouve les entrailles d'un pere. Je ne serois pas differemment emu, si j'entendois l'eloge de ma fille" (To Falconet, July 1767, Correspondance 7: 95). "I rejoice in the success of Mademoiselle Collot, and when you mention it I feel ail the emotions of a father. I could not be more moved if she were my own daughter."
(20.) "Cette femme s'est mise au-dessus de tous prejuges. Elle s'est dit a elle meme: je veux etre peintre, je ferai donc pour cela tout ce qu'il faut faire; j'appellerai la nature, sans laquelle on ne sait rien; et elle a courageusement fait deshabiller le modele. Elle a regarde l'homme nu. Vous vous doutez bien que les begueules de l'un et de l'autre sexe ne s'en sont pas tues. Qu'en pensez-vous, Mademoiselle Collot?" (To Falconet, May 1768, Correspondance 8: 30).
(21.) "On permet au vice de regarder la nature et on le defend au talent. Pourdieu, ne donnez pas la-dedans. Mille femmes lascives se feront promener en carrosse sur le bord de la riviare, pour y voir des hommes nus; et une femme de genie n'aura pas la liberta d'en faire deshabiller un pour son instruction?" (To Falconet, May 1768, Correspondance 8: 42).
(22.) Sheriff 116.
(23.) "Je suis fou a lier de ma fille.... Je l'ai trouvee si avancee, que dimanche passe, charge par sa mere de la promener, je pris mon parti et lui revelai tout ce qui tient a l'etat de femme, debutant par cette question: Scavez-vous quelle est la difference des deux sexes? ... Je lui appris ... quelle etoit la vraie base de la decence et la necessite de voiler des parties de soi-meme dont la vue inviteroit au vice.... Elle remarqua qu'instruite a present, une faute commise la rendroit bien plus coupable, parce qu'il n'y auroit plus ni l'excuse de l'ignorance ni celle de la curiosite.... Quel chemin on feroit faire a cette tete la si l'on osoit. Il ne s'agiroit que de laisser trainer quelques livres" (To Sophie Volland, Correspondance 8: 231-32).
(24.) "Les pieces de notre fille anatomiste sont molles, flexibles, formees, placees, coloriees comme la nature, et [qu']elles ne sont pas fragiles comme la cire. Elle emploie a les faire la soie, la laine, le fil, les plumes, presque toutes les matieres." Melanges pour Catherine II, 1774, in Diderot, CEuvres, ed. Laurent Versini, vol. 3, Politique (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1995) 323-24. On Marie-Marguerite Biheron, see Georges Boulinier, "Une femme anatomiste au siecle des Lumieres: Marie Marguerite Biheron (1719-1795)," Histoire des sciences medicales 35.4 (2001): 411-23.
(25.) "C'est ainsi que j'ai coupe racine a la curiosite de ma fille. Quand elle a tout su, elle n'a plus rien cherche a savoir. Son imagination s'est assoupie et ses moeurs n'en sont restees que plus pures" (Melanges pour Catherine H 257). On Rousseau's and Diderot's approach to girls' sex education, see Shane Agin, "'Comment se font les enfans?' Sex Education and the Preservation of Innocence in Eighteenth-Century France," MLN 117 (2002): 722-36.
(26.) "Une fille sage, trop sage, innocente, trop innocente ..." Suite de l'entretien, in Diderot, CEuvres philosophiques 378.
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|Title Annotation:||Denis Diderot|
|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2010|
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