Voltaire (François Marie Arouet de Voltaire) (1696–1778)
Jean Antoine Houdon (French, Versailles 1741–1828 Paris)
Marble, on grey marble socle
Height: 18 7/8 in. (47.9 cm)
Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, 1972
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 552
Empress Catherine II, a devoted admirer of Voltaire's writings, stimulated his cult in Russia. In response the philosopher dedicated a poem to her. Catherine's reply, dated October 15, 1763, initiated a correspondence that influenced her on many matters until Voltaire's death in 1778. She spared no costs to secure for her collection his library of seven thousand annotated volumes bound in red morocco that include most of his private papers and her own letters to him, most of which are preserved in the public library of Saint Petersburg. Catherine II commissioned several portraits of Voltaire. In 1784 the intriguing marble Voltaire Seated in an Armchair arrived from Paris and was ceremoniously installed in a grotto at Tsarskoye Selo castle, before it was moved to the Hermitage in 1805. This bust from the world-famous Stroganoff collection in Saint Petersburg was presumably acquired by Count Alexander Sergeyvitch Stroganoff directly from Houdon during the count's years in Paris from 1770 to 1779. It was displayed in Saint Petersburg along with Houdon's bust of Denis Diderot (see 1974.291).
Signature: Engraved on edge of truncation: HOUDON. 1778.
Count Alexander Sergei Stroganov ; Stroganov Family (until ca. 1918; when the Russians took over the property of the aristocrats after the Revolution); Stroganov Palace Museum / Hermitage (until 1931; sale of Stroganov collection belonging to Soviets, Rudolph Lepke's Auction House, Berlin, May 12–13, 1931, no. 224); Thomas Fortune Ryan , New York (until 1972; sold to MMA)