Voltaire by Madame Lamothe

voltaire-exhibitionTo supplement the exhibit on Voltaire, we have conducted further research on the exhibit’s centre piece. It is a handsome standing portrait of Voltaire represented in the later years of his life, with calligraphic flourishes on his jacket, hat under one arm, and a cane in the other, entitled “PRIERE DE VOLTAIRE”. Printed in Paris in 1805, this engraved portrait turns out to be quite rare.

Exhibitions are a matter of team work. First of all, our sincere thanks to Michael David Miller, Liaison Librarian for French Language and Literature from McGill’s Humanities and Social Sciences Library, who helped to prepare and mount the “Celebrating Voltaire” exhibition. As for the image, thanks to Greg Houston of Digitization Initiatives, for digitizing several Voltaire-related imprints; and to Lauren Goldman, Communications Officer from the McGill Library, who integrated this image into various announcements relative to our series “Celebrating Voltaire”. Selection for the exhibition was accomplished in collaboration with the Head of Rare Books and Special Collections, Dr. Richard Virr, who identified and designated this print as the “brand” image for the McGill Voltaire Collection. This flurry of activity of course was inspired by the recent extraordinary acquisition in 2013 of the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection. In the case of this print, we are making connections from the established collections to the topic of Voltaire.

First of all, it is uncommon to see an engraving signed by a woman in the early 19th century. Unfortunately we do not know more about Madame Lamothe for the time being.

Secondly, McGill’s use of the print as advertisement has not always made obvious the text printed beneath the portrait: a “Prayer ”engraved in roman lettering, consisting of 8 lines of poetry, in 4 rhyming couplets. In fact, the text can be traced to an earlier print (de Vinck 4102), probably from the 18th century.

The plate is signed on the left side of the portrait as: “Gravé par Madame Lamothe”; and dated on the right side as: “Le premier Germinal An 13” (ie. March 22, 1805). At the bottom centre of the plate, is inscribed the place of printing and publication: “Chez l’Auteur, rue St. Honoré, N°145, pres [sic] l’Oratoir, A Paris. – Déposé à la Bibliothèque Nationale. This print of Voltaire is indeed held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, but for the moment no other locations can be found, including other institutions in North America. Continue reading