USC Digital Voltaire

About the Book Cover Illustration

François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire by Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746)
Danielle Mihram, July 2017

This portrait of Voltaire is the earliest known portrait that we have of him. It was painted in 1718 by Nicolas de Largillière (1656-1746 – see self-portrait) [1].  Voltaire, then aged 24, is dressed as a courtier in velvet, lace, and brocade:

“il est jeune, beau ... Le visage est mince, le regard perçant .. Le sourire qui relève les commisures des lèvres est séduisant et pas encore sardonique.”[2]  (Goulemot  800-801)

We find a reference to the portrait in a note in the Kehl edition of the works of Voltaire relating to his poem, “Épître en vers à Mme de … quelque temps après son marriage”[3]. According to the Kehl editors Voltaire offered this portrait to Mlle de Livry[4]. He met her in 1716 at the Château Sully-sur-Loire[5] when she asked him for lessons on declamation (voice coaching) in preparation for a career as an actress.  She became his mistress and Voltaire offered her his portrait by Largillière.  

She played the role of Jocaste (in Œdipe, 1718 - Voltaire’s first play which was very well received[6]) at the Comédie Francaise in April 1719 but, having not succeeded as an actress there, she left Paris for England in 1722 (with other actors).  In England she met and married Charles Frédéric, marquis de Gouvernet et de Sennevière, and returned to Paris as the marquise de Gouvernet.  She chose not to meet with her former lover and, in 1728, Voltaire wrote for her his (sensual) “Épitre…” in which he uses the familiar address “tu” and “vous” alternatively: he uses the familiar “tu” when he recalls their young and carefree love, but now that she has become a rich and distant lady this familiarity is not possible anymore.

Nonetheless, Voltaire retained tender and respectful feelings for her[7].  Indeed, in 1778, during his final three months in Paris[8], Voltaire visited her. He discovered that madame de Gouvernet still possessed his portrait. He expressed the desire to offer this portrait to the marquise de Villette (at whose home he resided while in Paris); madame de Gouvernet consented.

The painting was sold as part of the Villette collection in 1865[9].  It is now part of the Versailles collection (at the Château de Versailles et de Trianon).

Baillio, Joseph.  “Nicolas de Largillière, Nicolas de.” French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, Washington, D.C., 2009: 292-293. Reproduced online at:

Getty Museum.  Nicolas de Largillière.

Goulemot, Jean. “Largillière, Nicolas de.” Inventaire Voltaire sous la direction de Jean Goulemot, André Magnan, Didier Masseau. Paris: Gallimard, 1995, pp. 800-801.

Houssaye, Arsene. The Philosopher and the Actress – The story of Voltaire and Mademoiselle De Livry. Duff Press, 2012.

Jacob, Francois. Voltaire. Paris: Gallimard, 2015.

Masson, Nicole. “[Voltaire] Poésies 1728-1730 (édition critique).”  OCV Vol. 5, pp. 602-606.

[1] For a short biography of Largillière, see:
Baillio, Joseph.  “Nicolas de Largillière, Nicolas de” in French Paintings of the Fifteenth through the Eighteenth Century, Washington, D.C., 2009: 292-293. Reproduced online at:
[2] “He is young, handsome ... The face is thin, the eye piercing .. The smile that raises the corners of the lips is seductive and not yet sardonic.”
[3]  OCV Vol. 5, pp. 602-606. This poem is also known as the “Des Vous et des Tu”
[4] Suzanne Catherine Gravet de Corsembleu de Livry, 1694-1778.
[5]  “The Chateau of Sully-sur-Loire: .  Voltaire was ordered out of Paris and exiled there in May 1716, by order of the Regent, Philippe, duc d’Orléans (letter D31) - See: Jacob, pp. 42-44).
[6] It is in 1718, soon after the success of Œdipe, that Voltaire, whose family name was “Arouet,” adopts the name “Arouet de Voltaire” and then simply “de Voltaire” or “Voltaire.”
[7] See his letter to her of April 1736 (D1059).
[8] He left Ferney in order to be present at the opening night of Irène, his last play, which opened at the Théâtre Français on 16 March 1778.
[9] See:  La Chronique des Arts, 26 Novembre 1865 no. 121: “Vente de Villette” - 15 et 16 Novembre - “Largillière”.

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