'I like the fact that the painter, Huber, has cheekily seated himself on the great man’s left.'
La Sainte Cène du Patriarche (The Patriarch’s Last Supper), about 1772, by Jean Huber (1721–86), 23½in by 31½in, The Voltaire Foundation, Oxford
Nicholas Cronk says:
This painting hangs in my office and I’m lucky enough to see it every day. Voltaire was always said to be a great talker and performer and here he is in sociable mode, presiding over dinner with his fellow writers. I like the fact that the painter, Huber, has cheekily seated himself on the great man’s left. The Voltaire Foundation is currently engaged in publishing the entirety of the French philosopher’s writings, so it’s a great encouragement to have him waving at us, but I do wonder about the servant standing just behind Voltaire: who is he laughing at?
Prof Nicholas Cronk is Director of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford
John McEwen comments on La Sainte Cène du Patriarche:
Jean Huber was born in Geneva, his father a member of the city’s Council of Two Hundred, a legislative authority to which Huber was appointed in 1752. He was a self-taught artist and birds were his favourite subject. In 1783, he published Note on the Way of Steering Balloons, based on the Flight of Birds of Prey and, at his death, left unfinished a History of Birds of Prey.
When that enlightenment titan Voltaire (1694–1778) acquired the Château de Ferney near Geneva in the late 1750s, he turned it into an intellectual court overseen by his niece. There were often as many as 40 guests staying, provoking him to say he was the inn-keeper of Europe. Huber was a member of his inner circle for 20 years, earning the nickname ‘Huber-Voltaire’.
Huber’s artistic popularity rested on his entertaining mastery of cutout silhouettes, whether portraits, landscapes or caricatures. Voltaire described him to a patron: ‘He will do your portrait… in pastel, in oils, or in mezzotint. With scissors he will make a cut-out sketch of you as a complete caricature. This is the way he ridiculed me from one end of europe to the other.’
Catherine the Great commissioned Huber to paint a series on life at Ferney. This picture, with its sacrilegious hint of Christ’s Last Supper, may have been refused. everyone is identifiable: Voltaire raises his arm, Huber is to his left. The gathering is imaginary, picturing an ideal end to the warring of the French philosophes, hence the presence of Diderot (profile, farthest right), who never visited Ferney, despite invitations.