François-René, viscount of Chateaubriand.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: October 2005

Historical context

In April 1800, François-René, viscount of Chateaubriand (Saint-Malo, 1768-Paris, 1848), emigrated in 1792, left England and returned to France after having published theHistorical essay on revolutions. He then becomes famous with Atala, Christian novel, then Rein, where he creates the type of the disenchanted romantic hero, and a great essay on the historical and liturgical excellence of Catholicism, The Genius of Christianity (1802). In 1806-1807, he undertakes a long journey in the East and in the Holy Land, which will allow him to publish The Martyrs (1809), a Christian prose epic made to strike the spirits, then a description of his journey, theRoute from Paris to Jerusalem (1811). Despite his denunciation of the Napoleonic tyranny (article published in the Mercury in July 1807), it is the Emperor who will impose, against the “ideologues”, the election of Chateaubriand to the French Academy in 1811. As his reception could not take place, the writer will then pose as a victim censorship by claiming that his speech had been banned, which allowed him to publish an opportunist pamphlet at the time of the Emperor's fall, From Buonaparte and the Bourbons (1814).

Image Analysis

Chateaubriand is shown standing, up to his legs, leaning against a stone on which ivy crawls. His right hand is half-engaged in the lapel of his coat on which he wears an open coat, of brown cloth, with black velvet facings. A touch of color points in the lapel of the cardigan. The head with the hair combed by the wind is turned slightly three quarters to the left. The eyes offer an intense gaze, the features are described with finesse, the mouth tightened and biting. In the background we can see the Colosseum of Rome. Seeing this portrait at the Salon of 1810, exhibited not far from the Cairo rebels, another Girodet masterpiece, Napoleon I is said to have said, ironically alluding to the blackness of the shadows: "He looks like a conspirator coming down the chimney. "


In fact, this veritable "artist portrait" had an immense success with the public, starting with Chateaubriand himself who was to write in his Memories beyond the grave : “Girodet had put the finishing touches to my portrait. He made him black as I was then; but he fills it with his genius. He later declined any new portrait proposals, anxious to remain for posterity under the guise that had been given to him. The work was exhibited in Madame Récamier's salon at the Abbaye-aux-Bois in 1849, as a pendant to the portrait of Madame de Staël by Madame Godefroid and not far from the Corinne at Cape Misene (1822, Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts) by François Gérard. We recognize in this contemporary effigy Cairo rebels the immense talent of synthesis of Girodet, who, while following the perfect example of his master David, enters fully into a new era of painting by making felt, through the freedom of the pose and the intensity of the view of Chateaubriand, the inspiration of the writer, and, through the view of Rome, its relation to history. Image of horror, the Flood scene of 1806 (Louvre) announced well this stylistic change which leads straight to romanticism: the invasion of form by the power of feeling, nuanced by exoticism - another growing temptation of Girodet -, of a meditative evocation of Mediterranean twilight .

  • writers
  • portrait
  • romanticism
  • ultraroyalism
  • Staël (Germaine de)


Paul BENICHOU The Time of the Prophets: Doctrines of the Romantic Age Paris, Gallimard, 1977.André CHASTEL French art: the time of eloquence: 1775-1825 Paris, Flammarion, Reed. 2000 Jean-Paul CLEMENT Chateaubriand Politics Paris, Hachette coll. "Pluriel", 1982.Ghislain de DIESBACH Chateaubriand Perrin, 1998.

To cite this article

Robert FOHR and Pascal TORRÈS, “Chateaubriand”

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