Maximilien Robespierre, born May 6, 1758, has been accused of many things but rarely has “fop” been among them.* Yet what other adjective comes to mind when one reads the following letter, which was penned by Robespierre to Adélaide Labille-Guiard in February 1791 ?! The letter is his reply to Mme Labille-Guiard’s request to paint his portrait. At that time, she was painting a series of portraits in pastel of deputies to the National Assembly.
Paris, 13 février 1791.
On m’a dit que les Grâces voulaient faire mon portrait. Je serais trop indigne d’une telle faveur si je n’en avais senti tout le prix. Cependant, puisqu’un surcroît d’embarras et d’affaires ou puisqu’un Dieu jaloux ne m’a pas permis de leur témoigner jusqu’ici tout mon empressement, il faut que mes excuses précèdent les hommages que je leur dois. Je les prie donc de vouloir bien agréer les unes et de m’indiquer où je pourrais leur présenter les autres.
Robespierre’s defenders may point out that this poetic and somewhat pompous language—calling his lady correspondent “The Graces” and suggesting that a “jealous God” was hindering his activities—was standard fare in late eighteenth-century upper-class society. But that is just the point! Robespierre was like many others of his day, an ambitious, somewhat foppish young provincial seeking fame (if not fortune) in the new Assembly. He was unexceptional, and his flattery of Mme Labille-Guiard is uninspired.
In the Salon of September 1791, Mme Labille-Guillard exhibited her pastel portrait of Robespierre to the public. Although it was deemed realistic (“toujours de la vérité”), critics scorned the choice of pastels to immortalize the young deputy. “Auriez-vous par hasard mesuré leur gloire à l’éclat fugitif de ces couleurs. Ah ! peignez un Robespierre à l’huile, » wrote La Béquille de Voltaire.
Mme Labille-Guiard’s portrait of Robespierre is lost, but the replica I’ve reproduced here is said to be a close copy. Note the young deputy’s lacy sleeves, his silky jabot and cravat, and the tight-fitting vest and redingote. Note the smile flitting across his face. He looks pleased as punch.
This hardly seems to be the same man as the tight-lipped L’Incorruptible of ill-repute. I offer this reflection as a belated birthday tribute to Mr. Robespierre, lest we forget that this enigmatic man was many things and may remain forever beyond our ken. In his early years at the Assembly, as this letter and portrait attest, he was still quite attuned to the dandy-ish standards of ancien régime court society. And you must admit, he acted a bit like a fop.
*Fop: a man who is preoccupied with and often vain about his clothes and manners; a dandy.
References are from Anne Marie Passez, Adélaide Labille-Guiard, 1749-1803: Biographie et catalogue raisonné de son oeuvre (Paris : Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1973), pp. 247-50.