Châtelet, Gabrielle-Émilie du
b. Dec. 17, 1706, Paris, France
d. Sept. 10, 1749, Lunéville
French mathematician and physicist who was the mistress of Voltaire.
She was married at 19 to the Marquis Florent du Châtelet, governor of Semur-en-Auxois, with whom she had three children. The marquis then took up a military career and thereafter saw his wife only infrequently. Mme du Châtelet returned to Paris and its dazzling social life in 1730 and had several lovers before entering into an affair and intellectual alliance with Voltaire in 1733. She was able to extricate the intemperate Voltaire from many personal and political difficulties, such as those that followed the publication of his Lettres philosophiques in 1734. To avoid an arrest warrant, Voltaire left Paris in June of that year, taking refuge in Mme du Châtelet's château at Cirey in Champagne. In this haven they pursued their writing and philosophical and scientific discussions. In 1738 Mme du Châtelet and Voltaire competed independently for a prize offered by the Academy of Sciences for an essay on the nature of fire. Although the prize was won by the German mathematician Leonhard Euler, Mme du Châtelet's Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu was published in 1744 at the Academy's expense. She wrote several other scientific treatises and many posthumously published works on philosophy and religion.
Voltaire and Mme du Châtelet continued to live together even after she began an affair with the poet Jean-François de Saint-Lambert; and when she died in childbirth at the court of Stanislas Leszczynski, Duke of Lorraine, these men and her husband were with her. From 1745 until her death she had worked unceasingly on the translation of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. It was published in part, with a preface by Voltaire and under the direction of the French mathematician Alexis-Claude Clairaut, in 1756. The entire work appeared in 1759 and was for many years the only French translation of the Principia.
The many hundreds of letters that passed between Mme du Châtelet and Voltaire are assumed to have been destroyed, but some were included in Voltaire's Correspondance, 24 vol. (1953-57).
Life with Mme du Châtelet
Scandal followed publication of this work that spoke out so frankly against the religious and political establishment. When a warrant of arrest was issued in May of 1734, Voltaire took refuge in the château of Mme du Châtelet at Cirey in Champagne and thus began his liaison with this young, remarkably intelligent woman. He lived with her in the château he had renovated at his own expense. This period of retreat was interrupted only by a journey to the Low Countries in December 1736--an exile of a few weeks became advisable after the circulation of a short, daringly epicurean poem called "Le Mondain."
The life these two lived together was both luxurious and studious. After Adélaïde du Guesclin (1734), a play about a national tragedy, he brought Alzire to the stage in 1736 with great success. The action of Alzire-in Lima, Peru, at the time of the Spanish conquest--brings out the moral superiority of a humanitarian civilization over methods of brute force. Despite the conventional portrayal of "noble savages," the tragedy kept its place in the repertory of the Comédie-Française for almost a century. Mme du Châtelet was passionately drawn to the sciences and metaphysics and influenced Voltaire's work in that direction. A "gallery" or laboratory of the physical sciences was installed at the château, and they composed a memorandum on the nature of fire for a meeting of the Académie des Sciences. While Mme du Châtelet was learning English in order to translate Newton and The Fable of the Bees of Bernard de Mandeville, Voltaire popularized, in his Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738), those discoveries of English science that were familiar only to a few advanced minds in France, such as the astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis. At the same time, he continued to pursue his historical studies. He began Le Siècle de Louis XIV, sketched out a universal history of kings, wars, civilization and manners that became the Essai sur les moeurs, and plunged into biblical exegesis. Mme du Châtelet herself wrote an Examen, highly critical of the two Testaments. It was at Cirey that Voltaire, rounding out his scientific knowledge, acquired the encyclopaedic culture that was one of the outstanding facets of his genius.
Because of a lawsuit, he followed Mme du Châtelet to Brussels in May 1739, and thereafter they were constantly on the move between Belgium, Cirey, and Paris. Voltaire corresponded with the crown prince of Prussia, who, rebelling against his father's rigid system of military training and education, had taken refuge in French culture. When the prince acceded to the throne as Frederick II (the Great), Voltaire visited his disciple first at Cleves (Kleve, Germany), then at Berlin. When the War of the Austrian Succession broke out, Voltaire was sent to Berlin (1742-43) on a secret mission to rally the King of Prussia--who was proving himself a faithless ally--to the assistance of the French Army. Such services--as well as his introduction of his friends the brothers d'Argenson, who became ministers of war and foreign affairs, respectively, to the protection of Mme de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV--brought him into favour again at Versailles. After his poem celebrating the victory of Fontenoy (1745), he was appointed historiographer, gentleman of the king's chamber, and academician. His tragedy Mérope, about the mythical Greek queen, won public acclaim on the first night (1743). The performance of Mahomet, in which Voltaire presented the founder of Islam as an imposter, was forbidden, however, after its successful production in 1742. He amassed a vast fortune through the manipulations of Joseph Pâris Duverney, the financier in charge of military supplies, who was favoured by Mme de Pompadour. In this ambience of well-being, he began a liaison with his niece Mme Denis, a charming widow, without breaking off his relationship with Mme du Châtelet.
Yet he was not spared disappointments. Louis XV disliked him, and the pious Catholic faction at court remained acutely hostile. He was guilty of indiscretions. When Mme du Châtelet lost large sums at the Queen's gaming table, he said to her in English: "You are playing with card-sharpers"; the phrase was understood, and he was forced to go into hiding at the country mansion as the guest of the Duchesse du Maine in 1747. Ill and exhausted by his restless existence, he at last discovered the literary form that ideally fitted his lively and disillusioned temper: he wrote his first contes (stories). Micromégas (1752) measures the littleness of man in the cosmic scale; Vision de Babouc (1748) and Memnon (1749) dispute the philosophic optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Alexander Pope. Zadig (1747) is a kind of allegorical autobiography: like Voltaire, the Babylonian sage Zadig suffers persecution, is pursued by ill fortune, and ends by doubting the tender care of Providence for human beings.
The great crisis of his life was drawing near. In 1748 at Commercy, where he had joined the court of Stanislaw (the former king of Poland), he detected the love affair of Mme du Châtelet and the poet Saint-Lambert, a slightly ludicrous passion that ended tragically. On September 10, 1749, he witnessed the death in childbirth of this uncommonly intelligent woman who for 15 years had been his guide and counsellor. He returned in despair to the house in Paris where they had lived together; he rose in the night and wandered in the darkness, calling her name.
Copyright © 1994-2000 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
III POPULARITY AT COURT
In 1728 Voltaire returned to France. During the next four years he resided in Paris and devoted most of his time to literary composition. The chief work of this period is the Lettres philosophiques (The Philosophical Letters, 1734). A covert attack upon the political and ecclesiastical institutions of France, this work brought Voltaire into conflict with the authorities, and he was once more forced to quit Paris. He found refuge at the Château de Cirey in the independent duchy of Lorraine. There he formed an intimate relationship with the aristocratic and learned Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet, who exerted a strong intellectual influence upon him.
Voltaire's sojourn at Cirey in companionship with the marquise du Châtelet was a period of intense literary activity. In addition to an imposing number of plays, he wrote the Élements de la philosophie de Newton (Elements of the Philosophy of Newton), and produced novels, tales, satires, and light verses.
Voltaire's stay at Cirey was not without interruptions. He often traveled to Paris and to Versailles, where, through the influence of the marquise de Pompadour, the famous mistress of Louis XV, he became a court favorite. He was first appointed historiographer of France, and then a gentleman of the king's bedchamber; finally, in 1746, he was elected to the French Academy. His Poème de Fontenoy (1745), describing a battle won by the French over the English during the War of the Austrian Succession, and his Précis du siècle de Louis XV (Epitome of the Age of Louis XV), in addition to his dramas La princesse de Navarre and Le triomphe de Trajan, were the outcome of Voltaire's connection with the court of Louis XV.
Following the death of Madame du Châtelet in 1749, Voltaire finally accepted a long-standing invitation from Frederick II of Prussia to become a permanent resident at the Prussian court. He journeyed to Berlin in 1750 but did not remain there more than two years, because his acidulous wit clashed with the king's autocratic temper and led to frequent disputes. While at Berlin he completed his Siècle de Louis XIV, a historical study of the period of Louis XIV (1638-1715).
Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2003. © 1993-2002 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.