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Claude-Joseph VernetThe Shipwreck, 1772, oil on canvas, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and Chester Dale Fund, 2000.22.1 (National Gallery of Art, UK)


Horace Vernet Joseph Vernet Tied to a Mast in a Storm, c. 1822, Musée Calvet, Avignon, photograph by André Guerrand

This post isn’t about Claude-Joseph Vernet, Horace Vernet‘s grandfather, nor is it about Händel. It is about me, briefly, but my main characters are philosophe Denis Diderot  (1713 – 1784) and Catherine II the Great (1729 – 1796) of Russia, an enlightened despot. Denis Diderot was a co-editor, with Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, of the very ambitious Encyclopédie (1751 – 1766). He admired artist Claude-Joseph Vernet, whom he praised in his delightful Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (Regrets on my Old Dressing Gown), a short text. I believe Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (text) has been translated into English, but I could not find a translation. Catherine II the Great was a German princess, the daughter of Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, who became Empress of “all the Russias.”

Russian despots, Peter I the Great and Catherine II, the Great, enlarged Russia. Peter wanted access to various seas, the Baltic Sea, to begin with. He defeated the Swedish Empire shortly after Charles XII, a despot, was killed at the Siege of Fredriksten, in 1718. In 1703, Peter I the Great founded Saint Petersburg and, in 1721, Russia became an empire as Sweden entered its Age of Liberty.

Enlightened despotism is quite the topic. For instance, Russian despots, Peter I the Great  and Empress Catherine II the Great westernized Russia, which is not insignificant. Catherine befriended Denis Diderot. When Diderot tried to provide his daughter with a dowry, his only recourse was the sale of his library, a considerable collection. Catherine bought it and made him custodian of his collection. He did not have to part with his books. He travelled to Russia and spent several months at Catherine’s court. When he was dying, she rented a comfortable room for him.

In 1745, Catherine married Russian Tsar Peter III, who was assassinated. Catherine gave serfs to her lovers and a castle to at least one of her favourites, Grigory Potemkin, whom she may have married, but the ‘affair’ was over in 1776. Although I am certain Voltaire did not approve of serfdom, he entertained a long friendship, letters mainly, with Empress Catherine II the Great.

Madame Geoffrin’s salon in 1755, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier. Oil on canvas, Château de MalmaisonRueil – Malmaison, France

Diderot did not enter a profession. He wanted to write. At one point, Madame Geoffrin, the famous salonnière, gave him furniture and a new dressing gown. He may have spent money. In Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre, Diderot writes that he should not have parted with his old dressing gown.

Mes amis, gardez vos vieux amis. Mes amis, craignez l’atteinte de la richesse. Que mon exemple vous instruise. La pauvreté a ses franchises ; l’opulence a sa gêne.

[My friends, keep your old friends. My friends, fear the infringement of riches. Let my example be a lesson to you. Poverty has its freedoms; opulence, its constraints.]

Diderot would gladly have discarded everything, so there would again be coherence and, therefore, beauty to his lodgings. But he would not let go of a painting by Claude-Joseph Vernet. Everything matched: a lovely ensemble.

Si vous voyiez le bel ensemble de ce morceau ; comme tout y est harmonieux ; comme les effets s’y enchaînent ; …

[If you saw…]


My little story is barely worth telling. I tried to make a doctor’s appointment for my friend who suffers from Ménière’s Disease. He’s nearly deaf. So, I wanted to talk to my doctor to see if he could help. My friend’s doctor is an intern and my doctor supervises interns. It’s the same office, but he can do things interns cannot do. This doctor always returns my calls, but this time, he didn’t. Last evening, I wrote to my friend to inform him that I doubted my doctor would phone. But, as I was about to press “send,” tears welled up in my eyes…

This morning, I turned to music, my refuge. I love this aria by Händel. The singer is Canada’s Karina Gauvin FR / Karina Gauvin EN.

Sources and Resources

Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre is a Wikisource publication FR

Love to everyone  💕

“V’adoro, pupille” from Händel’s Giulio Cesare

© Micheline Walker
24 October 2018