Your RDA of Irony

A Patron of the Arts

April 26

Today is the birthday of the great French painter Eugene Delacroix.  His “Liberty Leading the People” was a long-time favorite of teenage boys in sophomore history; they had an aesthetic appreciation of France as a topless woman.  If only our Statue of Liberty lacked such inhibitions….

And in honor of Delacroix’s birthday, let’s discuss Talleyrand.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord (1754-1838) was a brilliant statesman and a shameless rogue: no wonder Alexander Hamilton admired him. Talleyrand was born with every advantage, but he continually reinvented himself: a liberal bishop, a revolutionary politician, a suave diplomat, a royalist conspirator. His politics were just as flexible: revolutionary, Bonapartist, and royalist (for competing dynasties.)

His remarkable life was shaped–actually misshaped–by a childhood accident that left him lame. Rather than have their line represented by a cripple, his parents dispossessed him of his rights as the eldest son. He was relegated to a career in the clergy. Of course, it was a luxurious version of the clerical life–lush sinecures, no clothes drives or bingo nights for him. He had been an excellent student at the seminary/college except that he was reading distinctly unclerical works: Montaigne, Montesquieu, Voltaire. Young Bishop Talleyrand was a radical.

Although an aristocrat and a cleric, Talleyrand supported the French Revolution. In the Estate Generals of 1789, he persuaded the more sensible aristocrats and clerics to join with the Bourgeoisie in their demands for reforms. In 1791, he was one of the leaders of the National Assembly’s drive to extend full civil liberties to Protestants and Jews in France.

The same year he began his career in the foreign service. The suave aristocrat first represented revolutionary France in Britain and then in the United States. (It was at that time that Hamilton would have met the Frenchman.) During the Reign of Terror, when aristocrats and bishops–no matter how liberal–were executed for their pedigrees, Talleyrand was safely abroad. Eventually, France sickened of the Terror and turned on the Radicals; they had their turn with the guillotine. Then France was governed by a moderate oligarchy called the Directory; Talleyrand became the Foreign Minister. However, he sensed that the dull, corrupt Directory would not last long, and in 1797 Talleyrand started cultivating the friendship of an ambitious, stellar young general named Bonaparte.

In two years, Bonaparte was the Dictator of France. In six years, he crowned himself Emperor. And guess who remained Foreign Minister. In that position, Talleyrand was implicated in the XYZ Affair: he was the one whom the American diplomats were expected to bribe. Surprisingly, Talleyrand was not instrumental in the Louisiana Purchase; in fact, he opposed it but Napoleon disregarded his advice. Napoleon frequently disregarded the the more moderate and less martial recommendations of Talleyrand.  So the French Minister began conducting his own Foreign Policy: first with the Austrians, then with the Russians and finally with the exiled Royal Family, the Bourbons.

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, Talleyrand manipulated the Restoration of the Bourbons. Louis XVIII made Talleyrand his Foreign Minister. In that role, Talleyrand represented France at the Congress of Vienna and managed to get the victorious allies to agree to lenient peace terms and support the Bourbons. Once Talleyrand accomplished that miracle, he found himself pensioned off. It was a nice pension (100,000 Francs a year and honorary positions of the royal council) but it was the equivalent of professional exile. Noting that the Bourbons were governing as if 1789 had never occurred, Talleyrand quipped, “They have forgotten nothing and learned nothing.”

Ousting the Bourbons would be the elderly Talleyrand’s last political effort; in 1830 he personally corresponded with the Duke of Orleans, encouraging the liberal aristocrat to replace the reactionary on the throne.

But what has Talleyrand got to do with Eugene Delacroix?  Well…the Bishop was rather lax regarding celibacy. In 1797, he was on especially good terms with a Madame Delacroix, keeping her company while Monsieur Delacroix was on diplomatic missions.  Madame Delacroix had a son the following year. (Monsieur Delacroix’s reaction was tactful and quite French.  His wife’s first four children seemed to be his; so why quibble over the fifth?)  Madame Delacroix had a son the following year. Eugene Delacroix was to be a great painter but he didn’t have the usual struggles of a young artist. Talleyrand showed remarkable interest in him and saw that he had ample and lucrative patronage.

And what is the Latin root of “patronage”?

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