Beyond the Text: Illustrations in Eighteenth-Century French Novels

Introduction to Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse

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<td style="height: 15pt; width: 460pt;" width="613" height="20">Frontispiece of the   first volume, 'La nouvelle H&eacute;lo&iuml;se: ou Lettres de Deux amans, habitans d'une   petite ville au pied des Alpes'</td><br />
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Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La nouvelle Héloïse: ou Lettres de Deux amans, habitans d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes, Paris: Pigoreau, An VII (1797). Frontispiece of the first volume, Designer Binet, Engraver Bovinet, Engraving, volume I.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, La nouvelle Héloïse: ou lettres de deux amans, habitans d'une petite ville au pied des Alpes, Paris: Duchesne, 1764, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel P. Davison '52

The story of La nouvelle Héloïse :

A novel full of passion and virtuous renunciation, La nouvelle Héloïse tells the story of the love between Julie d’Etanges, a young noblewoman, and her teacher, Saint-Preux, who is of humble origin. The novel begins with Saint-Preux’s letter to Julie, in which he confesses his love to her, a love that he had tried to repress.  Their very different social statuses prevent them from loving each other openly, but they are able to exchange passionate letters. When their relationship is discovered, Saint-Preux decides to leave Switzerland for Paris, then London. But the distance does not stop them from writing letters to one another, in which they very often try to analyze their complex situation. After the death of her mother, Julie, feeling guilty, is talked into marrying an old nobleman, M. de Wolmar. Consequently, she renounces her passion and decides to be a virtuous and loyal wife and mother. Yet, incapable of forgetting Saint-Preux, she confesses her love for him to her husband, years later, when Saint-Preux comes back from a long trip around the world.

Frontispiece & Illustrations of La Nouvelle Héloïse

This frontispiece opens the first of the six volumes.

In the center, we can see the bust of Rousseau (1712–1778) who, with Voltaire, dominated the 18th century. Not only a philosopher, he was also a writer and a composer. He was especially known at the time for his sentimental and epistolary novel, Julie, ou La nouvelle Héloïse which was a huge success, “perhaps the biggest best-seller of the century” according to Robert Darnton.

What is interesting in this frontispiece, which is in fact the only illustration of this edition, is that the illustrator made the choice of depicting, and consequently of highlighting, the key scenes of the novel. Each of the six little medallions surrounding the bust refer to an important event in the novel, thus pointing out which scenes the reader should particularly look forward to reading.

Rousseau and the illustrations of La Nouvelle Héloïse

Although the first edition of Héloïse, in 1761, was issued without illustrations, Rousseau had been thinking for some time about adding them. It was finally decided that the engraver Gravelot would create them. Rousseau chose which scenes should be illustrated and sent Gravelot a text instructing him on how to depict each subject and each character. The twelve illustrations were first published separately by the editor Duchesne in 1761, with Rousseau’s text explaining very precisely the subject of the prints. Only later, in the 1764 edition of La Nouvelle Héloïse were engravings and text issued together.