François Racine de Monville 1734-1797
A number of mysteries persist about Monsieur de Monville. One mystery is the lack of any extant portraits or sculptures. Another mystery is the paucity of Monville's writings. A third mystery concerns whether or not Monville was a member of a Masonic lodge.
Two of these mysteries, the lack of any portraits and the paucity of his writings, will, hopefully, be elucidated in the future.
My own personal research, conducted in December 2010, has led me to believe that I have solved the third Monville mystery.
THE LACK OF PORTRAITS
Even though photography would not be invented until the nineteenth century, there were plenty of ways for Frenchmen as wealthy as Monville to commission portraits or sculpted busts. The journal of the famous court portraitist Madame Vigée-Lebrun appears to indicate that she painted Monville's portrait at least once. If such a portrait does exist, however, its whereabouts are unknown to the general public. It has been suggested by some that the living descendants of Monsieur de Monville's only sibling, his elder sister Marie Henriette Racine de Jonquoy--who became the Marquise de Reynel--may possess a portrait of Monsieur de Monville.
Additionally, in Enlightenment Paris, there were scientific methods of producing true-to-life portraits, some of which would have certainly appealed to a man with as much scientific curiosity as Monville.
There was a studio in Paris where a complicated contraption enabled the inventor to produce exact three-dimensional busts of his subjects. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were customers. Monville must have been a customer, too, but no busts of Monville are known to exist.
In another famous Paris studio, customers sat for true-to-life portraits created by the physionotrace  [3 ]. This device was invented by a court cellist named Gilles-Louis Chrétien, who set up business with his partner Edme Quenedey des Ricets at 45, rue des Bons-Enfants, near the Palais Royal, on June 26, 1788. By November 1789 Chrétien and Quenedey des Ricets had produced over a thousand portraits. And once again, American ambassadors Franklin, Jefferson and Gouverneur Morris were customers.
Jefferson and Morris sat for their portraits on April 23, 1789. Monville, too, was probably a customer, yet nothing has turned up. There are illustrations of the physionotrace and the portraits of Jefferson and Morris in Thomas Jefferson's Paris, by Professor Howard C. Rice, Jr.
A drawing in red pencil and stump by Louis Roland Trinquesse (1746-1800) entitled, Man Playing the Guitar, Seated in an Armchair, in the collection of the late Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, was sold at auction on December 9, 1981. Based on the written descriptions of Monville by Dufort de Cheverny and Madame de Genlis, there is an intriguing possibility that this drawing could be a representation of Monsieur de Monville.
Additionally, although there is written evidence that Monville was an accomplished harpist and flautist, Dufort wrote that Monville was “assez musician pour toucher de tous les instruments;” consequently, playing the guitar would not be considered beyond his capacities.
Louis Carrogis, known as Carmontelle (1717-1806)—who painted the Désert de Retz--executed portraits of scores of French aristocrats and commoners as well as English visitors such as Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy; the philosopher David Hume and the Shakespearian actor David Garrick. Around 1762, Carmontelle depicted Monville’s niece, Thomasse-Thérèse de Clermont d'Amboise, in a collective portrait entitled La duchesse de Gramont, Mme de Stainville et le comte de Biron, now housed in the collection of the Musée Condé in Chantilly.
Five portraits of unidentified male subjects by Carmontelle have been auctioned in recent years; any of which could have been Monville: Portrait d'homme assis tenant son chapeau, Portrait de gentilhomme avec chien de profil, Portrait d'homme en pied, tenant un lilvre à la main, A seated gentleman in profile to the left writing a letter at a desk in front of an open window and Portrait d'homme assis lisant.
THE PAUCITY OF MONSIEUR DE MONVILLE'S WRITINGS
As for Monville's writings, aside from a couple of letters, all that has surfaced is a songbook and some airs that he composed and had published in 1770 and 1771. Yet the inventory conducted at the time the Desert was confiscated details an extensive library, and this was after Monville had sold the Desert de Retz, presumably removing much of his collection.
Furthermore, Monville frequently sponsored and produced plays, operas, recitals and concerts at the Desert de Retz during the belle saison and in his centrally-heated Hotel de Monville in Paris throughout the colder months.
Finally, as an essay by Professor Robert Darnton demonstrates, the late eighteenth century was a time of an outpouring of writing; diaries and journals by many of Monville's friends and acquaintances such as Dufort de Cheverny and Alexandre de Tilly were subsequently published and widely circulated. It is therefore difficult to believe that Monville did not write more than a handful of songs.
Perhaps one day, when cleaning out the garret of an old country house or inventorying an estate for auction, someone will discover another trace of François Racine de Monville and thereby shed some light on these mysteries.
WAS MONSIEUR DE MONVILLE A FREEMASON?
Another mystery surrounding Monsieur de Monville is whether or not he was a belonged to any Masonic lodge. There is abundant circumstantial evidence to support the belief that he was a Freemason. For example, it is easy to make the case that a walk around the Desert de Retz was, in effect, an initiatory voyage, and two of the surviving structures at the Desert de Retz—the pyramid icehouse and and the residence in the form of a broken column—are prominent in Masonic symbolism.
It is also true that Monsieur de Monville counted many prominent Freeasons among his friends and acquaintances. Among the most famous of these was Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, who was a leading Freemason in pre-revolutionary France and who did indeed design his garden in the Parc Monceau in Paris as an initiatory space replete with Masonic symbolism. Thomas Jefferson, whose presence in various Masonic lodges in Paris is well-documented, was a friend of Monville’s and visited the Désert de Retz.
But all this circumstantial evidence misses one significant fact: Monville’s name does not appear on the membership rolls of any of the Masonic lodges operating in late 18th century Paris. So, my own conclusion is that, although Monville knew many Freemasons and, perhaps, even shared some of their beliefs, he was not, himself one of them.
But all the discussion on whether or not Monville was or wasn’t a Freemason misses the point, because it focuses very narrowly on one particular variety of the Masonic movement. But during the 17th century, the tree of Freemasonry flourished and the trunk sprouted many different branches.
The research conducted early in 2011 leads me to believe that I have identified the Masonic organization most likely to have counted Monsieur de Monville among its members.
I believe that it is possible if not likely for Monsieur de Monville to have been a member of a secretive brotherhood whose members were known as Chevaliers du Noble Jeu de l’Arc [the Knights of Noble Archery], and whose unifying theme was perpetuating the ancient practice of archery.
The results of my research appear in an article, in both English and French versions, entitled "Was Monsieur de Monville a Freemason? Monsieur de Monville était-il franc-maçon?," published in La Gazette du Desert de Retz, No. 3, June 2011, pages 2-4.
The article, with minor revisions, has been incorporated into the text of Monville: Forgotten Luminary of the French Enlightenment, my biography of François Henri Racine de Monville, published in 2013. To order this book, please return to the Home page.