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  • Bibliography Behaving BadlyThe Secret Life of the Portrait fantaisiste du Marquis de Sade
  • Jann Marson (bio)

Nature has produced some strange abortions, both physical and mental, but probably never a greater mental monstrosity than Sade. Sprung from a stock which was most pure and honourable, reared and educated with the greatest care and simplicity, this mental monster burst forth suddenly, as it were without apparent cause and became at once the most depraved libertine, the cruellest debauchee, the lewdest writer, and the most persistent propagator of immorality the world ever saw.

—Henry Spencer Ashbee

With a moralizing air of authority propped up, paradoxically, by his extensive knowledge of the world of erotica, the celebrated Victorian bibliographer Henry Spencer Ashbee thus described the Marquis de Sade.1 This vision of the infamous marquis, however, did not extend into Ashbee’s account of a nineteenth-century print now known to us as the Portrait fantaisiste du Marquis de Sade (Figure 1), which he called a “pure invention.”2 Ashbee’s hesitancy to correlate the life of the “mental monster” Sade with the formal histrionics of the Portrait fantaisiste might be attributed to his inside knowledge of the print’s clandestinity and posthumous infamy. After all, he not only owned a copy, which he bequeathed to the British Museum in 1900, but had also spent decades acquiring an intimate knowledge of the underground networks through which images and texts connected to Sade circulated among English and French bibliophiles and bibliographers of erotica.3 He would therefore have known that a more thorough account of the Portrait fantaisiste and its connection to Sade would have called for disclosure of the circumstances surrounding the print’s production. Unfortunately, neither Ashbee nor his fellow bibliophiles divulged the Portrait fantaisiste’s provenance, the uncovering of which would help redirect scholarly inquiry concerning artifacts like this print away from subjective notions of likeness and verisimilitude toward a social history of the objects themselves. The silence surrounding the Portrait fantaisiste has seemingly kept [End Page 89]

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Figure 1.

Circa 1860s copperplate engraving attributed to “H. Biberstein,” from the British Museum’s portrait collection. Later dubbed the “Portrait fantaisiste du Marquis de Sade” in 1909 by Guillaume Apollinaire, who reproduced the print in L’Oeuvre du Marquis de Sade, 32–33. Reproduced by permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

[End Page 90]

art historians and book history scholars from further investigating the print, thus leaving it shrouded in mystery for more than 150 years.

The Portrait fantaisiste’s contextual tabula rasa has been no such deterrent for the “Sade industry,” a term coined by Robert Darnton.4 For many Sade biographers, historians, and textual critics, the Portrait fantaisiste has become the image. They have reproduced it seemingly ad infinitum, perhaps more than any other image of Sade. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Portrait fantaisiste often ornamented, without explanatory captions or other commentary, various new editions of Sade’s writing and related works of literary criticism.5 In previous decades, certain commentators had more boldly suggested that the print revealed aspects of Sade’s true character. Montague Summers, for example, claimed in 1928 that the Portrait fantaisiste shows evidence of Sade’s “markedly homosexual” characteristics.6 To the eyes of Sade biographer Jean Desbordes in 1938, the image was no different than another fictitious portrait of the marquis that has come to be known as the Portrait imaginaire (Figure 2). For Desbordes, the Portrait imaginaire expressed Sade’s “romantic traits crowned with devils and demons,” and he seems to have included a reproduction of the Portrait fantaisiste in his volume to both reinforce this interpretation and aid his rather hyperbolic assessment that “the fool, the bloodthirsty” Sade was “already cruel at the hour he learned to walk.”7 The Portrait fantaisiste thus seems to have been, for these individuals, a free-floating signifier ready to be transformed into whatever vision of Sade seemed fashionable. This scenario was perhaps facilitated by the fact that the last word on the print resonating from the nineteenth century was that of the fin-de-siècle bibliophile Octave Uzanne, who dismissed it bluntly...


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