Châtelet, Gabrielle-

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Châtelet, Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier De Breteuil, Marquise Du

(b. Paris, France, 17 December 1706; d. Lunéville, Meurthe-et-Moselle, France, 10 September 1749),

scientific commentary.

The daughter of Louis-Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, baron of Preuilly, chief of protocol at the royal court, and of Gabrielle Anne de Froulay, who came from a family of the nobility of the sword, Gabrielle-Émilie received a literary, musical, and scientific education. On 22 June 1725 she married Florent-Claude, marquis du Châtelet and count of Lomont, who, after spending several years with her when he was governor of the city of Semur-en-Auxois, pursued a military career and visited her only briefly. From this union three children were born: Gabrielle- Pauline (1726), who married the duke of Montenero in 1743; Louis-Marie-Florent (1727), future due du Châtelet and an ambassador of France, who was guillotined in 1793; and Victor-Esprit (1733), who lived only a few months.

After returning to Paris in 1730, Émilie du Châtelet led a glittering existence and had several affairs before becoming intimate, in 1733, with Voltaire, who had just completed his Lettres philosophiques. An ardent Newtonian, Voltaire devoted several of these lettres Newton’s philosophy. The manuscript of those lettres which dealt with Newton had been given for review to Maupertuis, the author of the first French work devoted to the Newtonian world system, the Discours sur la figure des astres (1732). Mme. du Châtelet in her turn struck up a very cordial friendship with Maupertuis and with another ardent Newtonian, Alexis-Claude Clairaut. The mathematics lessons that she received from Maupertuis at the beginning of 1734 awakened her scientific inclinations.

In June 1734 Voltaire, threatened with arrest, withdrew to one of Mme. du Châtelet’s properties, the chäteau at Cirey in Champagne, whose restoration he undertook. The marquise spent a few months there at the end of 1734 and then made several prolonged stays. Devoting their time variously to their literary endeavors; metaphysical, philosophical, and scientific discussions; and a very refined worldly existence, she and Voltaire made the château at Cirey one of the most brilliant centers of French literary and philosophical life.

The stay at Cirey, at the end of 1735, of Francesco Algarotti, who was preparing a popularization of Newtonian optics, II newtoniasmo per le dame, which appeared in 1737, incited Voltaire and Mme. du Châtelet to undertake a work propagandizing Newtonianism and science. Her knowledge of Latin, Italian, and English had enabled Mme. du Châtelet to write several literary and philosophical works: a translation of Bernard de Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees; and the composition of a Grammaire raisonnée and an Examen de la Genèse. At that time she began a systematic study of Newton’s work, writing an Essai sur l’optique, of which a fragment is preserved, and participating in the elaboration of the Éléments de la philosophie de Newton, published by Voltaire in 1738 but composed in large part as early as the end of 1736. It is to this book that she devoted her “Lettre sur les élémens de la philosophie de Newton” (1738), a report on and defense of that part of the work which discusses Newtonian attraction.

At the end of August 1737 Mme. du Châtelet finished an important memoir on fire (Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu), written for a prize competition organized by the Académie des Sciences. Voltaire entered the same contest, creating for this purpose a small chemistry laboratory at Cirey, but Mme. du Châtelet succeeded in preparing her memoir and sending it to the Academy without his knowledge. The results of the competition were announced on 16 April 1738: the prize was divided among Euler and two authors of second rank; only their memoirs were to be published. However, Voltaire arranged for his memoir and that of Mme. du Châtelet to be included with the winning memoirs; the first edition—identical to the definitive edition of 1752—appeared in April 1739. In 1744 Mme. du Châtelet secured the publication of a slightly modified edition of her memoir.

During this period Mme. du Châtelet was writing a book of Newtonian inspiration on the principles of physics and mechanics, designed for the instruction of her son. However, her conversion to Leibniz’s doctrine of forces vives in 1738, under the influence of Johann I Bernoulli and Maupertuis, obliged her to interrupt her work in order to give more prominence in it to the Leibnizian epistemology. She like wise attempted, but in vain, to modify a note in her memoir on fire, the publication of which was controlled by the Académie des Sciences. In order to become more familiar with Leibniz’s philosophy, she obtained the aid of Samuel König, a disciple of Christian Wolf. König worked with her from April to November 1739, revising the manuscript of her book and providing her with the desired documentation. After she had broken with König over a question of money and had solicited Johann I Bernoulli’s help in vain, she completed her work, which she published anonymously at the end of 1740 as Institutions de physique (a revised edition appeared in Amsterdam in 1742). The chapter of this book dealing with the problem of forces vives vigorously defends Leibniz’s point of view and severely criticizes a memoir by Dortous de Mairan (1728) that condemned this principle. Mairan, who had become perpetual secretary of the Académie des Sciences, published a harsh reply in February 1741. Mme. du Châtelet answered with a very direct attack, but—quite curiously—Voltaire publicly defended Mairan. In correspondence with the most noted physicists of the time—Euler, Maupertuis, Clairaut, Musschenbroek, s’Gravesande, Jurin, Cramer, and others—Mme. du Châtelet discussed this porblem of forces vives, trying to obtain their support in a quarrel that she had helped to sharpen but that surpassed her competence.

Beginning in 1745, however, she dedicated all of her scientific activity to perfecting a French translation of Newton’s Principaia. It was to be enriched by a commentary on the work inspired by the one accompanying the Latin edition of T. Le Sueur and F. Jacquier and by theoretical supplements drawn essentially from the most recent works of Clairaut. Whether at Cirey, Paris, Brussels, or Lunéville, Mme. du Châtelet almost always remained by Voltaire’s side, lavishing on him her valuable advice concerning his writings as well as his defense against attacks of all kinds. As early as 1746 she obtained Clairaut’s collaboration as adviser, as reviser of her translation and her commentaries, and as author of theoretical supplements to her work. In the spring of 1747 the definitive plan was settled upon, the translation completed, and the printing begun. But Clairaut then found himself involved in a major discussion on the modifications eventually to be made in the law of universal gravitation in order to explain an anomaly observed in the movement of the moon’s apogee. He was a partisan of modification from November 1747 until February 1749, which made the writing of commentaries on the Principia inadvisable. Moreover, the marquise’s long visit at the court of Stanislas I, former king of Poland, at Lunéville and her affair with a young officer, the marquis J.F. de Saint-Lambert, prevented her from doing much work. In February 1749 she came to Paris to finish her book in collaboration with Clairaut. The revelation of an unexpected and late pregnancy increased her desire to complete the project before the confinement that she dreaded. At the end of June, fleeing indiscreet stares, she left for Lunéville, where she died of childbed fever. Before her death she entrusted the manuscript of her annotated translation of the Principia to the librarian of the Bibliothèque du Roi in Paris. This work, which appeared in 1759—after partial publication in 1756—remains the sole French translation of the Principia.

Known throughout intellectual Europe as Émilie, the name popularized by Voltaire, Mme. du Châtelet—beyond the influence that she had for some fifteen years on the orientation of Voltaire’s work and on his public activity—contributed to the vitality of French scientific life and to the parallel diffusion of Newtonianism and Leibnizian epistemology. Her affairs entertained the fashionable world of her period, yet her last moments revealed the sincerity of her scientific vocation. Although she limited her efforts to commentary and synthesis, her work contributed to the great Progress made by Newtonian science in the middle of the eighteenth century.


I. Original Works. Mme. du Châtelet’s publishe writings are “Lettre sur les élémens de la philosophic de Newton,” in Journal des sçavans (Sept. 1738), 534–541: Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu (Paris, 1739, 1744), repr. in Recueil de pièces qui ont remporté le prix de l’Académie royale des sciences…, IV (Paris, 1752), 87–170, 220–221; Institutions de physique (Paris, 1740; London, 1741; rev, ed., Amsterdam, 1742), also trans. into Italian (Venice, 1743); Réponse de Madame*** à la lettre que M. de Mairan…lui a écrite…sur la question des forces vives (Brussels, 1741; new ed., with author’s name, Brussels, 1741; repub. 1744); “Mémoire touchant les forces vives adressé en forme de lettre à M. Jurin…” in C. Giuliani, ed., Memorie sopra la fisica & istoria naturale…, III (Lucca, 1747), 75–84; Principes mathématiques de la philosophie naturelle (partial ed., Paris, 1756; full ed., Paris, 1759; repr. Paris, 1966), the French trans. of Newton’s Principia, followed by Mme. du Châtelet’s commentaries and supplements by Clairaut: “Réflexions sur le bonheur,” in J.-B. J. Suard and J. Bourlet de Vauxcelles, eds., Opuscules philosophiques et littéraires (Paris, 1796), pp. 1–40, also a critical ed. by R. Manzi (Paris, 1961); and “Réponse à une lettre diffamatoire de l’abbé Desfontaines,” in A. J. Q. Beuchot, ed., Mémoires anecdoliques sur Voltaire (Paris, 1838), pp. 423–431. An analysis of Examen de la Genèse, part of her translation La fable des abeilles, ch. 4 (“De la formation des couleurs”) of Essai sur l’optique, and chs. 6–8 of Grammaire raisonnée can be found in I. O. Wade, ed., Studies on Voltaire with Some Unpublishedpapers if Mme du châtlelet (Princeton, 1947), pp. 48–107, 131–187, 188–208, and 209–241, respectively.

Mme. du Châtelet’s correspondence went through several partial editions, which have been superseded by E. Asse, ed., Lettres de la Mise du Châtelet… (Paris, 1878), which contains 246 letters, some of them incomplete; and especially by T. Besterman, ed., Les lettres de la marquise du Châtelet 2 vols. (Geneva, 1958), 486 letters. Even the latter work must be completed by some letters addressed to Mme. du Châtelet that have been included in vols. 3 and 17 of Besterman’s 107-vol. edition of Voltaire’s correspondence (Geneva, 1953–1965).

The Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, has MSS of the Institutions de physique and the French translation of the Princiapia (fonds fr. 12265–12268) and of rough drafts of letters to Maupertuis (fonds fr. 12269); the public library of Leningrad has MSS of most of the works published by I.O. Wade; and the municipal library of Troyes has a nonautograph MS of Examen de la Genèse.

II. Secondary Litrature. Mme. du Châtelet or her work is discussed in the following (listed chronologically): Voltaire, “Éloge historique de Mme. la marquise du Châtelet…,” in Bibliothèque impartiale (Leiden) (Jan Feb. 1752), 136–146; J. F. Montucla, Histoire des mathématiques, new ed., III (Paris, 1802), 629–643; Hochet, “Notice historique sur Madame du Châtelet,” in Letters inédites de Madame la marquise du Chastelet à M. le comete d’Argental…(Paris, 1806); Mme. de Graffigny, La vie privée de Voltaire et de Mme. du Châtelet (Paris, 1820); G. Desnoiresterres, Voltaire et la société au XVIIIe siècle Voltaire à Cirey (Paris, 1871), passim; E. Asse, “Notice sur la marquise du Châtelet,” in Letters de la Mise du Châtelet…. (Paris, 1878), pp. i-xliv; F. Hamel, An Eighteenth Century Marquise: A Study of Emilie du Châtelet and Her Times (London, 1910); E. Jovy, Le P. françois Jacquier et ses correspondants… (Vitry -le-François, 1922), pp. 22–29; A. Maurel, La marquise du Châtelet amie de Vlotaire (Paris, 1930); N. Nielsen, Géomètres français du XVIIIe siècle (Copenhagen-Paris, 1935), pp. 125–126; M. S. Libby, The Attitude of Voltaire to Magic and the Sciences (New York, 1935); I.O. wade, Voltaire and Mme. Châtelet; an Essay on the Intellectual Activity at Cirey (Princeton, 1941); and Studies on voltaire With Some Unpublished Papers of Mme. du Châtelet (Princeton, 1947); R.L. Walters, Voltaire and the Newtonian Universe. A Study of the “Éléments de la philosophic de Newton” (Princeton, 1954), unpub. diss.; M.L. Dufénoy, “Maupertuis et le progrès scientifique,” in Studies on Volatiare… XXV (Geneva, 1963), 519–587, esp. 531–548; H. Frémont, “Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil” (Du Châtelet, 16) in Dictionnaire de biographic française XI (Paris, 1966), cols. 1191–1197; R.L. Walters “Chemistry at Cirey,” in Studies on Voltaire…, LVIII (Geneva, 1967), 1807–1827; W. T. Barber, “Mme du Châtelet and Leibnizianism. The genesis of the Institutions de physique,” in The Age of the Enlightenment. Studies Presented to T. Besterman (Edinburg-London, 1967), pp. 200–222; C. Kiernan, Science and the Enlightenment in Eighteenth Century France, vol. LIX of Studies on Voltaire… (Geneva, 1968); I.O. Wade, The Intellectual Development of Voltaire (Princeton, N. J., 1969), pp. 253–570; I.B. Cohen, “The French Translation of Isaac Newton’s Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1756, 1759, 1966),” in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 21 (1968), 261–290; and René Taton, “Madame du Châtelet, traductrice de Newton,” in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences, 22 (1969).

RenÉ Taton

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Châtelet, Gabrielle-

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