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Emilie du Chatelet
top left: Emilie du Châtelet
top right: Detail - Emilie du Châtelet by Marianne Loir
at Voltaire's chateau, Ferney-Voltaire, France

bottom left: Detail - Madame du Châtelet by Nicolas de Largillière
full portrait at the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio USA

bottom right: Detail - miniature of Emilie du Châtelet by Marianne Loir in collection of Jane Birkenstock, San Jose, CA USA



Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil du Chatelet
born: December 17, 1706
died: September 10, 1749

Emilie was born in 1706 into an upper class family in Paris. Her father, the Baron de Breteuil, was Principal Secretary and Introducer of Ambassadors to Louis XIV. This position placed him in the center of activities at court, and accorded high social prestige to Emilie when she entered society as an adult.

Childhood and Education
Emilie was of average appearance with large expressive eyes, tall, and not particularly graceful. As a child, she was given lessons in fencing, riding and gymnastics in an attempt to improve her awkwardness. Emilie was a genius, the type that only needs two to four hours of sleep each night. It is possible that the fencing, riding, and gymnastics lessons, not typically included in a young girl's education, were an attempt to find an outlet for Emilie's boundless energy.

Proper etiquette was taught to her at home, tutors provided a basic education, and Emilie's father instructed her in Latin.

Emilie had a high aptitude for languages, mathematics and the sciences. By the time she was twelve she could read, write, and speak fluent German, Latin, and Greek. She spent much of her time in her room studying. She also liked to dance, was a passable performer on the spinet, sang opera, and as an amateur actress, she had more than average talent.


Introduced at Court
Emilie's father introduced her to the court at Versailles when she was sixteen. Emilie was delighted with the splendor and extravagance of court life, and developed a taste for all things expensive. She had a large wardrobe of gowns, shoes, and accessories, and she loved diamonds.

Years later Voltaire wrote, "Emilie's tastes are impeccable...What she sees, she wants and her eyesight is remarkably keen."

A Genius
Emilie's intelligence was so superior that it caused other women, and most men, to avoid her. She had no interest in gossip and meaningless diversions, and her devotion to intellectual pursuits was sincere. She was interested only in her equals, who happened to consist of a small number of men.

Marriage
At age nineteen, Emilie married the Marquis du Chatelet. Marriages were arranged and they had little in common. She enjoyed Paris society and life at court; he was in the military and liked to hunt. Emilie had three children and considered her marital responsibility completed. They agreed to live separate lives. In the upper classes, it was standard for both the husband and wife to have a lover. Men could have as many mistresses as they wished; women were expected to have one lover at a time.

Affairs Before Meeting Voltaire
Emilie had three love affairs before she met Voltaire. The first two didn't last long. At age 24, she had an affair with the Duc de Richelieu that lasted for a year and a half. The Duc was interested in literature and philosophy, and Emilie was one of the few people who could converse with him on his own level. Emilie read every book of consequence, attended the theater regularly, and enjoyed intellectual debate. Emilie expressed an interest in Isaac Newton and Richelieu encouraged her to take lessons in higher mathematics to better understand his theories.

Moreau de Maupertuis, a member of the Academy of Sciences, became Emilie's tutor in geometry. He was a mathematician, astronomer and physicist, and supported Newton's theories that were the topic of hot debate at the Academy.


Emilie Becomes a Gradot "Regular"
Emilie wanted to attend the regular Wednesday meetings of the Academy of Sciences in the King's Library at the Louvre. However, women were not allowed to attend these meetings where the latest scientific knowledge was discussed.

Emilie was on excellent terms with Maupertuis' friends who met for discussions at Gradot's, a coffeehouse that was popular with scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians. Women were also banned from coffeehouses.

When denied entry at Gradot's, Emilie had a suit of men's clothes made, entered the coffeehouse, and joined Maupertuis' table. Maupertuis and others cheered and ordered her a cup of coffee. The proprietors pretended not to notice they were serving a woman -- they didn't want to lose their clientele. Emilie became a "regular" at Gradot's and always arrived fashionably dressed -- as a man.


Women Excluded from Higher Education
In the 18th century, women were excluded from educational realms that men reserved for themselves. To overcome this problem, Emilie hired professors to teach her geometry, algebra, calculus, and physics. Much of her education was self-taught and she spent from 8 to 12 hours a day on study, research, and writing.

Throughout her life, the subjects that interested Emilie most were physics, the sciences, mathematics, philosophy, and metaphysics.


Emilie Meets Voltaire
Voltaire and Emilie met in the spring of 1733. They both sensed that they had met their match.

A Love Story - Voltaire and Emilie

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Last Updated: January 7, 2009