Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Nicolas-Edme Rétif or Nicolas-Edme Restif (October 23, 1734 – February 2, 1806), called Rétif de la Bretonne, was a French novelist, author of erotic fiction works such as The Anti-Justine (1798) and utopist non-fiction Le Pornographe (1769). The term retifisme for shoe fetishism was named after him. His was known by several epithets: Laharpe called him "the Voltaire of the chambermaids" and was also known as "the Rousseau of the gutter." He was portrayed by Jean-Louis Barrault in Ettore Scola's film That Night in Varennes.



He was the son of a farmer, and was born at Sacy (Yonne). He was educated by the Jansenists at Bicêtre, and on the expulsion of the Jansenists was received by one of his brothers, who was a curé. Owing to a scandal in which he was involved, he was apprenticed to a printer at Auxerre, and, having served his time, went to Paris. Here he worked as a journeyman printer, and in 1760 he married Anne or Agnès Lebègue, a relation of his former master at Auxerre.

It was not until five or six years after his marriage that Rétif appeared as an author, and from that time to his death he produced a bewildering multitude of books, amounting to something like two hundred volumes, many of them printed with his own hand, on almost every conceivable subject. Rétif suffered at one time or another the extremes of poverty and was acquainted with every kind of intrigue. He drew on the episodes of his own life for his books, which, in spite of their faded sentiment, contain truthful pictures of French society on the eve of the Revolution. He has been described as both a social realist and a sexual fantasist in his writings.

The original editions of these, and indeed of all his books, have long been bibliographical curiosities owing to their rarity, the beautiful and curious illustrations which many of them contain, and the quaint typographic system in which most are composed.

The fall of the assignats during the Revolution forced him to make his living by writing, profiting on the new freedom of the press. In 1795 he received a gratuity of 2000 francs from the Thermidor Convention. In spite of his declarations for the new power, his aristocratic acquaintances and his reputation made him fall in disgrace. Just before his death Napoleon gave him a place in the ministry of police, which he did not live to take up.

Rétif de la Bretonne undoubtedly holds a remarkable place in French literature. He was inordinately vain, of extremely relaxed morals, and perhaps not entirely sane. His books were written with haste, and their licence of subject and language renders them "quite unfit for general perusal", according to the Britannica redactors.

He and the Marquis de Sade maintained a mutual hate, while he was appreciated by Benjamin Constant and Friedrich von Schiller and appeared at the table of Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, whom he met in 1782. Jean François de La Harpe nicknamed him "the Voltaire of the chambermaids". He was rediscovered by the Surrealists.

He is also noted for his advocacy of communism, indeed the term first made its modern appearance (1785) in his book review of Joseph-Alexandre-Victor Hupay de Fuveau who described himself as "communist" with his Project for a Philosophical Community.

The works of Charles Monselet, Rétif de la Bretonne (1853), and P. Lacroix, Bibliographie et iconographie (1875), J. Assezat's selection from the Contemporaines, with excellent introductions (3 vols., 1875), and the valuable reprint of Monsieur Nicolas (14 vols., 1883-1884), are sufficient to form a judgment of him. His life, written by his contemporary Cubières-Palmezeaux, was republished in 1875. See also Eugène Dühren, Rétif de la Bretonne, der Mensch, der Schriftsteller, der Reformator (Berlin, 1906), and a bibliography, Rétif-Bibliothek (Berlin, 1906), by the same author.


The most noteworthy of his works are:


Restif a encore publié, sous le titre de Théâtre (1793, 5 vol. in-12), une série de pièces qui n’ont pas été représentées.


See also

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