Who Was the Marquis de Sade?

Even in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, the 18th-century libertine is as shocking as ever

A gala celebrated the opening of “Sade: Marquis of the Shadows, Prince of the Enlightment” at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts. (Tomas van Houtryve)
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The Count de Sade, the modern descendant of the Marquis de Sade, whose rabid erotic works inspired the term sadism for sexual cruelty, resides in a sunny and strikingly decorated apartment on a quiet residential street on the Right Bank of Paris. After pressing a buzzer neatly labeled “H. de Sade,” I was greeted warmly at the door by Hugues himself, an avuncular 66-year-old with a coiffed shoulder-length mop of hair, wearing a florid Gallic ensemble of blue blazer, red-pinstriped shirt, yellow trousers and bright orange loafers. His elegant wife, Chantal, plied me with coffee and cake, as the count settled on the snow-white sofa, next to a table set out with copies of his ancestor’s novels—including the scabrous 120 Days of Sodom, scribbled by the marquis when he was imprisoned in the Bastille before the revolution. The count says he has never encountered any problems because of the once-reviled Sade name. “Au contraire, people are fascinated to learn that the Marquis de Sade was not a fictional figure.”

Enthusiasm in France for his notorious 18th-century ancestor is now such that the count has begun his own line of luxury goods, Maison de Sade. He started with Sade wine, from the family’s ancestral region of Provence, with the signature of the marquis on the label. He also offers scented candles and soon plans to add tapenade and meats. “It is quite natural,” Hugues explained. “The Marquis de Sade was a great gourmand. He adored fine wine, chocolate, quail, pâté, all the delicacies of Provence.” Hugues said he is now in discussions with Victoria’s Secret for a line of Sade lingerie. “We are in the early stages, but the signs are promising.”

Such marketing would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. The lurid works of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, who lived from 1740 to 1814 and died in a mental asylum, were banned in France until 1957, and the diabolical aura around his literary output has lifted only gradually. In fact, according to Hugues, his ancestor’s very existence was erased from the Sade family memory. Hugues’ parents had not even heard of him until the late 1940s, when the historian Gilbert Lely turned up on their doorstep at the Condé-en-Brie castle, in the Champagne region east of Paris, looking for documents relating to the author. “For five generations, the marquis’ name was taboo in our family,” Hugues marveled. “It was as if there was an omertà (conspiracy of silence) against him! The family no longer even used the title marquis.”

The drawing is the only known portrait of Sade, made in 1760 when he was 19. (Adoc-Photos / Corbis)
The Museum of Letters and Manuscripts displayed the original manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom (an image of Sade’s face at the exhibit). (Tomas Van Houtryve)
Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom while a prisoner at the Bastille. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
The original draft, scribbled on a 39-foot-long scroll, and found in its hiding place when the prison was stormed in 1789, finally returned to France in the spring of 2014 as part of a €7 million deal. (Christophe Ena /AP Images)
The Musée d’Orsay’s exhibit, “Sade. Attacking the Sun,” was part of the festivities in Paris marking the 200th anniversary of the author’s death on December 2, 1814. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
The Château de Vincennes near Paris (Tomas Van Houtryve)
Hugues de Sade launched a line of luxury goods including rosé, white and red wine bearing his ancestor’s signature. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
Censored during his lifetime, Sade was largely forgotten in the 19th century (the title page of a rare 1885 biography). (Leemage / Lebrecht Music & Arts)
Today he’s famous, and places connected to him are now museums. His prison cell in the keep of the Château de Vincennes. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
Guests in festive attire attended an opening gala to celebrate the display of the original manuscript of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
For seven years, Sade was imprisoned in the keep of the Chateau de Vincennes in a suburb of Paris. He was allowed a library of 600 books, armchairs and a writing desk. On visits, his wife supplied his favorite foods. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
Descendants of the infamous marquis (Hugues de Sade, left, and his brother, Elzear de Sade) hold an original notebook of writings their ancestor penned while in a mental asylum. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
A young doctor interested in studying the phrenological features of the increasingly troubled writer is thought to have made this plaster mold of Sade’s skull after he died in 1814. The skull is now in storage at the Museum of Man in Paris along with 18,000 other historical craniums. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
When he was held in the Charenton insane asylum outside Paris in his 60s, Sade wrote in this notebook, photographed in the home of his descendant, Hugues de Sade. (Tomas Van Houtryve)
To channel the feeling of an ancien régime aristocrat, the author stayed in a hotel in the leafy Place des Vosges in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. The marquis might still recognize the winding alleyways of the Right Bank. (Tomas Van Houtryve)

Intrigued by Lely’s tale, Hugues’ excited parents, then young newlyweds, began to explore the rambling Condé castle, and soon discovered that a wall had been bricked up in the attic. When they broke through, they found a jumble of dusty valises filled with documents hidden some time earlier by ashamed family members—the Marquis de Sade’s letters, papers, even shopping lists scrawled on scraps of parchment. 

“The letters showed Sade the man, how he was a decent human being,” Hugues said. “How he wrote touching love letters to his wife, his two sons, his daughter.” 

From that day on, the Sade family dedicated itself to vindicating the memory of its forgotten ancestor, mounting a crusade that coincided with the loosening of censorship in France in the 1950s. Sade’s work became widely available in the rebellious ’60s, and the door opened for the once-disgraced marquis to become France’s most decadent cultural hero, a frenzied aristocratic libertine who is now hailed by some as a literary genius and martyr for freedom.

The family’s embrace of their ancestor is such that Hugues named his eldest son, now 39, Donatien, a first in generations. “We’re proud of the marquis,” Hugues said. “And why not? Today, he is considered a great philosopher. His works are published by the most prestigious publishing house in France, Gallimard. There are conferences about him at the Sorbonne. He is the subject of university theses, and is studied by high-school students in the baccalauréat.” 

As we spoke, Hugues pulled down from his bookshelf an array of distinctive heirlooms passed down from the attic trove—the marquis’ church prayer book, original plays (with notes in the margins), his annotated copy of Petrarch (the 14th-century Italian poet’s great love, Laura, may have been a member of the ancient Sade clan)—as well as an enormous rare volume of erotic Salvador Dali drawings inspired by Sade’s novels. As a parting gesture, he produced a bottle of Sade red wine named after one of the marquis’ most famous heroines, Justine, who suffers bloodcurdling abuse as she travels the world. Sade’s novel Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue, goes far beyond Voltaire’s Candide in its desire to show humanity’s inherently evil nature.

“Some of his writing is too extreme even for me,” Hugues said. “It is work of total delusion.” 


The Marquis de Sade’s rehabilitation was all but complete last month. Paris marked the 200th anniversary of the author’s death, which occurred on December 2, 1814. The “secret manuscript” of The 120 Days of Sodom was returned to France last April with fanfare. The Musée d’Orsay has an exhibition on Sade’s influence on the visual arts (“Sade. Attacking the Sun”). New editions of his writings are being issued by the prestigious publisher Gallimard’s Pléiade imprint, the ultimate literary consecration in France. There are new biographies, Sade bicentennial blogs, Facebook pages and newsletters. In French-speaking Geneva, the Bodmer Foundation is exhibiting Sade’s letters until April (“Sade, an Atheist in Love”). Not all the commentary is flattering, to be sure. “Sade’s work is important, but I don’t accept his deification,” says Ovidie, a French actress, filmmaker and writer who uses a stage name. “His books were written to justify his monstrous behavior, all the sexual crimes he committed.”

While Sade was alive, censors shuddered at his accounts of rape, incest and pedophilia, as well as his vitriolic atheism, and thousands of his books were destroyed. He remained all but unknown in the 19th century beyond a tiny band of cognoscenti, including Flaubert and Baudelaire, who found underground copies of his books or gained access to the forbidden Enfer, or Hell, section of the National Library in Paris. 

In the early 1900s, the critic and poet Apollinaire wrote the first unabashed essays in defense of Sade, and by the 1920s his cause was taken up by the Surrealists, including Man Ray, André Breton and Dali. They were attracted to Sade’s demands for complete sexual freedom and political liberty, as well as the hallucinogenic nature of his imagination. They dubbed him the “Divine Marquis,” after the provocative Italian Renaissance author the “Divine” Pietro Aretino. By the mid-20th century, opinion-makers such as Jean-Paul Sartre were championing his banned works, and cheap pirated editions found their way to the famously open-minded French public.

To his admirers, Sade’s influence runs deep. His novels were among the first to explore the dark, hidden impulses of human nature, prefiguring Freud’s idea of the subconscious by a century. He presented homosexuality as no more or less “normal” than heterosexuality, anticipating the modern gay movement long before Oscar Wilde. And his demand to remove all “civilized restraints” on behavior imposed by the state, the church and moribund tradition inspired iconoclastic modern writers from Louis-Ferdinand Céline to Henry Miller in their quests for individual freedom.   

“Sade’s influence has been enormous in every sphere of Modernist art,” said Laurence des Cars, one of the curators of the exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. “His aim was to destroy every illusion surrounding human sexuality, be it historical, moral or religious, which inspired artists to look at the body in a new way.” In visual art, she cites Delacroix, Watteau, Degas, Ingres and Picasso (“Look at the way Picasso plays with the body, inside and out, showing it dominated by the gaze of the viewer”). In cinema, Sade inspired a string of works, including Dali and Luis Buñuel’s classic L’Âge d’Or and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, which transfers The 120 Days of Sodom to the grim setting of Italy in the early 1940s. 

“Alfred Hitchcock was also influenced,” des Cars adds. “Once you start looking, you see Sade’s presence throughout popular culture.”

She is conscious that the exhibition will push the boundaries for a fine arts institution, with warnings for parents about its shocking graphic content. But the bicentennial also provides the perfect opportunity to peel away the myths that surround Sade, des Cars says. “Everyone has an idea of sadism,” she says, referring to the term coined by the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1888. “But Sade himself remains a figure of fantasy. Everybody knows him, yet nobody knows him.”

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