MARMONTEL, JEAN FRANÇOIS (1723-1799), French writer, was born of poor parents at Bort, in Cantal, on the 11th of July 1723. After studying with the Jesuits at Mauriac, he taught in their colleges at Clermont and Toulouse; and in 1745, acting on the advice of Voltaire, he set out for Paris to try for literary honours. From 1748 to 1753 he wrote a succession of tragedies which, though only moderately successful on the stage, secured the admission of the author to literary and fashionable circles. He wrote for the Encyclopédie a series of articles evincing considerable critical power and insight, which in their collected form, under the title Éléments de Littérature, still rank among the French classics. He also wrote several comic operas, the two best of which probably are Sylvain (1770) and Zémire et Azore (1771). In the Gluck-Piccini controversy he was an eager partisan of Piccini with whom he collaborated in Didon (1783) and Pénélope (1785). In 1758 he gained the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, who obtained for him a place as a civil servant, and the management of the official journal Le Mercure, in which he had already begun the famous series of Contes moraux. The merit of these tales lies partly in the delicate finish of the style, but mainly in the graphic and charming pictures of French society under Louis XV. The author was elected to the French Academy in 1763. In 1767 he published a romance, Bélisaire, now remarkable only on account of a chapter on religious toleration which incurred the censure of the Sorbonne and the archbishop of Paris. Marmontel retorted in Les Incas (1778) by tracing the cruelties in Spanish America to the religious fanaticism of the invaders.
He was appointed historiographer of France (1771), secretary to the Academy (1783), and professor of history in the Lycée (1786). In his character of historiographer Marmontel wrote a history of the regency (1788) which is of little value. Reduced to poverty by the Revolution, Marmontel in 1792 retired during the Terror to Evreux, and soon after to a cottage at Abloville in the department of Eure. To that retreat we owe his Mémoires d'un père (4 vols., 1804) giving a picturesque review of his whole life, a literary history of two important reigns, a great gallery of portraits extending from the venerable Massillon, whom more than half a century previously he had seen at Clermont, to Mirabeau. The book was nominally written for the instruction of his children. It contains an exquisitely drawn picture of his own childhood in the Limousin; its value for the literary historian is very great. Marmontel lived for some time under the roof of Mme Geoffrin, and was present at her famous dinners given to artists; he was, indeed, an habitué of most of the houses where the encyclopaedists met. He had thus at his command the best material for his portraits, and made good use of his opportunities. After a short stay in Paris when elected in 1797 to the Conseil des Anciens, he died on the 31st of December 1799 at Abloville.
See Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, iv.; Morellet, Éloge (1805).