Sunday, 26 February 2017

Curtius's Salon de Cire

Curtius's early life

Apart from the questionable details supplied by the Tussaud Memoirs, little is known about the early history of the famous waxworks impressario.  Philipp Wilhelm Mathias Curtius was born in Germany,  in Stockach  in southern Baden-Württemberg  in 1737. His name was neither Kreuz nor Kurtz as French contemporaries often supposed.  A historical guide to Stockach on the internet pinpoints the particular house in which he was probably born:

The information that he studied medicine at Berne, where he exhibited wax anatomical models, is “certainly false”  The earliest document to mention him in 1759  identifies him simply as a commerçant and this is the term he later used to describes himself in his act of naturalisation as a French citizen (see Daninos, Une Révolution en cire,  p.17) 

In 1759 he is known to have been in Strassbourg, where he made the acquaintance of Anne-Marie Walder, the wife of Johann-Josef  Grossholtz.  Anne Marie Grossholtz was born in December 1761. Mother and daughter subsequently  followed Curtius to Paris where he presented the child as his niece (Daninos, p.17).

Documents in the Madame Tussaud Archive, show that from the late 1780s Curtius actively pursued a family inheritance in Mainz, but that his effort were frustrated by the dislocation of  the Revolution.  A deposition made in this connection states that his father had been a civil servant in Holy Roman Empire (Chapman, The French Revolution as seen by Madame Tussaud,  p.107-8)

The Cabinet in the Boulevard du Temple

The exact date of Curtius’s arrival in Paris is also uncertain, although it was either in the late 1760s or early 1770s. The claim that he came at the invitation of the prince de Conti cannot be substantiated.   He at first made a living chiefly by producing pictures in enamel, wax-relief portraits and erotic wax miniatures. The Journal encyclopédique for 1777 mentions him living in rue de Bondi, near the boulevard Saint-Martin.   By this time his wax portraits  were already renowned for their  verisimilitude. Curtius’s success as an artist was confirmed by his admission to the Académie de Saint-Luc  in 1778.  According to François-Marie Mayeur de Saint-Paul, he first learned the arts of moulding from life and colouring wax from a certain Sylvestre.  It was Sylvestre’s example which first induced Curtius to borrow money in order to set up a cabinet de figures in the boulevard du Temple near the Théâtre Nicolet. (Sylvestre and his wife are recorded at the Lyceum in London in 1786 with an exhibition which included life-sized wax effigies of both the French and British Royal families).

By the early 1780s Curtius was exhibiting regularly at the fairs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Germain and his permanent establishment, at 20 boulevard du Temple,was thriving.  For a time he had two separate cabinets on the boulevards – a “wax salon” containing portrait busts of the famous and a Caverne des grand voleurs (the forerunner of the Tussaud “Chamber of Horrors”) where effigies of criminals such as Cartouche and Desrues were exhibited. (The latter seems to have been closed down in the mid-1780s - see Readings below.)  Although Curtius charged only two sous to enter his exhibition , Mercier speculated that he might be making as much as 100 ecus a week.  He also continued to fulfil private commissions; surviving letters show him making portraits to order as late as 1790. (In 1782 the well-informed Mayeur de Saint-Paul claimed that his major income still came from pornographic  pieces; but, if this is true, none have come down to us).  At this time he was prosperous enough to buy a plot of land in the rue des Fosses du Temple and build a house for rental.(Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud, p.19)

The Wax Salon at the Palais Royal

In 1783 Curtius embarked on a new venture, renting premises in the newly constructed arcades of the Palais-Royal (no.7 – no.8  des Arcades) This was a substantial investment: a typical lease was 37,500 livres payable in four installments (Pilbeam, p.22-3). Curtius was one of the first tenants on his side of the arcade, where  his immediate neighbours were the Café des Arts and the shadow-puppet theatre, Fantoccini chinois.  According to Pamela Pilbeam, by 1789 he had moved to a different arcade.  He was still listed at the Palais-Royal in an almanach of 1791, though the difficulties of the Revolutionary years subsequently obliged him to give up this second venue.   At the Palais-Royal Curtius was clearly aiming at a more prosperous market. His Salon de Cire aimed at respectability, concentrating on portraits of the rich and famous, which were marketed on the high standard of their likeness to nature.  He now segregated his audience by price:  for two sous, the  exhibition could be viewed from a balcony;  twelve sous allowed a richer clientele to enter the main salon and inspect the  models more closely. (A further two sous  got you the services of a guide, to explain  "what you hadn't understood for the first two sous"). Curtius also took to styling  himself painter and sculptor to the duc d’Orléans.

The success of the waxworks in these years can be traced in various almanachs and travel guides.  Thus Thiéry’s Almanach du Voyageur of 1784 includes the “Cabinet du Sieur Curtius” among “spectacles where people can amuse themselves for a modest price”;  by 1785 it is acclaimed as “one of the most famous attractions in Paris”. Curtius’s most longstanding and well-known exhibit, mentioned in most guides, was the Grand couvert à Versailles, a brightly coloured life-sized tableau which  showed the Royal Family, including the Emperor Joseph II, at dinner round a table.  For modest sum, it was possible to replicate the experience of the elite in attendance at Versailles.

Jean B. Dambrun,  Curtius's Salon at the Palais-Royal, engraving from an illustrated almanach of 1786

This engraving for an almanach of about 1786 gives an idea of the interior of the Salon de Cire.  The balustrade dividing off the entrance area is clearly visible. The main space is imposingly fitted with columns and mirrors and the  exhibits,  mostly portrait busts rather than full-length  figures, fitted at eye-level into niches in the walls leading up to the tableau of the royal family.  Presumably the likenesses would have been made from life masks where possible, but probably this technique was used mainly for private commissions.  It was sometimes complained that whilst the faces were well done,  “most often, the bottom half of the body was nothing but a shapeless mannequin"  The only example of portrait bust to survive is that of Curtius himself in the Carnavalet, the bottom half of which is a straw dummy dressed in real clothes.   However, Curtius often went to a lot of trouble and expense over costume – Mercier reported that he possessed a certificate of authenticity for a suit that he used to dress his model of Frederick the Great in 1787 (Daninos, p.27).

Interspersed with the waxworks were an assortment of different curiosities - the bloodied shirt of Henri IV or an Egyptian mummy.  Curtius was even said to have supplied artifacts for Aubin's cabinet, his neighbour on the boulevards; in 1794 a travelling exhibition was to go on tour in India as “Curtius’s Cabinet of Curiosities”.  The chance survival of an insurance claim for his exhibition at St.-Laurent fair which suffered storm damage in 1787 revealed an elaborately fitted room with expensive wall paper, hung with mirrors, large seascapes, Chinese lacquered cabinets and a (sadly squashed) wicker elephant (Pilbeam, p.17-18)

Occasionally Curtius also  presented flesh and blood attractions: in 1784 a ventriloquest and in 1787 two children from Guadaloupe with strangely stained skin.  The flyer for this “Strange Phenomenon of Nature”  also offers the chance to view in his basement at the Palais-Royal “the fat man” – an enormous  Prussian named Paul Butterbrodt who was said to weigh  476 pounds.

(to be continued.)
"Paul Butterbrodt, weighing 476 pounds.  Aged 56 years.  On view in the Palais Royal on the entresol of Sr. Curtius in Arcade no.7 and 8".


Andrea Daninos, Une Révolution en cire:  Francesco Orso et les cabinets de figures en France (Milan, 2016), chapter 2: "Philippe Curtius"
Pamela Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud and the history of waxworks (2003)
Theresa Ransom, Madame Tussaud: a life and a time (2003)
Pauline Chapman,  The French Revolution as seen by Madame Tussaud, witness extraordinary (1789)



M. Curtius, an English [sic] painter-sculptor living in Paris, rue de Bondi, below the Boulevard de St. Martin, near the hôtel d'Aligre, executes all sorts of busts with such a degree of likeness that one can reasonably apply to his works, though they are made of a   new material,   that fine line from the Henriade:  "The canvas is alive and the marble breathes".

People hurry from every direction to make use of the rare talents of this artist, and everyone is most pleased with the result.  He captures likenesses so well that several people have immediately recognised individuals whom they have only met once from the figures in his workshop.
Journal encyclopédique December 1777, p.537-8. 

This industrious German contrives to model  heads in wax  which, once coloured, appear to be alive.  He is himself both modeller and painter.  These heads can be seen in his cabinet, Boulevard du Temple, and in the fairs of St. Laurent and St. Germain;  they attract crowds of curiosity seekers from all social classes, for the pleasure of a visit can be procured for only two sous.
Curtius also undertakes wax portraits, and these are excellent likenesses. Every newsworthy event furnishes him with an opportunity to enrich his cabinet.  People rush there to see the likeness of M. Destaing, that of Voltaire, the Royal family etc. But it is the commerce in little gallant and libertine pieces (“des petits grouppes gaillards et libertins”),  sold to the curious for their boudoirs, which brings him in the most money.
François-Marie Mayeur de Saint-Paul, Le Chroniqueur désœuvré, ou l’Espion du Boulevard du Temple (1782), p.135-6:

The wax models of sieur Curtius are much celebrated on the Boulevards, and much visited. He has modelled Kings, great writers, beautiful women, and famous thieves. One sees Jeannot, Desrues, the Count d'Estaing, and Linguet; one sees the royal family seated at an artificial banquet: the Emperor is next to the King. The crier booms loudly from the door:  Come in, gentlemen, come see the grand banquet; come in, it is just like Versailles. One pays two sous per person; and Curtius makes up to 100 écus per day, by the display of his coloured mannequins.
Mercier Tableau de Paris , vol.2 (1782) 


A certain Sylvestre, an ingenius sculptor, was the first to develop the technique of making a wax portrait.  Here is how: He placed two little tubes in your nostrils, two more in the corners of the mouth; he rubbed your face with  oil and covered it with a very fine layer of plaster.  Once dried the plaster retained a imprint; wax could be poured in and a model formed.  He would then colour the heads and add eyes the same colour as the originals, so  that the busts were a perfect likeness. 

Curtius learned from poor Sylvestre, who had badly managed his business in the Boulevards, the method of making portrait likenesses. More talented or more clever than Sylvestre, he formed the plan of creating a cabinet of figures:  he borrowed money at interest, and had the luck not to be swindled.  After starting successfully in the Boulevard du Temple, near the Théâtre Nicolet, he rented an arcade in  the Palais-Royal;  he was one of the first tenants on the side of the Théâtre des Variétés: the construction was not yet finished. That did not stop sieur Curtius from creating a profitable concern, which has since become a considerable business.
François-Marie Mayeur de Saint-Paul, Tableau du nouveau Palais-Royal (1788), p.96-7.

On Sylvestre and his later career, see Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London (1978) p.54
Towards the end of the century, the best-known name among the commercial waxwork artists was that of Mr. and Mrs. Sylvester, whose "Cabinet of Royal Figures, mostly curiously moulded in wax, as large as Nature" was shown at the Lyceum between 1786 and 1789 and later on tour.  In addition to the complete British and French royal families, the show included a sleeping full-length Venus, Warren Hastings, Franklin, Voltaire and the Countess de la Motte (of Diamond Necklace fame).  During a brief stand at Mr. Ansell's Large Room, Spring Gardens, in 1788, "an Exact Representation of a Seraglio" was an added attraction.  The Sylvesters...accepted private commissions for wax likenesses;  full-length effigies being no longer in demand, they specialized in portraits, probably of the medallion sort.  Each product was accompanied by  a money-back guarantee:  "Should the Portraits not be thought the most striking and correct Likenesses, he will not expect any thing for is Trouble".


The ingenius artist who makes likenesses of all sorts of people, the so-called figures of sieur Curtius, has had the idea of assembling all the famous villains of France and abroad in a single place, which he called the Cavern of Great Thieves.  He established himself on the boulevards a few years ago and follows the fairs.  As soon as Justice has dispatched someone Curtius models the head and puts him in the collection so that something new is always on offer, and the sight is not expensive for it costs only two sous.   The barker shouts, “Come in, Messieurs, come and see the great thieves....”.  
Louis de Bachaumont,  Mémoires, vol.2,  11th May 1783. 

According to Mayeur de Saint-Paul, Curtius's "Cavern of Thieves" was closed down:
He used to have two cabinets in the Boulevards, but now he only has one.  The first was a collection of villains, and the second of celebrities.  This is how the Cabinet of Thieves came to be suppressed.  An army recruiter was condemned and hanged for theft;  Curtius, always keen for novelties, had obtained permission to make a his model. .. Among those who came to see the portrait,  someone took offence that the mannequin  was still wearing his uniform; he made complaints, and the cabinet des voleurs was closed down. François-Marie Mayeur de Saint-Paul, Tableau du nouveau Palais-Royal (1788), p.96-7.

Jean Charles Pierre Curtius, born in Germany, introduced in France the taste for portraits in wax.  After fitting up and decorating, at a great expence, a booth in the fauxbourg St. Germain, he set about enriching it with the effigies of the most notorious thieves executed in the Place de Greve; and Goffin, a recruiter for the regiment de Boulonnois, having deserved a place by the side of the Cartouches and Mandrins, the Sieur Curtius bought his head of Charles Henry Sampson, and injected it for exhibition to the amateurs. The Sieur Morel, one of the recruiters for the same regiment, to whom the dead body of Goffin was a silent reproach for some similar feats of his own, broke the figures......
Jean-Baptiste-Marie-Louis La Reynie de La Bruyère, The Livre Rouge, Or Red Book (1790)


Cabinet of figures of Sieur Curtius,
 This cabinet, at no.8,  contains, besides a collection of busts in wax, which are very well made, entire figures in the same manner, dressed and representing different scenes.
All these  objects can be viewed for the very modest sum of 2 sols.
Luc-Vincent Thiéry, Almanach des voyageurs à Paris (1784) 

Le sieur Curtius, Painter and Sculptor of S.A.S. Monseigneur le duc de Chartres, specialises in the art and composition of portraits in wax;  his works have the merit of delicacy and exact ressemblance.  Two heads of Struensee that he created have had the honour of being placed in the Vatican and the Chateau de Chantilly.
For several years he has shown the Royal Family, several foreign princes, and almost all the famous people of our times. His salon is always curious and interesting, due to the care he takes to vary his exhibits.
This Artist offers his talents to people to desire to have their portrait made; he also sells works which flatter the taste of Amateurs.  
Almanach du Palais Royal 1785

The Salon of Sr Curtius, Wax figures, no.7
This salon is divided by a balustrade into two parts. It costs two sous to enter the first part and twelve sous for the second, where the wax bust are placed, which are normally very good likenesses.  It is noteworthy for the variety of personages on view.  Here are some exhibited at present: The three princes, the sons of Monseigneur the duc d'Orleans: Monseigneur le duc de Chartres, Monseigneur le duc de Montpensier and Monseigneur the comte de Beaujolais. M. Seguier, the Advocate-General, Madame **** at her toilette.  The "Père de famille".  More than twenty children of different ages.  Several young foreign Princes and Princesses.  Portraits of MM. Pinetti, Blanchard and Pilâtre de Rozier.
Almanach du Palais-Royal 1786

His cabinet of figures is well put together.  Every new happening furnishes him with a subject to vary the display.  The mannequins which support the heads are well dressed;  in general it is a show not to be missed.  The modest price of two sous per person, has made the fortune of Sieur Curtius, who has the title of painter-sculptor to Monseigneur the duc d'Orleans......

Everybody reproaches Curtius for his lack of care in changing his figures.  One day you see a great man of modern times, and the next you see only the wax form.  The heads have holes in the back, big enough for a hand, where the hair has been removed; the eyes have been changed for ones of a different colour; a red moustache replaces a black beard.  Yesterday's Scipio or Hannibal becomes today's Mandrin at the head of his band of smugglers.  The good Public doesn't know any different;  people are happy to visit for 2 sous, persuaded that yesterday they saw a great man and today they have trembled at the sight of a villain.

As to myself, in all honesty, I have enjoyed visiting all the cabinets of Sieur Curtius.  I have seen with pleasure at the Palais-Royal  striking ressemblances of:  Chinese Emperors; a Sultan's favourite; two great warriors; Voltaire; Jeannot and Tarare; I would be wrong to dispute their likeness when I have not seen the originals.  I was struck by the head of a certain Turk, called Mustapha, who - according to the guide who for two further sous explains what you cannot understand for the first two sous - massacred those who amused themselves by setting fire to his beard in the Auxerre coach. This head had great character and expressed fury, just as that of Tarare expressed cowardice.  However I  couldn't help myself from making a joke which made my companions laugh.  I asked how it had been possible to imitate the lower half of the Turk's head, since his chin had been shattered by a pistol shot in the course of his arrest.  Curtius signalled to me to keep quiet, and I did so for fear of doing him harm.
François-Marie Mayeur de Saint-Paul, Tableau du nouveau Palais-Royal (1788), p.97-8


A lighthearted account of 1837 recalls the waxworks in Paris in its declining years [it finally closed in 1847]:
 The "salon des figures" of Sieur Curtius is the only establishment (in the Boulevard du Temple) that hasn't changed.  For sixty years, it has remained exactly the same; nothing has been added and nothing taken away.  It is a modest affair, with its narrow
 entrance, its barker at the door, and its two lanterns. As to the wax sentry, he's a joke: I myself have been acquainted with him for forty years.

I have seen him as a French Guard, a  Chamborand Hussar, a grenadier of the convention, a trumpeteer of the Directory, a consular guide, a Polish lancer, a I mperial chasseur, a drummer in the Royal guard, a sergeant in the National Guard;  last Sunday he was a municipal guard....

When you go in the salon,you find it just as it has always been, dark and smoke-filled.  The new figures push the old ones to the rear... However, you will find familiar faces here, just as you did at the door. What celebrities -  good, bad, heros, wise men, virtuous, villains - have been offered for review by sieur Curtius since the beginning of his museum!  I think, however, that the clothes are changed more often than the figures.  I wouldn't be surprised if Genevieve de Brabant became the shepherdess of Ivry, that Charlotte Corday lent her bonnet to La Belle Ecaillère, that today Barnave represents  General Foy, and that the moustache of Jean Bart serve to make that of Marshall Lannes.  What has not moved at all from its place is the "grand couvert" which has seen all the kings: Louis XV and his august family; the Directory and their august family, the three Consuls and their august family, the Emperor Napoleon and his august family;  Louis XVIII and his august family;  Charles X and his august family; and today we can see Louis-Philippe and his august family!

I won't say anything about the fruits that make up the dessert. I can confirm that the apples, pears, peaches and grapes laid out on that august table are the same ones that I saw there thirty years ago... I do not think that they have even been dusted: I find it a little cavalier to offer to crowned heads of state, fruit that the most miserable shopkeeper in the rue Saint-Denis would not give his clerks.
Nicholas Brazier, Histoire des Petits Théâtres de Paris (1837), p.186-7

Curtius, whose real name was probably Curtz was a German-born artist, who was naturalised in France, where he came in about 1770.  He settled in Paris, and spent his whole life there, apart from a few brief tours in the provinces and abroad. It seems that it is to him that we owe, if not the invention, which is ancient, then the perfection of figures sculpted in wax, or similar.  These represented, lifesize, with their real costumes and clothes and with a greater or lesser degree of likeness,  persons, both living and dead.  Curtius established two salons, one in the Palais-Royal, the other in the boulevard St-Martin, and later that of the Temple, near the theatre of Nicolet. He completely renewed his Salon every year, and every month he would change something.  The first establishment was devoted to great men, illustrious notables.  In the second he displayed great villains, men who had made their name among the inferior classes of society.  As you can imagine, he did not forget to include his namesake Marcus Curtius.  The modern Curtius made busts of all the most distinguished people of the Court and town, and kept copies of the most remarkable for their character and beauty to be shown in his salons.  He modelled kings, great writers, beautiful women and thieves.  There could be seen Jeannot and Desrues, the Comte d'Estaing and Linguet, Frederick the Great and Voltaire, Catherine II and J.-J. Rousseau, Hayder-Aly and the aeronaut Blanchard, Franklin and Cagliostro, the Comtesse de la Mothe-Valois and Mesmer, Buffon and Mlle Contat, the royal family sitting down to a banquet and Lous XVI next to his brother-in-law Joseph II, the reception of the ambassadors of Tippou-Saib, etc. The barker would cry at the door:  Come in, Ladies and Gentlemen, come and see the grand couvert; it is just as it is in Versailles. It only cost two sous to enter; for twelve sous you could go right inside and circulate among the figures.  Despite the modest price,  Curtius made  receipts of  300 francs a day.  Also to be seen were precious examples of painting and sculpture, antique monuments, mummies, rareties such as the shirt that Henry IV wore when he was assassinated (with certificates proving its authenticity); in sum, all the novelties which excited a sensation in the different epochs.  
Dictionnaire de la Conversation et de la lecture (1832-9) vol.18

The German Creutz, or Curtius, the pupil of a certain Sylvestre, established in about 1770 two cabinets with wax figures on the boulevard, near the Théâtre Nicolet.  One displayed the heads of villains, the other of famous people.  He rented an arcade in the Palais-Royal when the galleries were not yet finished, and transported one of his cabinets there.... Curtius had been given the title of painter and sculptor to Mgr. the duc d'Orléans.  His establishments could be entered for two sous; each one had a barker at the door.  There you could see the heads of Chinese emperors, a member of the Sultan's harem, Voltaire, Rousseau, famous actors, Janot and Tarare - but Sieur Curtius, to ensure variety in his museum, changed the names of the figures with great facility.  The shepherdess of Ivry became Geneviève de Brabant;  Scipio or Hannibal, Mandrin at the head of his smugglers.  Barnave, the marchal Lannes, Jean Bart, the general Foy, succeeded to one another with a few modificatons of dress and length of moustache.  You could go to see Volange, the actor who played Janot, the lawyer Linguet, the poisoner Desrues, the Widow Lescombat and the comte d'Estaing, the Holy Father next to the Turk Mustapha.  A great curiosity for some time was  a group representing Pyramus et Thisbe: you could open up Thisbe's body and examine her insides.  There was the Caverne des grands voleurs and up to the Revolution you could see the Grand Couvert de France, where all the Royal Family were seated round a table.
 Les Chroniques du Palais-Royal (1860) p.282-3:  

Jean-Baptiste-Guillaume Curtius settled in Paris in about 1770.  It was he who fashioned the figures that were so admired in the cabinet of sieur Aubin, who had a Cabinet of Curiosities in the Boulevard du Temple and in the Fairs. 
Arthur Heulhard,  La Foire Saint-Laurent (1878),p.147-8

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting… In terms of passing off characters under different identities, that seems to fit with his daughter's practice, too.