I was not going to write any more about Madame Tussaud and dead Revolutionaries, but in the end I've decided that the speculations surrounding David and the famous Tussaud waxwork of Marat in his bath deserve a post.
David Bindman, in his catalogue for the 1789 "In the Shadow of the Guillotine" exhibition at the British Museum (which showed an old photograph of the Marat tableau) provides a convenient summary of the few known facts, as follows:
3. According to David Bindman, “there is every reason to suppose” that the mould of the head and shoulders is genuinely contemporary with Marat's death, and that it was made for a commemorative display at Curtius’s waxworks. As Curtius was still alive at the time of Marat’s death, it is possible that he rather than his niece modelled the piece.
The only documentary evidence for any direct link between David and the waxwork comes from Madame Tussaud's publicity material and her Memoirs of 1838. Smell a rat already? There are two claims, both pretty substantial. The first is that Madame Tussaud herself, under orders from David, cast the mould for the death mask of Marat. The second is that, following Marat's funeral, David used the Tussaud tableau as an model, perhaps even an inspiration, for the composition of his painting.
|Photograph from Romance of Madame Tussaud (1920)|
THE DEATH MASK
Here are the relevant passages from the Memoirs of Madame Tussaud (1838):
: [Madame Tussaud] was fetched by some gens d'armes, who took her to the house of Marat, just after he had been killed by Charlotte Corday, for the purpose of taking a cast from his face. He was still warm, and his bleeding body and the cadaverous aspect of his almost diabolical features presented a picture replete with horror, and Madame Tussaud performed her task under the influence of the most painful emotions. [p.199]
It was by [David's] orders that Madame Tussaud took a cast from the face of Marat, as also of Charlotte Corday, after death, from which David made a splendid picture of the scene of the monster's assassination, and had written upon it, "David à Marat", for whom he pretended an extraordinary friendship. [p.278]
In real life the aftermath of the assassination was a highly charged affair, fraught with threats of crowd violence and complicated by the conflicting jurisdictions of the commune, the assembly and the Jacobin club - the guard answered to the section, not to an individual member of the Convention. An unaccompanied young woman was scarcely going to be able to enter Marat's apartment unnoticed and whip out the plaster of Paris!
Madame Tussaud spoils her case by piling on other implausible claims. We learn for instance that in prison Charlotte Corday "conversed freely with Madame Tussaud, and even cheerfully" and that Tussaud took a cast of her freshly guillotined head [p.341-2]. Robespierre himself took time out from the Revolution to visit Curtius's museum where he harangued passersby to enter and see "the image of our departed friend, snatched from us by an assassin's hand"; he even requested his own image to be added to the tableau.(p.345-6). More convincing is the statement that the Marat attracted great crowds and that takings rose to twenty five pounds a day for several weeks in succession [p.346-7]
As noted previously, death masks are officially documented as having been taken by the sculptors Beauvallet and Deseine. Delécluze mentions a third in the possession of David (no wonder the body was in a poor state!). We don't know who created this latter, but there is really no reason to assume it was Curtius or Madame Tussaud rather than someone in David's own workshop.
The surviving death masks of Marat don't provide much evidence one way or the other.
There are examples in various French museums and collections, most of which look as if they came from the same mould. No-one seems sure where they originated. Some, including the one shown to Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Musée Grévin, are said to be by Madame Tussaud or copied from her original. However, the plaster mask from the Carnavalet, is listed simply as sculptor "unknown", provenance "unknown". The 2009 exhibition Marat contre Corday at Vizelle included a bronze mask (left) from the Musée Lambinet which looks slightly different and which Guillaume Mazeau identifies as by Deseine [Marat contre Corday, ill.2].
I am not at all certain from the pictures that the Tussaud Marat itself is based on a death mask - it could easily just be from a sculpted model.
DAVID'S USE OF THE TUSSAUD WAXWORK AS A MODEL
This claim is stated most clearly in The Romance of Madame Tussaud (by MT's great grandson John Theodore Tussaud):
... members of the Tussaud family, especially in days gone by, have produced subjects for other artists to paint from. For example, the model of Marat stabbed in his bath - which has been with our Exhibition ever since it existed in Paris - was modelled expressly to assist the famous David to paint his picture representing the death of the miscreant.
Strange to say, a replica of this painting was offered to us a year or so ago, and the dealer who submitted it insisted that it was the picture from which our model was copied. He looked woefully incredulous when it was explained to him that the boot was on the otherfoot, and that the picture had been copied from the model. [1921 ed. p.118]
Pamela Pilbeam, a modern authority on Madame Tussaud, agrees:
Marie always claimed that David used her wax model of Marat when he painted his own version of events. This is one of the claims in Madame Tussaud's memoirs that is probably accurate. The day after the assassination the Convention ordered David to paint the scene of Marat's death as part of the public mourning for a hero of the Revolution. It was a hot July and, although David went to work immediately wrapping most of the body in wet cloth to delay putrefaction, the corpse rotted so fast that it had to be interred on 16 July. The bath-tub murder scene, one of the most famous images of the Revolution, may have been reconstructed by David in the summer and autumn of 1793 from the wax tableau already on display in Curtius's salon. Hence it is no coincidence that Marat Assassiné, presented by David to the Convention on 14 October 1793, has a strong resemblance to a wax model rather than a cadaver [Madame Tussaud and the history of waxworks (2003) p.50]
Was there really a working relationship between David and Curtius's workshop? Professor Pilbeam following the article by Hinman, examines the evidence. Wax effigies appeared in some of the funeral processions orchestrated by David. In July 1791 the wax image of Voltaire in the cortege which brought his body to the Pantheon was identified as by Curtius, or "in the manner of" Curtius. (Its red dye unfortunately ran in the rain). In April 1793, months before the death of Marat, a wax model by Curtius had also formed part of the huge funeral procession of the Polish patriot Lazowski [p.44-5]. Tellingly, though, there is no record of any participation in the funeral of Marat himself. The identification of Voltaire's effigy as the work of Curtius is also not conclusive; Antoine de Baecque in his book Glory and Terror: seven deaths under the Revolution (2002) argues that it was not a waxwork at all, but Voltaire's actual embalmed and mummified corpse.
The Tussaud Memoirs, of course, suggest a spurious familiarity: in this account David is a frequent visitor to Curtius's home, and Marie is even allowed to make his image [p.278]
|Madame Tussaud at work in the Terror, Chamber of Horrors|
Although Tussaud claims to have provided the model for David’s painting, (very likely the reverse was true), the two images represent entirely different viewing experiences. In David’s painting the powerful immediacy of the scene was used to transcend the limits of death, to bring Marat back ‘tout entier….’ The waxworks tableau to be found at Curtius’s Salon, by contrast, sought to make Marat’s assassination palpable for the viewer, not to transcend but rather to capture death.
Palpable wounds were, by contrast, what Tussaud specialized in. The attraction of her waxworks depended on a kind of forensic gaze. David deploys a familiar aesthetics of martyrdom where the violated body is intended to move the viewer to the contemplation of immaterial values. Madame Tussaud’s Adjoining Room [later the Chamber of Horrors] instead concentrated on bringing death itself close, in all its abject details.…In the Chamber of the Dead, the illusion of life never brings the dead back to life. On the contrary, one could say of Madame Tussaud that she brings the dead back to death.
Graybill, Lela. 'A Proximate Violence: Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors'. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 9.2 (2010).
- All of which is a posh way of saying that David's Marat is a great work of art, whereas the Tussaud Marat is just a nasty waxworks horror.