Sunday, 12 February 2017

A tale of Sleeping Beauty

SLEEPING BEAUTY:  This portrayal of Madame du Barry, later the mistress of Madame du Barry (1743-1793) was modelled by Philippe Curtius in 1765 and is the oldest wax figure at Madame Tussauds.

So reads the current label for the famous Sleeping Beauty at Madame Tussaud's in London.  I'm not sure any of it is true.

How old is she?

The Sleeping Beauty was undoubtedly among the models brought from France by Marie Tussaud in 1802, and is always said to be the oldest in the collection, but, as far as I know, there is no certain date for her creation. 1765 or 1767 are extrapolations from the chronology of the Tussaud Memoirs; 1770 or 1776, both of which are also cited, are possible dates for Curtius's first waxworks in Paris.

 It should also be emphasised that it is not the wax figure, but the mould, if it still exists, which is 18th-century. The model was certainly replaced after the fire of 1925. It  has also been replaced or completely revamped very recently - I'm convinced it wasn't there at all when I visited Madame Tussaud's in August 2010.  In earlier photos on the internet the Beauty is definitely the worse for wear, whereas now she appears brand new. If you look carefully, you also see she that she has sported a  number of different dresses - or at least bodices and bows -  over the last decade or so.

Looking a bit rough in 2005
Who is she?


In the early days of the Tussaud travelling exhibition the figure was identified as a now largely forgotten society beauty called Madame de Sainte-Amaranthe. Thus John Theodore Tussaud, in the Romance of Madame Tussaud:

 Among the figures taken on tour at this time [c.1818] were models of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the Dauphin, Voltaire and Madame St. Amaranthe (Tussaud's "Sleeping Beauty"), taken a few months before her execution.  These identical figures, as already stated, are still in the collection (1921 ed. p.101).

Richard Altick in The Shows of London (1978) mentions a programme in the British Library for a show at 87 Pall Mall in 1802 which may be tentatively identified as a early reference to the Tussaud exhibition.  The waxworks figures are described as "taken from life, from masks moulded on the persons themselves, or from the best original paintings" and included "Charlotte Corday, Mlle. de Ste. Amaranthe and Mirabeau" (p.333).

The early Tussaud catalogues all featured  "Madame de Sainte-Amaranthe".  The earliest I can find on the web was published in Bristol in 1823 and has the following entry:

Biographical and descriptive sketches of ...the unrivalled exhibition of Madame Tussaud.  Bristol: J. Bennett, 1823.
Other available catalogues have much the same write-up.  In 1851, she is described in the premises in Baker Street as "on a couch" with "Madame Tussaud at the head of it".
Biographical and descriptive sketches...  London, 1851

The American Benjamin Silliman saw her in that year, so we can be sure that this was indeed the Sleeping Beauty with her clockwork breathing mechanism:

Another lady, Madame ______, afterwards a victim of Robespierre's cruelty, because she indignantly refused to become the victim of his lust, lies asleep on her couch in her day dress, probably in prison prior to her execution. She breathes,and her bust, with her dress, rises and falls so naturally with the respiration, that you instinctively move softly, lest she should be disturbed in her slumber (Benjamin Silliman, A visit to Europe in 1851, vol.2, p.431) 

This tableau, with the figure of Madame Tussaud, seems to have survived more or less unaltered down to the fire of 1925.  Thus the Romance of Madame Tussaud:

 All day long groups of Cup-tie trippers stand about the Sleeping Beauty, not only for her sake, but also for the sake of Madame Tussaud, whose figure stands at Madame St. Amaranthe's head, while at her feet sits William Cobbett,  wearing his old beaver hat, and holding in his hand the snuffbox which legend credits him with passing to visitors on some weird occasions (p.235)

The association with William Cobbett, which is also in the 1851 catalogue, is at first sight a strange.  The key to the mystery is supplied by Richard Altick: this too was a mechanised figure: the great journalist apparently bowed continuously to onlookers. Clockwork featured elsewhere in the exhibition: Benjamin Silliman  reported the existence of a richly dressed Chinese couple represented in silent conversation, where the wife moved her head as she spoke to her husband.  Altick makes the intriguing (?but unverified) suggestion that Sleeping Beauty's clockwork mechanism was added in the 19th century;  in his view the "famous Sleeping Beauty" was "converted from Mlle de Ste Amaranthe", presumably for the permanent exhibition. (Altick, Shows of London, p.335).  The clockwork mechanism was replaced by an electric motor in the early 20th century.

After the 1925 fire the tableau was reconstructed in much the same format  (minus Cobbett). The London tour guide Joanna Moncrieff,  has posted this photograph on her blog, taken from an illustrated guide of the 1930s:

See: Joanna Moncrieff, Madame Tussaud’s – A Souvenir Brochure from the 1930s (Part 2), Westminster Walks, blog post of  26.03.2013

The text in Joanna Moncrieff's guide states clearly that this is a portrait model of "Madame St. Amaranthe", as does the 1932 catalogue on Google Books:

SLEEPING BEAUTY: This figure is a model of Madame St Amaranthe, widow of a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Body Guard of Louis XVI.  She incurred the emnity of Robespierre - the story goes because she repelled his amorous advances.  At the early age of 22 she was condemned by the Revolutionary Tribunal and guillotined.

Here is the model  in close-up in a vintage postcard from the same sort of era (on various pinterest sites):

It is intriguing to note how, in this incarnation, Sleeping Beauty has been denuded of her provocative sexuality.  She is supplied with an amorphous dark gown, a massive crucifix and the stern figure of Madame Tussaud herself as a chaperone.  Only her heaving bosom reassures us she is still alive!

Who was Madame de Sainte-Amaranthe?

The Tussaud Memoirs supply the following:

Her husband had been a lieutenant-colonel in the body guards of Louis XVI, and was killed in the assault of the Tuilleries on the 10th of August.  She was one of the most beautiful women in France, and had the misfortune to been seen by Robespierre who, charmed by her graceful attractions, sought her for his mistress, and was repelled with indignation.  Robespierre, at that time in full power, soon found a pretext for bringing her before a revolutionary tribunal, when she was tried, condemned, and beheaded, at the age of twenty-two.
Memoirs, ed. Herve (1838), p.125-6.

The biographical information is essentially the same in all the catalogues:  Madame de Sainte-Amaranthe was the wife of a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Royal Bodyguards, who was guillotined when she rejected the advances of Robespierre.

Heinsius, Émilie de Sainte-Amaranthe
The account is confused, mainly because two figures, mother and daughter, are conflated. "Madame de Sainte-Amaranthe" , born in 1752, was the daughter of the duc de Saint-Simon and a prominent society hostess.  In the late 1780s she was also Curtius's neighbour in the Palais Royal where she ran a fashionable gambling club, the "Cinquante" at no.50 des Arcades.  Her daughter Émilie was born in 1777.  Neither woman was married to a guardsman: Émilie's husband was Charles-Marie-Antoine, marquis de Sartine, whom she married in September 1793. In the Terror the entire family, mother, daughter, son and son-in-law,  were imprisoned in Sainte-Pélagie and convicted on trumped-up charges of conspiracy.  They were guillotined with Robespierre's would-be assassin Cécile Renault on 17th June 1794.  Émilie, aged only nineteen rather than twenty-two, made quite a showing; she cut her own hair and, stripped of her red parricide's mantle,  appeared stunningly beautiful on the scaffold.  Afterwards, in her honour, the women of Paris sported a red scarf called the 'nemesis', which was worn thrown across bare shoulders.
See Melanie Clegg's blog post:
"The tragic fate of Sleeping Beauty's daughter, Émilie de Sainte-Amaranthe", Madame Guillotine,  02.01.2012

It seems highly unlikely that Robespierre ever had designs on either woman, though Augustin Robespierre knew them and attempted to protect them from the guillotine (see, John Laurence Carr Robespierre (1972) p.82-83)

The Tussaud memoirs then specify:

She sat to Madame Tussaud, only a few months before her execution, for her brother, and the portrait was fitted up and adorned in a most elegant and expensive manner.

It is clearly the daughter rather than the mother who is being referred to, and "elegant and expensive manner" is probably intended to suggest the Sleeping Beauty.  However, "a few months before her execution" implies 1793 rather than a date in the 1760s or '70s.  

None of it quite adds up:  Did Marie Tussaud really create the model? Is "Madame de Sainte-Amaranthe" the mother or the daughter?  If the daughter, why on earth would her brother want his sister portrayed in such a provocative pose?  


The identification of the Sleeping Beauty with Madame du Barry, is now the"official" position. Here is the crucial passage from the Tussaud Memoirs:
 Madame Tussaud possessed a portrait of this celebrated lady taken at the age of twenty-two, which exhibits a beautiful countenance and figure, but as she advanced in life she became rather embonpoint.
Memoirs, ed. Herve (1838), p.111-2.

In the winter of 1790 the German playwright August von Kotzebue, visiting the Salon de cire at the Palais-Royal, saw a model of "Madame du Barry sleeping and half naked".

In 1793, confronted by Curtius's rendition of her severed head,  Palloy concluded that the resemblance was so strong that "in reality he must already have moulded a wax mask from life" (Livre de raison, ed. 1956, p.212.)

Pamela Pilbeam suggests that there might originally have been two "invitingly horizontal ladies", one Madame Sainte-Amaranthe and the other Madame du Barry (Madame Tussaud, p.33-4)  (Marina Warner goes one better and for some reason claims that "Madame Tussaud's legacy to the London waxworks" included three Sleeping Beauties - the third one being the princesse de Lamballe (Phantasmagoria, p.47-8))
Perhaps a separate du Barry did come to England with Madame Tussaud: GoogleBooks yields the following intriguing "snippet" from a book on wax models published in 1977:
We cannot be sure that Curtius did make a portrait of Madame du Barry, aged 22, in 1765, as Madame Tussaud's biography claims.  Nor do we know whether the wax catalogued by her in 1819 as Madame du Barry (traditionally referred to in Madame Tussaud's as "The Sleeping Beauty") is Curtius's work.
La ceroplastica nella scienza e nell'arte
Unfortunately, without the 1819 catalogue in question, there is no means of checking this reference. Certainly there is no du Barry mentioned in the later guides.

Presumably at some point, the administration of Madame Tussaud's in London decided to substitute the royal mistress for the forgotten figure of Madame de Sainte-Amaranthe. In my 1972 guide book Sleeping Beauty looks much the same:

However the caption now reads:
The sitter for this portrait, by Curtius in 1765 was Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry.  Madame Tussaud concealed du Barry's charms under veils and puritanical black, so that the portrait is known only as "The Sleeping Beauty"

In the 1980s the Sleeping Beauty became the centrepiece of one of a series of "historical tableaux" devised for Tussauds in 1978 by the stage designer Julia Trevelyan Oman: she lay under a canopy in a four-poster bed, this time in a splendid 18th-century gown; a lady and gentleman were portrayed gazing at her, while at the foot of the bed, her page, a "blackamoor", kept vigil. (see Maria Warner, Phantasmagoria, p.47).  Here is a photograph I found on the internet (the picture was inspiration for an 18th-century styled wedding dress):

The presence of the negro servant makes it clear that this was intended to be du Barry.  In this photo, from an 1983 magazine, she is labelled as such.

Rotarian, 1983
No one in particular?

The Sleeping Beauty could just be a novelty piece. Her doll-like features do not particularly suggest a portrait.  Recently there has been a flurry of interest in wax "anatomical Venuses", to which the model is sometimes compared  - Curtius was not above showing such works:  he is known to have displayed a "Pyramus and Thisbe" in which the Thisbe opened to display her vital organs.  Intriguing Sylvestre's exhibition at the Lyceum in London in 1785 also included  "a Sleeping Venus of exquisite beauty".  Sylvestre was less reluctant than Madame Tussaud to avertise the sensual attraction of his waxwork:
 The artist to shew that his abilities were not exhausted, has lately produced an additional piece which outdoes his former outdoing;  it is a female figure, reposing: toute déshabillée, on a couch, the perfect symmetry of whose limbs, the soft langour of whose eyes and countenance joined to the bewitching posture in which she is displayed make every beholder regret that he has not the power of Prometheus, and cannot animate a figure that exceeds "all that painting can express or youthful poets fancy when they love"

In the publicity material this piece too accrued different identities; in July 1785 she was "the Sleeping Leda", but by April 1787, significantly enough, she had become:  "the beautiful Countess du Barre (Barry?), sometimes known as the Sleeping Beauty" (Quotes from Theresa Ransom, Madame Tussaud: a life and a time (2003) , p.58-61). 

The provocatively sleeping "Venus" was clearly a stock pose and Curtius may well have remade or refurbished the model more than once.  In 1790 she was du Barry; by 1794 she was the beautiful victim of the Terror, Émilie de Sainte-Amaranthe. Today she is reincarnated once more as du Barry but, more importantly, looks as sexy and alluring as ever.


Theresa Ransom, Madame Tussaud: a life and a time (2003) , p.58-61
Marina Warner, ‘Waxworks and Wonderlands’, in Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, Visual Display Culture Beyond Appearances, New York, l995;
_____, Phantasmagoria (2006)
Richard Altick, The Shows of London, Harvard U.P.,1978 [extracts on GoogleBook]


  1. First of all, congratulations for your excellent blog, you have made a great work.
    Please, excuse my English.
    I am interested in Mme. Tussaud´s Sleeping Beauty since at least 20 years ago. My interest came through Mme. du Barry. However I am sure that Sleeping Beauty isn´t the portrait of the Royal Mistress. I believe that Sleeping Beauty is the portrait of Mme. St. Amaranthe. When Curtius died there were 3 recumbent figures in the Main Gallery at 20 Boulevard du Temple as we can read in the inventory written at Curtius´s dead. These 3 figures must be Mme. du Barry, Mme. St. Amaranthe and the Princess of Lamballe. When Mme. Tussaud took her Exhibition to England, she brought these 3 figures with her since they are mentioned in the 1803 Catalogue. Only one of these still survives and it must be that of Mme St. Amaranthe. The 2 other have been disappeared (we don´t know exactly when).
    Twenty years ago, I wrote to Mme. Tussaud´s Arxivist (then Undine Concannon) asking for some information about Sleeping Beauty. She replied that this wax figure was more likely to be the portrait of Mme. St. Amaranthe but the identity of the model had been changed because Mme.du Barry is better known as historical figure. Regarding the head mould, Miss Concannon said that the figure isn´t from the 18 th. Century but it´s made from a very early mould (not mentioned how early). I suspect it must be from the 19 th. Century since according to Pauline Chapman book “Madame Tussaud a waxworker extraordinary”, p. 141 “the moulds of all Marie´s early portraits has been disappeared”. P. Chapman was Arxivist and Researcher of Mme. Tussaud´s and she identified Sleeping Beauty with Mme. du Barry based on the resemblance. But if you compare some contemporany portraits of the Countess and the wax figure, you can see the difference. However a miniature portrait of Mme.du Barry made in 1770 still exists. We don´t know the author.
    As far as why Marie Tussaud modelled Mme. St. Amaranthe in such provocative pose, I have read that it was because she was inspired by the portrait of Mme. du Barry modelled by her uncle. But as you mentioned in your blog perhaps Sleeping Beauty is no one in particular and was inspired by an Anatomical Venus. Only one thing: there is a small marble made by Augustin Pajou which represents a naked women reclining on an otomana. It is claimed that the women could be a portrait of Mme. du Barry.
    It has been a pleasure to find your blog
    Best regards

    1. Thank you very much for this; the information that Madame Tussaud originally possessed two or three different Sleeping Beauty figures makes sense of a lot of the muddle. As you say, it looks like the surviving wax was originally Mme St. Amaranthe.

    2. I recently came across a reference to a "biographical" catalogue from 1803 that I missed before. As you say, this has entries for Mme. du Barry, Mme. St. Amaranthe and the Princess of Lamballe.

      Biographical sketches of the Characters Composing the Cabinet of Composition Figures Executed by The Celebrated Curtius of Paris and his Successor, Edinburgh, 1803.

  2. Dear Catherine;

    Thank you very much for let me know about 1803 Madame Tussaud´s catalogue. It is actually the oldest surviving catalogue from Madame Tussaud´s Exhibition. In 1803 there were three portraits of reclining females: Madame du Barry (1765?), The Princess of Lamballe (1780s) and Emilie St. Amaranthe (1793?). Only one of these three portraits has survived and possibily (according to the catalogues)it is that of Mme. St. Amaranthe.

    I suspect that Curtius did not model the Countess in 1765. I believe that he did it later (perhaps from 1770 when he began to model life-size models and the Countess became a famous woman). In 1765 she was a mistress of the Count du Barry but not the Royal mistress. She reached court in spring of 1768 and not before.

    I am almost sure that the portrait of Madame du Barry was based or inspired by an anatomical model.

    Sleeping Beauty has been on display at MET last year. I attach the link:

    Best wishes


  3. The missing link… Prince de Conti. The mother was his mistress in 1770s. He was Curtius's early patron, incl for wax erotica. Suggestion: the head is based on the mother, made by Curtius when she was a young woman. Mme Tussaud has wanted to claim it for herself, so advanced the date by 2 decades, while still claiming she was 22. For Mme Ste-Amaranthe, see Hector Fleischmann, 'Les Filles Publiques sous la Terreur'.

    1. The Heinsius oval portrait above is Jeanne-Louise, the mother, not Emilie, who was the subject of a physionotrace by Edmé Quenedey. There is also a portrait by Carmontelle. She could plausibly be the model, but it's difficult to get a good view of the waxwork's face full-on.