Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Jacques-Louis David and the Tussaud heads

This little episode is a poignant one: the very first description of the Tussaud guillotined Terrorists on display, and it involves no less a person than David. The great iconographer of Revolution stumbles unwittingly upon the waxen image of its foremost ideologue........

The incident is related in Etienne-Jean Delécluze's memoirs of David. There is no exact date given but Delécluze places it after Napoleon's coronation, so in the early 1800s. The waxworks in Paris still used the name of Curtius at this time.

David and his pupil Delécluze pay a casual visit to Curtius's premises in the boulevard du Temple and are prevailed upon by Curtius's boy to view a "curious piece".  At first they are reluctant, assuming they will be shown something pornographic, but they are assured by the boy that the exhibit will "please them":

David, self-portrait, 1791
Uffizi Gallery
"With these words, he led David and Etienne (Delécluze)  to a recess where a sort of chest had been set up and he opened the lid.  Lengthwise in the chest, hung on an iron triangle, were the moulded waxen heads of Hébert, Robespierre and several other men executed in the same period. "Here you can see", began the boy reciting his banal lines of explanation, "the head of Hébert, known as the Pere Duchesne, whose crimes led him to the scafford. This other is the head of Robespierre; notice, gentlemen, that it is still wrapped in the bandage which held his jaw, shattered by a pistol shot, fired at him when....."

Heads, Madame Tussaud Archive
Some time after 1865
"David, maintaining the greatest calm, made a little sign to the boy to make him understand that his explanation was  superfluous and looked for a long time with great concentration at these two heads.....Finally he started to walk away and said, without addressing himself either to Etienne or the demonstrator, to whom he gave a few coins' tip:  "They are good likenesses, they are  well done". ("C'est bien imité, c'est tres-bien fait")"(p.172)

David and Delécluze never spoke of the incident again and Delécluze never recounted it during the painter's lifetime for fear of other people's sarcasm, but he remained impressed by his master's calm dignity in the face of this horrible sight.


Etienne-Jean Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps: souvenirs (1855), p.344-5.
Delécluze was generally critical of David's political allegiances which he thought lacked integrity.  "This Deep, Great, and Religious Feeling": Delécluze on History Painting and Davidby Marijke Jonker,  Nineteenth-century art worldwide,  Vol.4(3) Autumn 2005.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The death of Sleeping Beauty

The evolution of the Madame Tussaud myth is illuminated by this little story concerning the corpse of Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry, recounted by the historian Hector Fleischmann early in the 20th century.

"The following mournful incident  took place on 7th Frimaire, Year II (7th December, 1793).

The dull shades of twilight were already enveloping the cemetery of the Madeleine, otherwise known as the Ville-l'Eveque, in which rested so many victims of the Revolutionary Tribunal. A man was waiting at the side of a freshly dug grave and, to protect himself from the keen, boisterous night-wind, had raised the collar of his bottle-green cloak and shiveringly wrapped himself in its broad folds. After a few moments he seemed to hearken, to watch for the heavy sound of a waggon in the distance. The noise grew louder, came nearer. At the further end, towards the cemetery entrance, the hinges of the carriage-gate were heard to creak and the cart, whose arrival the man apparently expected, shaking on the ice-bound earth, reached the grave by the grand avenue. Big red drops were trickling through the straw. Whilst the horse was still panting three men dragged out of the straw a heavy thing that gave a dull sound as it touched the ground. One of them then took hold of a smaller object and presented it to the waiting man. 

It was a decapitated head in which blood was clotted in wavy locks of hair, light-coloured and curly as a child's.  The man took the head, doubtless with some feeling of repulsion which he soon mastered ; for was it not for that purpose that he had waited at this ill-omened hour in the silent cemetery ? And he set about his task. He took from under his cloak a piece of soft wax, some oil, a pair of pincers. Falling on his knees beside the decapitated head which he had set on soil drawn from the grave, he modelled it, restoring with an adroit, expert movement of the thumb the features which had been rather put out of shape, parting the hair from a forehead which was still pure despite wrinkles, hair which the sweat of the agony had glued to it. 

Thanks to his labour, Curtius,  the founder and director of the museum of wax heads at the Palais Egalite, formerly Royal, was enabled to exhibit in his cabinet the authentic likeness of Jeanne Gomart de Vaubernier, Countess Dubarry.  It was her truncated corpse which Sanson's cart had just deposited in the cemetery of the Girondins. At eleven the previous night the Revolutionary Tribunal had condemned to death the former courtesan, that sad, unhappy woman whom President Dumas had blamed for " the dissoluteness of her morals, the glaring publicity of her debauches. " The royal mistress had expiated on the Revolution scaffold the happy fortunes of past years, the queenship of her beauty and her confidence in an innocence which history has not taken the trouble to prove. 

She was buried two paces away from Louis XVI's grave, and Mme. Roland and Charlotte Corday were already sleeping their endless sleep in the same plot of ground. And nothing remained of the Dubarry but the moulded waxen head in a museum where Jean-Paul Marat's wax bust was receiving the public homage of a posthumous, fleeting triumph."

The Sleeping Beauty, often 
identified as Madame du
Barry is said to be the 
oldest model  
at Madame Tussaud's.
...... At this point in 1793 the myth of moulds cast at the foot of the guillotine had clearly not yet reached its final form, though Madame Tussaud herself later used the notion of a furtive trip to the Madeleine, this time in her account of the search for the discarded remains of Marie Antoinette. Madame du Barry, of course, had in all probability already featured in the waxworks, boulevard du Temple, possibly as "Sleeping Beauty".  Her louche past as royal mistress, coupled with her undignified hysteria in the face of Lamourette, guaranteed her star status among Curtius's exhibits.

Kate Berridge (p.152) surveys the evidence for what was claimed at the time:  Curtius informed Palloy, enterpreneur of the Bastille, that the model was a good likeness because he, Curtius, had been to the cemetery to inspect the real thing. The writer de Favrolles also related how Curtius obtained permission to immortalise the features of Madame du Barry and executed this project in the Madeleine cemetery:  "You can see this very well-modelled head at his exhibition in the boulevard du Temple.” Kate Berridge is usually sceptical but sees no reason for Curtius to lie to his friend Palloy. Personally I doubt Curtius ever went near any cemeteries; however, inspecting a corpse is one thing, creating a cast from its face is quite another....

Madame Tussaud in search of new models ... 
 (My photo 2010)

Hector Fleischmann, Behind the scenes in the Terror (English version 1914) p.310.

Kate Berridge, Waxing mythical: the life and legend of  Madame Tussaud` (2007)

The story continues to be embellished.  See: David Jays,  "Death doesn’t lie" obit-magazine 2009.
"Although Mme. du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, met the guillotine with an unsightly grimace, in the cemetery Curtius pinched her lips into a charming smile. Then he poured warm wax onto the graveside turf, and rolled the head into it. Grisly job done."  (Sticky mess more like!)

Note: 14/05/2014

Here is a reference which I have found in Fleischmann's Masque mortuaire de Robespierre:

We are assured that Curtius, known for the perfection with which he models in coloured wax, obtained permission to conserve by this process the features of Mme Du Barry and that it was in the cemetery of La Madeleine itself that he carried out this project. I don't think however that the portrait can be a very good likeness; the contraction of muscles in surprise or rage changes the features entirely; so much more so the convulsions of death.....But it for all that precious, due to the celebrity of she who is represented, even imperfectly.  You can see this head, very well modelled, at the widow Curtius's, on the boulevard du Temple, in her cabinet.
Mémoires historiques de Jeanne Gomart de Vaubernier, comtesse Du Barry, dernière maîtresse de Louis XV..... Paris, 1803.  Written by Mme Guénard. (Cited Fleischmann, p.617).  This looks like the same pamphlet mentioned by Kate Berridge and ascribed to "De Favrolles".

Note 13/03/2017

 Andrea Daninos, Une Révolution en cire (2016), p.39, gives the text of the relevant reference from Palloy's Livre de raison. It would seem that the two men, although outwardly cordial, were not "friends" at all; Palloy had cast aspersions on Curtius for his late arrival at the Bastille on 14th July.  He now doubts the reality of his claims concerning the figure of Madame du Barry.

In the afternoon I paid a visit to Citizen Curtius who welcomed me and showed me the head of Dubarry that he had just finished.  Faced with my astonishment at the likeness, he recounted to me his method of copying from nature and how, on 17 frumaire (7th December last) he had waited in the Cemetery of the Girondins for Sanson's cart to bring her freshly severed head. In spite of the cold, he had installed himself, with his wax and brushes on the side of the burial ditch; he had anchored the head between two stones and then gone about reproducing the features.  In reality, the resemblance was so great that he must already have moulded a wax mask from life, as he has done, I know, in the case of several others.  Livre de raison, ed. 1956, p.212.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Madame Tussaud's guillotined Terrorists

The four Terrorists (Robespierre, Hébert, Carrier and Fouquier-Tinville) were the revolutionaries most execrated after Thermidor and under the Directory. Having been displayed in Paris, the moulds for the heads were brought to London by Madame Tussaud in 1802 and later formed the core of theTussaud historical collection.  Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were added to the tableaux much later (in 1865, after Madame Tussaud's death). These wax heads (perhaps with the exception of Robespierre) are surely just well-crafted models........?   Or are they?  Here are some pictures.

The heads as they appeared some time prior to 2010.
This tableaux included  Fouquier-Tinville

Jacques Hébert. "Père Duchesne"
Executed 26th March 1794
Hébert was one of the last guillotine victims to be buried in the Cimetière de la Madeleine.

Jean-Baptiste Carrier
Executed 16 December 1794
Cimetière des Errancis
A hated figure in the post-Thermidor and Directory periods. Revelation of Carrier's atrocities in Nantes had left the jury at his trial dumbfounded. This is one of the first wax models which can be definitely dated to after the death of Curtius on 24th September 1794. The likeness is particularly striking, especially when compared to the portrait by David. The expression and the irregularities of features really make you feel this could have been taken from life.

Without the gore:
Jean-Baptiste Carrier:  
Plate from Romance of Madame Tussaud (1920)
"Impression of his head taken immediately after he had been guillotined,
December 16, 1794"

Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville
Public Prosecutor of the Terror
Executed 7th May 1795
Buried in the Cimetière des Errancis
Again, the likeness to surviving portraits is impressive.

Madame Tussaud's head of Robespierre

Now for something altogether more unpleasant.....

Madame Tussaud's famous tableau of guillotined heads is something of a puzzle. The Tussaud Memoirs state that she moulded the heads of Robespierre and the other Terroristes immediately after they were guillotined, by order of the National Convention and under duress. In some versions, the casts were taken at the very foot of the guillotine:

Chamber of Horrors: the guillotined heads in 2010 (my photo)

Everything about this claim, of course, invites scepticism.

 The Tussaud Memoirs are transparently unreliable.
According to David Binton, the story that likenesses were made after execution is first mentioned in Tussaud catalogues only 1822 when the heads were moved from the main exhibition to a separate early version of Chamber of Horrors. The claim was then elaborated in the Memoirs, first published in 1838. In the beginning (1803 catalogue) they were simply exhibited with biographical information but no lurid details.

There is no reference among the copious official records of the Revolutionary government. 
On the contrary there were considerable efforts to prevent access to the corpses by relic hunters.  According to Antoine de Baecque: 
"...we find in the archives of the two committees, the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security, an order of 10 Thermidor "relative to the disposing of the conspirators." It recommends "the acquisition of a great quantity of time,'" of which, it then says, "a substantial layer will be spread over the remains of the tyrants to corrupt them and prevent them from one day being deified." A series of measures is thus taken in the immediacy of events. The final disappearance of the corpses of the Robespierrists must be hastened, the Incorruptible corrupted: decomposition of the bodies is accelerated, the communal ditch of the Errancis closely guarded, as well as the Rue du Rocher, which leads to it, to avoid any theft of "relics," and a death mask is prohibited, setting this apart from other famous victims of the guillotine, executions in the course of which the executioners were less scrupulous." (Antoine de Baecque, p. 150-1)  

It is not easy to make a death mask from a guillotined head!

The traditional techniques of creating a plaster cast for a death mask or a life mask are messy and the logistics are awkward.  It required more than one person and certain couldn't be performed in the open air. Here is a description based on 17th-century methods:
"In order to create a death mask, there was a specific process: First, the deceased’s hair and eyebrows were covered with clay or oil so that the plaster would not stick to it. Next, plaster was ladled over the head of the individual. Sometimes this meant propping them up into a sitting position as seen in the picture or carefully doing it lying down. Next a thread was placed from the bottom of the chin to the top of the forehead in this thinner plaster. Fourth, thicker plaster was added and the string was removed to create a mask in two halves for easier removal. Once hard, the mould was removed, and then placed back together. Before a mask could be made, the plaster cast was cleaned and then filled with modelling clay or new plaster to make the mask" (Katy Meyers, "Preserving the face of death")"

New York circa 1908. Making a plaster death mask. View full size. 8×10 glass negative,
 George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.”
This photograph of 1908 shows the corpse propped into a seated position with two assistants hard at work. I wonder how easy this would be with a severed head? (Not just a picture-book image but an actual decapitated person). 

I would have doubted it were possible at all had not the author of the guillotine blog attested to the existence of death masks from people guillotined in the early 1800s.  He comments only that they are "much different in expression" from the heads at Madame Tussaud's.(

It is a common misapprehension, again encouraged by the Memoirs, that Curtius and later Madame Tussaud herself habitually modelled "from life".  Respectable sculptors like Houdon and David d'Angers certainly worked from plaster of Paris life masks, but wax artists usually had to be content with clay models. (Kate Berridge, p.55) The early miniatures and elaborate tableaux of Curtius relied more on context that exact representation, with an emphasis on novelty and quick response to changing fashions.
In the Memoirs, the first categorical claims to have created casts from life appear in connection with a series of life-size wax heads made in the late 1770s and early 1780s which were strongly influenced by Houdon sculptures.(Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Mirabeau)  (Memoirs p.367).The genesis of these waxes is in itself something of a mystery (see below) 

  The jaw of Robespierre shows no sign of injury (beyond a few drops of painted blood).

Earlier versions of Robespierre were a bit less gruesome:  
Plate from Romance of Madame Tussaud (1908)
"Maximilien Isidore Marie Robespierre.
Impression of his head taken immediately 
after he had been guillotined, July 28,1794"

Was there a life mask of Robespierre?

I was firmly enrolled in the sceptic camp but, having recently visited the Chamber of Horrors, I am not so sure the wax head is simply a fake.  Beneath the tacky wig and painted gore there is a powerful sense of an individual face.  Furthermore, it looks like Robespierre.  David Jordan has remarked on his unusual features in the surviving portraits: the face that looks small and pointed in profile yet broad face-on with a large forehead.  The waxwork is the same. Take a look at it next to the famous Carnavalet portrait:

The original mould (which presumably still exists) could simply have been made using a clay figure based on a portrait but it is also just possible it represents an life mask made at an earlier point in Robespierre's career. There are a few tantalising clues:

1. Madame Tussaud's Memoirs actually state that she made a mask herself for the wax tableau of the death of Marat:
After the execution of Robespierre, Madame Tussaud took a cast from his mutilated head; but it was not the first time his features had been submitted to her skilful hands, he having expressed a wish that his portrait should be introduced standing near Marat, as also those of Collot d'Herbois and Rossignol; Robespierre proposing that they should send their own clothes, in which the figures might be dressed to afford additional accuracy to the resemblances. (p.399)

Presumably Collot d'Herbois and Rossignol have long since been melted down.......?

 2. A life mask of Robespierre by Houdon is known to have once existed, a preliminary for a statue that was never begun;  David d'Angers later employed an assistant who had helped to create it (Poulet, p.312). There are hints of some sort of relationship between the waxworks and Houdon - the Romance of Madame Tussaud's makes the unlikely claim that Houdon had once worked for Curtius.  The wax Voltaire, which survives, is so finely cast and so close to Houdon's statue, that one wonders whether Curtius had access to Houdon's mould (though his artistry should not be underestimated).

3. Another snippet: A note by David's pupil Delécluze in his Souvenirs states cryptically that David had made a death mask of Marat for his famous picture which was copied in plaster ("surmoulé en plâtre") and sold "with the mask of Robespierre and others"In 1835 the police forbade public exhibition of these pieces.(Delécluze, p.154,nt.)

It is hard to put these clues together in any sensible way, but they do at least suggest that a life mask may have been potentially available.


Memoirs of Madame Tussaud  by Francis Hervé.
in Adam Waldie's The Select Circulating Library, Volume 13, Part 1 (1839)

Antoine de Baecque, Glory and terror : seven deaths under the French Revolution (2001)

Kate Berridge,  Waxing mythical: the life and legend of Madame Tussaud (2006)  

David Binton, The shadow of the guillotine: Britain and the French Revolution (1989)  (catalogue of a British Museum exhibition)

Katy Meyers, Preserving the face of death"  Bones don’t lie. Blog by a bioarchaeology student

On the "life mask":

Etienne-Jean Delécluze, Louis David, son école et son temps: souvenirs (1855)

Anne L. Poulet, Jean-Antoine Houdon, sculptor of the Enlightenment (2005) [preview on Google Books]

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The duc de Choiseul's snuff box

Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe (painter)
Louis Roucel d.1787 (goldsmith)
Choiseul Snuff Box,1770
8cm  x 6cm x 2.4cm
This is one of two famous gold snuff boxes set with miniature paintings by Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberghe which once belonged to the duc de Choiseul. This box, until recently part of the collection of Baron Elie de Rothschild, was commissioned by Choiseul at the height of his power in 1770 and depicts the interior of his Parisian mansion (inherited by his wife from the wealthy financier Pierre Crozat). 

 Choiseul was a great collector of Dutch and Flemish, as well as contemporary French, genre paintings. Pierre-Francois Basan, one of the most eminent experts of the time, catalogued  his collection in 1771. Sadly many of Choiseul's paintings had to be "sacrificed" in April 1772 following the minister's fall from grace and the remainder were disposed of in December 1786 shortly after his death. So detailed are the miniatures, that it is still possible to identify many of the individual paintings from their tiny depictions.

Today little remains to be seen today of the Hôtel Choiseul which was sold just prior to Choiseul's death and later subdivided into apartments (91,93.95 rue de Richelieu).

Choiseul's bedchamber in winter furnishings (lid of box ). 
This is clearly the room depicted in Adélaïde Labille-Guiard s portrait
Study (side)

Octagon Room (side) 

Reception Room ( inside the lid)

The career of Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberghe exemplifies the quiet subversion of the world of academic painting which took place in the later eighteenth century. A member of the Lille painters guild, he seemed outside the boundaries of establishment art, specialising as he did in miniatures and battle scenes in gouache.  He gained unlikely success after 1761 when a commission from Peter the Great created a fashion for his tiny interiors and domestic genre subjects; in 1767 Choiseul secured for him an official position as "painter of battles" and he counted among his patrons the likes of Catherine the Great, Madame de Pompadour and Cardinal de Rohan.  A box, now lost, depicted Louis XVI being shown around the Louvre by the comte d'Angiviller at a time when it was planned to put parts of the royal collection on public display.

This is another miniature by Van Blarenberghe, again set a snuff box, which shows Choiseul's bedchamber, this time in its "meuble d'été" of light flowered silk. Choiseul's "bedroom" was clearly an informal reception room rather than just a place to sleep. [Louvre, 8.4cm x 6.4cm ca.1770].


"The Collection of the duc de Choiseul" in Art of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: masterpieces of French genre painting (2003) p.86-87. [Preview available on Google Books]
Notice for the Louvre snuff box

Notice of an exhibition on Van Blarenberghe and his son at the Louvre in 2006

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Choiseul: portrait of an Enlightened statesman

‘Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul at his desk’.
Painted in 1786 by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803)

This beautiful painting of the duc de Choiseul was acquired by the Rothschild Trust for Waddesdon Manor in 2008. The fashionable portrait painter Adélaïde Labille-Guiard depicts the duc in a white silk dressing gown at his desk in the bedroom of his Parisian town house, rue de Richelieu. Choiseul himself died in May 1785 and did not live to see the picture completed. Although he was dogged by debt and frustrated in his desire for recognition by Louis XVI, in this portrait Choiseul exudes a self-conscious air of modest contentment. The informality of the pose and the understated luxury of the surroundings exemplifies the refined patrician Enlightenment of the dying years of the Ancien Regime.


Notice on the Waddesdon website:;jsessionid=EV7n26gaYxG6c5HCRWBBULU9.undefined?id=41268&db=object&page=1&view=detail

"History in the news:  French polish at Waddesdon", History Today blog, Thursday, 6 August 2009 [notes on an exhibition organised round the painting in 2009]

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Important chairs 3 - the chair in which General d'Elbée was shot

"On a cold winter day, with the wind blowing in from the sea and ice underfoot, d'Elbée was shot with three other officers.  He sat in an armchair, as he could not stand because of his wounds.  The square where this happened can still be seen outside the castle in Noirmoutier,  as can the filled-in moat where their bodies were thrown and never recovered.  In the museum stands the armchair in which d'Elbée was shot, with five jagged bullet holes in the back.  On the wall, there is a poem by Leblant.  Two lines are as follows:
Cursed be civil wars, 
Which make brave men shoot heroes"
John Haycraft, In search of the French Revolution (1989) p.171-5.

 By Paulin Guérin
Musée d'art et 
d'histoire de Cholet

d'Elbée, hero of the Vendée

Born of an enclosed rural world where ties between peasants and their lords were strong, the sad and bitter conflict of the Vendée produced more than its fair share of romantic leaders. One such was Maurice Joseph Louis Gigost d'Elbée.

The son of a French cavalry officer in the service of Maurice de Saxe, d'Elbée had at first followed his father into the army, serving in Saxony and later in France as a sub-lieutenant in the Dauphin's Regiment.  He was frustrated in his quest for advancement in the military and, in 1783, when still in his early thirties, retired to the family property at Beaupréau in the Mauges to live the quiet life of an impoverished provincial noble.

Much altered, the Loge at 
Beaupréau is now a "centre culturel".  
  He was at first well disposed towards the Revolution but was rapidly alienated by its religious policies and for a time joined the emigré army in Worms. In April 1792 he returned to his wife in Beaupréau, where he was well-loved by the local people and known to offer refuge to refractory priests. The birth of his surviving son on 12th March 1793 coincided with the first open conflicts in the Vendée.  d'Elbée was prevailed upon by the peasants of Beaupréau  to lead them into what he himself was inclined to view as a hopeless war.

Painting by 
Marie Félix Edmond de Boislecomte.
Musée d'art et d'histoire de Cholet
d'Elbée's Pater Noster

A much repeated anecdote epitomises the general's romantic virtue. Following the the royalist victory at Chemillé in April, d'Elbée was said to have deflected his men from vengeance against their Republican prisoners by having them recite the Lord's Prayer until they reached "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"; "Do not lie to God!" he exclaimed. 

Prelude: the Battle of Cholet

 There was a moment in June 1793, following the capture of Saumur, when the road to Paris lay wide open before the ragged armies of the Vendée;  according to Napoleon,"the white flag would have floated on the towers of Notre Dame". But, like the Highlanders of Charles Stuart in Forty-Five, the peasant soldiers melted away back to their farms and two weeks later, Saumur had to be abandoned. The initiative lost, the Vendéens turned instead to advance along the north bank of the Loire, continuing an ill-advised policy of attacks on major centres. Regular Republican troops were now deployed in force and, despite a string of victories, ultimate defeat was probably inevitable. Angers yielded to the royalists briefly, but at the end of June in an ill-coordinated attack on Nantes, Cathelineau was fatally wounded. Supreme command now fell to d'Elbée. 

The turning point came when the Royalist were repelled at Cholet on 17th-18th October. The battle was decisive not only because of the casualties and loss of war materials but because of the mortal wounds of three of the remaining royalist leaders. Lescure was incapacitated by a musket ball in the skull, Bonchamps fatally wounded, and d'Elbée, the Commander-in-chief, took no fewer than fourteen separate wounds.

The fall of Noirmontier

His chest half shot away, the gravely wounded d'Elbée was taken slowly and agonisingly to the island of Noirmoutier, on the Atlantic coast, which was then occupied by the Royalists. Noirmoutier had changed hands four times in the course of 1793, finally falling on 12 October to Charette who considered it a peaceful haven in which the commander could recover. Sadly he was mistaken.

On 2nd January 1794 a substantial Republican force of 7,000 men recaptured the island, advancing along "le gois" a three-mile causeway, still passable at low tide and frequented by mussel collectors though bypassed today by a modern road bridge. 

The taking of Noirmoutier was followed by savage reprisals. These were orchestrated by the représentants en mission, Turreau de Linières, Prieur de la Marne and P. Bourbotte, in concert with Carrier in Nantes, and in the face of protestations by the Republican general Haxo who had guaranteed the safety of the capitulating royalists. Sixteen officers of the garrison, plus eighteen priests who had taken refuge on the island, were condemned and shot on the Place d'Armes in front of the chateau.

Not far away in the Church of Saint-Philbert, the men of the Vendée were herded together, with their women and children, perhaps 15,000 souls in all. In the days which followed they were forced out, sixty by sixty, under pretext of appearing before a military tribunal, led straight to a nearby rubbish heap and shot. Later the bodies were recovered and buried in the sand dunes together with victims of further shootings in April, May and June.  

The final execution of 22 people in Noirmoutier took place on 3rd August a few days after fall of Robespierre.

The execution of d'Eblée

The climax to Republican vengeance was the execution of the Vendéan généralissimo himself together with his brother-in-law Pierre Duhoux d'Hauterive, his friend Pierre de Boisy, and Jean-Conrad Wieland, the Republican commander of the island who had surrendered to Charette. The date is  not absolutely certain but between 6th and 9th January 1794. Details of what occurred vary slightly.

Madame d'Elbée, daughter of the former governor of Noirmoutier, had not left her husband's side at her mother's house during the days of his agony.  A Republican aide-de-camp recounts how, wishing to spare her the pain of a final parting, he took her to the commander's office on the pretext of an interview with her brother Duhoux d'Hauterive. 

Hôtel Jacobsen, built in the 1760s
 for Cornils Guislain-Jacobsen
The prisoners were probably taken first to be formally condemned by the military commission which was in session in the imposing Maison Jacobsen. They were then led out to the Place d'Armes to be shot.

Here the entire Republican army was drawn up around a tree of liberty, an enormous popular brought from the nearby Bois de la Blanche.  At its foot were four stakes destined for the four men. 

The représentants Bourbotte and Turreau watched from the balcony of the Maison Jacobsen as d'Elbée was carried out in his armchair. In some accounts the chair was from the grand salon where the military commission sat, in others, perhaps more plausibly, it was from his mother-in-law's house where he had been propped upright for some time struggling to breathe.

At the moment when the troops parted to allow Elbée through, a priest rushed forward to offer him a crucifix. Madame d'Elbée, realising the ruse, struggled in vain to reach her husband, crying that she wished to die with him.  Duhoux d'Hauterive and Boisy were tied to their stakes. Wieland meanwhile had been playing for time before the commission, reading a memoir of justification and pleading for a twenty-four hour stay of execution. By order of représentants he too was dragged out and tied up with his memoir still in his hand. Drums rolled. The formal condemnation was read.  Wieland protested that he was no traitor and the généralissimo and his two companions began to speak in his defence, but their words were cut short by the sound of bullets

Madame d'Elbée did not have long to wait to share their fate, for she too was shot some twenty days later, on 29th January, with her childhood friend Madame Mourain de l'Herbaudière. Her remains were recovered and reburied in 1808.

The armchair was rescued and kept in the d'Elbée family until 1975 when it was given to the newly created museum at the Château de Noirmoutier.


Vendée tourist guide, Noirmoutier, with video of the castle and museum.

Vendeens et Chouans (blog) : Janvier 1794, les massacres de Noirmoutier
La Maraîchine Normande (blog) - Posts on d'Elbée, his family and death, mostly extracts from French printed sources

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Voltaire: burial of an infidel

As the end of May 1778 approached, it became clear that Voltaire’s “recantation” of 2nd March would not suffice; the cure of Saint-Sulpice still threatened to refuse burial. Public interest was keen. Archbishop de Beaumont appreciated the need for discretion and connived at a meeting between Voltaire’s nephew, the abbé Mignot, and Lenoir, the Lieutenant of Police. It was agreed that, to expedite the quiet removal of Voltaire’s corpse from Paris, his body would be transported Ferney as though alive; to aid in the deception Voltaire’s great-nephew, Dompierre d'Hornoy, was furnished with a letter approving Voltaire’s passage across France should he die en route

The astute abbé Mignot, brother
of Madame Denis and
 nephew of Voltaire.
 Institut et Musée Voltaire
Following this plan, immediately after Voltaire’s death, on the night of the 30th/31st May, his body was hurriedly embalmed. Heartless and brainless though it was, the corpse was dressed in gown and nightcap, and strapped upright into Voltaire's distinctive star-spangled carriage. At 11.45pm on the 31st it set off into the dark with only a servant in attendance, closely followed by a second coach containing Dompierre d’Hornoy and two male cousins.

The abbé Mignot had long since abandoned any idea of travelling to Ferney and and settled on a much closer destination, the Cistercian monastery at Sellieres in Champagne, where he was nominally abbot. Fully equipped with certificates from the abbé Gaulter and M du Tertre, Mignot went on ahead to prevail upon the (reluctant) local prior Dom Potherat de Corbierres to permit Voltaire's burial. The coach bearing Voltaire arrived in late afternoon.

At Provins, on the border of Champagne, we are told that an innkeeper - Monsieur Lévêque, proprietor of the Golden Cross - recognised Voltaire and tried to offer him some broth, only to be met with silent refusal. "Official biographers" preferred to believe Voltaire's entourage ordered the broth to deceive the innkeeper and fellow travellers along the route. More than likely the whole incident was apocryphal: "the dreadful cortège stopped at no inn, alighted at no post-house"(Tallentyre, Life of Voltaire (1905) p.558)

Print of 1854 - this doorway no longer exists

The funeral which followed was a bizarre mixture of the makeshift and the splendid. The body was placed in a plain deal coffin (still apparently in existence) and, accompanied by Mignot in full ecclesiastical rigout, set in the chancel of the chapel surrounded by candles. Dom Meusnier, the only other permanent resident of the semi-derelict abbey kept an overnight vigil with some lay assistants. The following day a requiem mass was celebrated, attended by various local ecclesiastics and a congregation of sixty somewhat unenthusiastic parishioners. The great philosophe was then laid to rest to the sound of marsh frogs in a hole expeditiously dug in the centre of the chapel floor.  Poor Dom Potherat was left to face the music from the bishop of Troyes, though thoughtfully provided with  letter of defence stating that Voltaire was not officially excommunicated.  Mignot, leaving nothing to chance, published all the relevant letters in Grimm's Correspondance littéraire. There was much rumination and recrimination, but on the whole it seemed best to do nothing; Voltaire's burial was (at least temporarily) a fait accompli.


Roger Pearson, Voltaire Almighty (2005), p.387-390.

“La mort de Voltaire” Association Romilly patrimonie (Romilly-sur-Seine),fr,8,76.cfm

Biblionomadie et Voltaire by Eric Poindron, 24 November 2008.,1018.html
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