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.

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

Friday 4 October 2013

The death of Voltaire

The story of Voltaire's final dealings with the Catholic clergy has often been told, but it bears the re-telling......

The following account is taken mostly from Roger Pearson's Voltaire Almighty 2005, Chapter 22 and from John McManners, Death and the Enlightenment, OUP 1981 pp.265-269.  

 The Hôtel Villette, where Voltaire spent his final months in Paris, was in the parish of Saint-Sulpice, precisely where Adrienne Lecouvrier had been refused burial.... As Voltaire lay on his deathbed at the end of May 1778, weakly sucking on orange jelly and lumps of ice, local clerics waited expectantly...

In correspondence with Mme du Deffand Voltaire had earlier expressed his desire to avoid subjugation to the Church "like a fool" but also to avoid the vulgar defiance which might imperil his fledgling  philosophic movement.  d'Alembert had attempted to ease the dilemma by counselling conformity.  As Professor McManners emphasised, d'Alembert had underestimated Voltaire who, abetted by his lawyer nephew the abbé Mignot and great-nephew Dompierre d'Hornoy, contrived to orchestrate his end with consummate skill.  

As Voltaire understood well, the giving of absolution was the crucial step to reconciliation with the Church; the trick was to find a confessor who would accept simple faith in God and confession of sins, without insisting that the penitent must disavow his irreligious works or affirm his belief in the Eucharist.

Voltaire saw his chance when on February 20th, (his eighty-fourth birthday, marked by a visit from Madame du Barry)  he received a letter  from a local priest, the formerJesuit abbé Gaultier. A meeting the next day confirmed Voltaire in his opinion that here indeed was a “kind fool” ripe for manipulation.  Meanwhile the patriarch's health continued to deteriorate; he had burst a bronchial artery and began spitting blood.  Gaultier was duly summoned but it was the zealous young curate of Saint-Sulpice, Faydit de Tersac, who arrived, only to be smartly dismissed by Mme Denis.

On 2nd March, Gaultier,authorised by the Archbishop of Paris Christophe de Beaumont, duly appeared and, softened with a gift of 600 livres for his parishioners, absolved his penitent.  He also accepted a note, penned on the spot and formally witnessed for the benefit of the ecclesiastical courts, in which Voltaire asked God's forgiveness and ambiguously proclaiming his intention to die in the Holy Catholic religion. It was not too great a concession, but in an earlier version Voltaire had  hoped to get away with a statement of the simple truth:  "I die worshipping God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies and detesting superstition".

Asked to take communion Voltaire simply refused on the grounds that he was spitting blood:  “We really must avoid getting the Almighty’s blood mixed up with mine”.
When the end finally came some three months later on May 30th the abbé Gaultier and the persistent curate of Saint-Sulpice got no further with their celebrated penitent.  Voltaire merely feigned deafness or incomprehension and finally, when the curate hazarded his crucial question, "Monsieur do you recognise the divinity of Jesus Christ?", shoved the young man away with a  "Let me die in peace!".  The two clerics consoled themselves that he was no longer in his right mind, a patent untruth since Voltaire was still compos mentis enough some hours later to  to say a final farewell to his valet Morand and to commend Mme Denis to everyone's care.

Voltaire had outwitted the priests one last time, but would it be enough to secure a peaceful burial?

Plate from Romance of Madame Tussaud's (1921) - the "Dying Socrates" was a well-known piece;
presumably it was destroyed in fire at the waxworks in Baker 1925


Here is the Abbé Gaultier's version of events, taken from  Louis Mayeul Chaudon, Historical and Critical Memoirs of the Life and Writings of M. de Voltaire,  G.G.J. and J. Robinson, Pater-Noster-Row, London 1786, p.242ff: 

An exact Copy of the Memoir which the Abbé Gaultier presented to the Archbishop of Paris, containing the particulars of the Death of M. de Voltaire.

Your Grace has desired a faithful relation of all that passed between me and M. de Voltaire,  from his arrival in Paris till his death. As no one is better able to gratify this wish than myself, I shall endeavor to supply the information your Grace is pleased to request.

  Monsieur de Voltaire arrived at Paris the beginning of February 1778, and took up his residence at the Marquis de Villette's, on the  Quai des Theatins. Vast multitudes crowded to see this celebrated man. Nothing was talked  of in Paris but M. de Voltaire. Eulogiums  were written on him in prose and in verse. I cannot but confess it gave me great pain to see a man so honored, and almost adored, whose  abilities had been employed to blaspheme religion and destroy every moral obligation. My uneasiness increased when I considered how much it was to be feared that a person so dangerous could, by his presence, give new vigor to infidelity. I prayed the Omnipotent to prevent the mischief this patriarch of infidels might cause in the capital, and at last determined to write to this scourge of his country, which I did, in the following terms.

LETTER from the Abbé Gaultier to M. de Voltaire.

            SIR,  You have many admirers, and, should your  wishes fortunately meet mine, I may, as I most ardently desire to be, become one of the number. I will explain myself more fully, if you will grant me a moment's conversation. I am one of the most unworthy of the ministers of Christ, but I shall say nothing unbecoming my profession, or which ought not to give you pleasure. Though I do not flatter myself you will indulge me in what I should esteem so great a happiness, I shall not fail to remember you, when I celebrate the most holy sacrifice of the mass. I shall fervently pray to the just and merciful God for the salvation of your immortal soul, which perhaps is on the very point of rendering an account of all it's actions. Pardon me, Sir, for the liberty I have taken; my intention is to render you the greatest of all services, which I may do, by the assistance of him who has ordained that weak things shall confound the strong. How happy should I esteem myself, if your answer should prove analogous to the sentiments with which I remain, &c. 

Signed, GAULTIER, Priest.  Paris, Feb. 20, 1778.

 M. de Voltaire's Answer.

            Your letter, Sir, appears to me that of an honest man, which is sufficient to determine me to receive the honor of your visit, on the day and hour most agreeable to yourself. I shall address you in the same language which I used when I gave my benediction to the grandson of the sage and illustrious Franklin, the most respectable man of America; I uttered only these words, God and liberty. All who were present shed tears ; I flatter myself your principles are the same. I am eighty-four years of age, and must soon appear before God, the Creator of all worlds. If you have any thing to communicate, I shall consider it as my duty and an honor to pay you every attention, notwithstanding the bodily pains under which I suffer.

I have the honor to be, &c.


The same day, that is,the 21st of February, I  paid a visit to M. de Voltaire. There was a great  number of persons in the chamber of audience, waiting to speak to him; he spent, however, but two or three minutes with them, alledging that 'he was in excessive pain, and not in a condition to see any body. As he retired, he took me by the hand, and desired me to follow him. He led me into his chamber, made me sit down by him, and asked me, what it was I wished to say. I returned him my answer nearly in the following words:

 The desire of knowing the most celebrated man of this age has occasioned my taking the liberty to write to you; I have not the honor of a personal acquaintance with you, but I  am extremely intimate with a friend of yours, M. de Lattaignant, and I dare flatter myself I possess his confidence. His infirmities, and his great age, have led him to make those reflections which every thinking person ought to make, when he prepares himself to appear before God, and which I have no doubt you have frequently made yourself. If my ministry may prove agreeable to you, you have only to speak, and I will conform myself to your wishes; I am not the only one in Paris who can render you this service; you may, doubtless, find ministers much more worthy than myself.

 He heard me with great attention, and as soon as I had ended, asked me, whether what I had done originated entirely with myself. I  replied, yes, which was really the truth. Are you not sent, said he, by the Archbishop, or the Curate of St. Sulpice. No, I assure you, said  I; should my proceeding be disagreeable to you, I have no doubt of your indulgence; if, on the contrary, you approve of it, the Lord be praised. He said, he was very glad to hear I did not act under any other person's directions, and asked me, what I had been, and who I was. I told him, I had been a Jesuit during seventeen, and curate of St. Mard, in the diocese of Rouen, for near twenty years;  that, at present, I was employed in ministerial functions at Paris, and celebrated mass every day at the Hospital for Incurables.

M. de Voltaire made me several offers of his services, but as I thought much less of the  transitory rewards of this world, than that eternal recompense which God has prepared for his elect, I said to him, ah, Sir, how well should I esteem myself rewarded by your conversion; the merciful God desires not your destruction, return therefore to him, since he is willing to return to you. M. de Voltaire, apparently affected by these words, said he loved God. I replied, that was a great thing, but that it was necessary it should produce some fruits, for inactive love could  never be the true love of that God who is the principle of action.

M. de Voltaire said several other things, which I answered in such a manner as appeared satisfactory. Our conversation was interrupted by three different persons. Mr. Abbé, said the first, let me beg you to conclude what you have to sa ; you see M. de Voltaire vomits blood, and is unable to speak any longer. M. de Voltaire replied, with vivacity, Sir, let me request you will not deprive me of the Abbé's company, he is my friend, and does not flatter me. About  three quarters of an hour afterwards Madame Denis came, and said to me, with great mildness, Mr, Abbé, let me intreat you to leave  what you have farther to say till another opportunity, my uncle must be much fatigued.

 I then took my leave, after asking permission to call and see him occasionally, which he very readily granted. I assured him, that I should remember him every day in the sacrifice of the mass. He thanked me, and appeared very much affected. Adieu, M. de Voltaire, said I, as I left him, be certain you have not in the world a better friend than myself.

I directly went to give an account of what had passed to the Curate of St.Sulpice, and also to the Abbé de l'Ecluse, Vicar General to your Grace.  I told them, that it was probable M de Voltaire would have recourse to my ministry, and desired instructions how to act in that case. They gave me their advice, to which I have strictly conformed. After which I incessantly employed myself in praying, and procuring the prayers of others, for the conversion of M. de Voltaire.

The 26th of February, I was agreeably surprized to receive a note from M. de Voltaire, in the following terms:

            You promised me, Sir, to come and converse with me. You will greatly oblige me by taking that trouble as soon as possible.

Signed, Voltaire, at Paris, February 26, 1778.

  I received this note about nine in the evening, and another the next morning, from Madame Denis, of which the following is a copy:

             Madame Denis, niece to M. de Voltaire, presents her compliments to the Abbé Gaultier, and would be much obliged to him if he would call on her uncle.

February 27, 1778At the house of the Marquis de Villette.

On the 27th of February, as soon as I had  celebrated mass, I went to the Marquis de Villette's, to se M. de Voltaire; on that day I had only an opportunity to speak to Madame Denis, who told me, that the Curate of St. Sulpice had been to advise M. de Voltaire not to defer confession, and that he had answered he committed himself entirely to me. After this visit, I went to give an account of what I had done to the Curate of St. Sulpice.

On the Second of March, 1778, I again visited M. de Voltaire, who was then attacked  with a vomiting of blood. Before I entered his chamber, I was advised not to terrify him, but speak to him with mildness. Marechal de Richelieu, who had just left him, charged me not to neglect my duty towards him, and I promised I would administer every spiritual assistance in my power. I then went into M. de Voltaire's apartment : he took me by the hand, and requested me to confess him before he died.   I replied, I would willingly hear his confession, and that I had spoken of it to the Curate of St. Sulpice, whose parishioner he was, who had granted me his permission ; but that he must first make a recantation of his errors. I will immediately write one, Sir, answered he, with my own  hand, which shall give you perfect satisfaction; bring me pen, ink, and paper, and let me be left alone with my good friend the Abbé Gaultier.  He was accordingly obeyed, every body retired, and he immediately wrote the following:

             I, the underwritten, declare, that having been attacked during four months with a vomiting of blood, at the age of eighty-four, and unable to drag myself to church, the Curate of St. Sulpice has added, to his other good actions, that of sending to me the Abbé Gaultier, a priest, to whom I have confessed myself, trusting, should God take me under his protection, I shall die in the Catholic faith, in which I was born, and praying the divine mercy to pardon all my errors: and if I have ever brought a reproach upon religion, I ask pardon of God and the church. Signed, Voltaire,  March 2, 1778, in the house of the Marquis de Villette, in presence of the Abbé Mignot, my nephew,  and the Marquis de Villevieille, my friend.

M. de Voltaire then begged me to call in the Abbé Mignot, and the Marquis de Villevieille, to hear this paper read and signed, which they accordingly did. He likewise wrote with his own hand as follows:

             Having been informed, by the Abbé Gaultier, it has  been asserted, in a certain society, that I had protested against whatever I might do at my death, I hereby declare I never made use of any such expression, and that it is an old piece of pleasantry, falsely ascribed long ago to many learned men, who were more enlightened than Voltaire

M. de Voltaire, when he gave me this retractation, said, in the presence of the Abbé Mignot and Villevieille: you, no doubt, intend, Mr. Abbé, immediately to insert it in the journals: I have no objection. I replied, that it was not yet time. He then asked me, whether I was satisfied? I told him, that this retractation did not appear to me sufficiently ample, but that I would communicate it to your Grace, which I  did, but which you likewise did not think sufficient. I left a copy of it at your Grace's chateau de Conflans, where you then were.

 I also went to the Curate of St. Sulpice, to let him know how I had proceeded, and left him a copy of this retractation, which he did not think satisfactory. At the same time I gave him a note from M. de Voltaire, in which he promised him six hundred livres for the poor of his parish.

On the next day, the third of March, I returned to  M. de Voltaire, to engage him to make a retractation less equivocal and more circumstantial; but the porter told me, I could not  see him. I plainly perceived with whom these orders originated, for when I left M. de Voltaire, on the evening before, Messieurs D'Alembert, Diderot and Marmontel, very openly testified their dissatisfaction at my presence. After having returned several times to no purpose,  I wrote the following letter to M. de Voltaire:

            SIR,   I Wish much to hear from you. I have called frequently at your hotel, but without effect. I have always been told, you were not to be spoken with. I wish nothing so much as the re-establishment of your health. I never fail to pray, when I celebrate the holy sacrifice of the mass, that God, of his goodness, would bestow on you many happy days. Be assured, Sir, no one can feel more sincere or more ardent wishes for your welfare. If you will permit me to revisit you, I will, then, amply explain what I cannot express in this letter, which, believe me, is dictated from the heart, and not from the head. I have the honor to be, &c. 

Signed, GAULTIER. Paris, March 13, 1778.

M. de Voltaire answered this letter by the following note: 

            The master of the house has ordered the porter not to admit any ecclesiastic, except the curate of St. Sulpice. When the patient shall have better recovered his health, he will take a pleasure in receiving a visit from the Abbé Gaultier.

Signed, DE VOLTAIRE. Paris, March 15, 1778.

A week after this I went to enquire concerning his health; the porter answered, I could no means speak to him.  I was informed, however, that he was much better, and I wrote to him in the following words:

            SIR, I Have made many enquiries after your health, from those who frequently see you; and they tell me you are much better. No one can more sincerely desire its perfect establishment  than myself. I never forget you in my prayers; if they are efficacious, you will experience their happy effects. I have several times been at your hotel, to congratulate you on your recovery, but could never gain admission. The interpretation of which refusals it is impossible to mistake; especially after your having written to me, that you would see me again, with pleasure, as soon as you were something  better. I shall cease my importunities at your door, for it is useless to knock at any other door than that of your heart; at which I am sure I have had admission. How great would be my happiness could I become instrumental in bringing you acquainted with what alone constitutes true happiness.

 I have the honor to be, &c

 Signed, GAULTIER. Paris, March 30, 1778.

 M. de Voltaire returned no answer to this letter, which determined me to pay him no more visits. During almost two months, M. de Voltaire did several things which were not very pleasing to me, and which I might perhaps have prevented, had I been permitted to converse with him freely. His disease again attacked him about the end of the month of May. On the twenty-ninth I was told, that M. de Voltaire was not expected to recover. I then thought it my duty to write him an affectionate letter, once more to recall the good resolution he had formed to his mind. The following is a copy:

            I learn, Sir, from public report, that you are dangerously ill. This news afflicts me much: but what increases my grief, is, that I have heard nothing further from you. Though every effort I made, after your last illness, to gain admission was ineffectual, the remembrance of that shall not impede my return, should such be your wish. Should the Almighty be pleased to call you hence, how happy would it be for you, were you prepared to appear before him who is the great judge of judges : and how deplorable your state, should you be cut off ere you had properly reflected on the grand work of salvation!  Ah ! my dear Sir, think seriously of this important matter; and of this only. Take advantage of the little time you have to live. Time with you will soon be past: and eternity will commence.

I have the honor to be, &c.

 Signed, GAULTIER.  Paris, May 30, 1778.

 Scarcely had M. de Voltaire received this letter, when, on the same day, about six in the evening, the Abbé Mignot, Counsellor of the Grand Council, and nephew to M. de Voltaire, came himself to request I would hear the confession of his uncle. Your last letter, said he, has made a great impression on him; he is desirous to confess, and will only confess himself to you. I replied, that I would willingly confess M. de Voltaire, provided he made the following recantation, which I read to him, and which received his approbation:

            I retract whatever I may have said, done, or written, repugnant to morality, or against the Christian religion, in which I have had the happiness to be born; against the adorable person of Jesus Christ, whose divinity I am accused of having attacked; and against his church, in the bosom of which I desire to die; making this present reparation in the face of the world, which I have offended by works that have for so many years back appeared under my name; and this reparation is not the consequence of  the decay of my intellects, enfeebled by old age, but of the grace of Jesus Christ, of which I was so unworthy, and which has opened my eyes to the horrible danger I have been led into, by the delirium of my imagination.

             I desire that this recantation may be inserted in all the journals and gazettes in Europe; in order that it may become as public as the offences I have committed, and which I am desirous to repair, as far as the short remains  of life will permit. Signed at Paris, this thirteenth of May, 1778, in the presence of the Curate of St. Sulpice and the Abbé Gaultier.

The Abbé Mignot promised me that his uncle should sign this retractation. I then told him, that I should be very happy if the curate of St. Sulpice might be present, when M. de Voltaire retracted; and we went to the house of that worthy pastor, who willingly agreed to accompany us. Before we entered the chamber of M. de Voltaire, I read the retractation I had drawn up to the Marquis de Villette, who said, it met with his entire approbation.

We then entered the apartment of M. de Voltaire; the curate of St. Sulpice desired to speak with him first, but M. de Voltaire did not seem to know him. I then endeavored to speak to him in my turn. He seized my hand, and shewed signs of confidence and friendship; but I was much surprized to hear him say to me, Mr. Abbé Gaultier, I beg you would make my compliments to the Abbé Gaultier. He continued to say several other unconnected things. As I perceived he was delirious, I said nothing to him either of his confession or his retractation. I requested those about him to let me know if his reason returned, which they promised me; but, alas! I was informed, the next day, that he expired three hours after we had left him, that is, the 30th of May, 1778, about eleven at night. If I had imagined he would have died so soon, I would never have left him, but have done my utmost to give him spiritual assistance. He died therefore without the sacraments! God grant he may not have died without a sincere desire to receive them, and an unfeigned intent to retract the impieties of his life.

This, may it please your Grace, is a faithful relation of the death of M. de Voltaire

So deplorable an end ought to convince sinners of the danger of deferring their conversion to their last moments.
            I have the honor to be,
                        With the most profound respect,
                                    Your Grace's most humble
                                                And most obedient servant
                                                GAULTIER, Priest.

Paris, June 1, 1778.

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