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.

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