Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Church of St Geneviève .... or not?

Pierre-Antoine Demachy, Cérémonie de la première pierre de la nouvelle église de Ste Geneviève (1765)
Musee Carnavalet  Oil on canvas, 81cm x 129cm
Among the riches of the Carnavalet is easy to wander past this painting by Pierre-Antoine Demachy, but do a double-take. This is clearly the Panthéon (in its previous incarnation as the Church of St.Geneviève), but where is the dome?  The answer, of course, is that the picture depicts the ceremony, held on 6th September 1764, in which Louis XV laid the first stone - the church had yet to be built!  The facade in the picture was just an enormous and splendid canvas, designed specially for the occasion by the church's architect Soufflot, who also painted  the floor plan of the church on the square and the road leading to it.

It was Demachy himself (who had designed theatre sets for the Collège Louis-le-grand and for the Opéra) who painted the architectural features and Callet the sculpted ornaments. It was presumably on the strength of this work, that in 1764 Demachy was given the grand office of "peintre d'Architecture des décors de théâtre aux Menus Plaisirs du Roi ".  No wonder he depicted the occasion so lovingly!

The painting is worth noticing too for the details of the ceremony:  the stage for the dignitaries, the royal carriage, the piece of stone ready to be laid.  The Carnavalet really don't want you to cut and paste their images, so I won't, but you can explore the picture in close-up on their website.


Sunday, 25 May 2014

Portrait in silk - Catherine the Great by Philippe Lasalle

Philippe Lasalle, Portrait of Catherine II of Russia, c.1771
103 cm x 73 cm
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
 The verse embroidered along the bottom reads:
"DU NIL AU BOSPHORE. L'OTTOMAN FREMIT. SON PEUPLE L'ADORE. LA TERRE APPLAUDIT" (From the Nile to the Bosphorus the Ottoman trembles: Her people adore her, the world applauds.)

This portrait in silk of Catherine the Great, dating from 1771 and now in the Hermitage, represents a virtuoso technical feat: it is neither an embroidery nor a painting but an image actually woven into the fabric.(The grisaille bust is, I think, a separate piece of silk stitched onto the gold background.)  As the "LASALLE FECIT" proudly proclaims, it is the work of the celebrated Lyon designer Philippe Lasalle, and it was sent to St Petersburg by none other than Voltaire, who is the author of the obsequious verses (commemorating Catherine's recent victories over the Turks).

In May 1771 the Princess Dashkova, visiting Ferney as part of an extensive European tour, had admired a portrait in Voltaire's own possession. On 15th May Voltaire wrote to inform Catherine that he had arranged for her to receive a copy:  "Madame, I must tell you immediately that I have had the honour of receiving Princess Dashkova in my hermitage. As soon as she had entered the salon, she recognised your portrait in mezzo-tinto, made with a shuttle on satin, surrounded by a garland of flowers.  Your Imperial Majesty should have received one from Sieur Lasalle; it is a masterpiece of the arts that are practised at Lyon......"

Metropolitan Museum
101.6cm  x 74.9cm
(The portrait in the Met. is not on display and the 
website only has this old black & white photo.)
The portrait had evidently become one of the sights of Voltaire's house. The Duchess of Northumberland described it clearly in 1772, although she mistook it for an embroidery.  It can also probably be identified with the otherwise unknown "life-size portrait of the Empress Catherine II embroidered in petit point by herself" described by Voltaire's secretary Wagnière. In 1967, when Edith Standen published a study in the Metropolitan Museum Bulletin, the original portrait from Ferney was still extant and in the possession of  Mme Pierre Lambert David, whose family owned the château.   According to the Dictionary of pastellists it is now in the collection at Ferney, though I haven't been able to corroborate this.

Other examples exist in the Metropolitan Museum (acquired in 1941 from the collection of Mrs. Henry Walters) and in the Musée des Tissus in Lyon, which apparently also possesses (or possessed) Lasalle's original design.  In 2012 the museum displayed the silk as part of an exhibition of woven portraits entitled La Fabrique des grands hommes which also included a Louis XV by Lasalle.  (You can find Louis on their website, but not, as far as I can tell, the Catherine.)  Another copy, in the Schossmuseum Berlin, was destroyed during the Second World War.
Lasalle fecit, Lyons le 3 May 1771
The exact circumstances surrounding the production of the portrait is not really known but the general consensus is that the initiative was probably Lasalle's own.  By this time he was already famous as the acknowledged premier designer of Lyon and, although in the early 1770s he began his association with the firm of Pernon which was responsible for many of his later prestigious commissions, he still maintained a workshop of his own. Woven portraits were quite a fashion, though not in silk, the most conspicuous example being the Gobelins tapestry of Louis XV exhibited at the Salon of 1763.  According to one old biographical dictionary, Lasalle's first creations were portraits of Louis XV and the comte de Provence, which he offered to the future comtesse de Provence, Princess Marie-Josephine-Louise of Savoy  when she passed through the city in May 1771 on her way to be married. (According to Princess Dashkova the manufacturers of Lyon were vying with each other to produce the most beautiful specimens of their art, as offerings to the Princess of Piedmont and her train. The portrait of Louis in Lyon is explicitly dated, "Lasalle fecit, Lyons le 3 May 1771".) In the following year Lasalle created a companion portrait of the comtesse of Provence  which he had the honour of presenting to her personally at Versailles and for which he was "well-rewarded".  He then sent off portraits of the comte and comtesse to Turin as well as executing others of the King of Sardinia and Princess Marie-Thérèse of Savoy, future  wife of the comte d'Artois. [See Biographie des hommes célèbres du Département de l'Ain (1835) Google e-book]

La Salle,  Comte and Comtesse de Provence c.1771
Examples from the  
Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt,  National Design Museum.

Why, though, the Catherine? Again, it seems likely that Lasalle, who was the associate of such Enlightened ministers as Turgot and the younger Trudaine, was the instigator of the portrait.  According to Edith Standen, the copy at Ferney was embroidered, "Presented to Monsieur de Voltaire, by the author". There is also a letter dated March 24 1771 in which Voltaire sends his verses to M. Tabareau, director-general of the post office at Lyon: "Here, Sir, is the shortest thing I have been able to compose for your protegé; and in such cases the shortest is always the best." The letter is endorsed, presumably by the recipient: "Verses intended to be placed at the foot of a portrait of the empress of Russia made at Lyons on the loom by M. Lasalle, manufacturer ["par les soins de m. Lasalle fabriquans"]."  No doubt Lasalle also had his eye on the lucrative Russian market and indeed, Catherine the Great subsequently became an important patron.

The original on which Lasalle based his bust is not certain;  this portrait by Fyodor Rokotov dating from 1769,  features similar hair decorations.  

Edith Standen suggests a print by Louis Bonnet after an original by Jean-Louis de Veilly (from the coronation in 1763), but I haven't been able to trace this.


"In memory of Philippe Lasalle"
Lyon silk portrait of 1842
Metropolitan museum

Metropolitan Museum:

John Goldsmith Phillips, "A silk portrait of Catherine the Great",The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 36(7) 1941, 1941), p. 151-3

Edith A Standen, "The mistress and the widow" The  Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 25(5), 1967 p.185-96.

Musée des Tissus, Lyon
Portrait of Louis XV of silk portraits held in Lyon in 2012

Cooper-Hewitt,  National Design Museum
Portraits of the comte and comtesse de Provence

See also:
Philippe Lasalle in Dictionary of pastellists

Lasalle on "A textile-lover's diary" [blog]

Notice from the Metropolitan Museum on Lasalle's "Partridges"

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Marie-Antoinette's Wardrobe Book

This book, recently the subject of a video in the Le Point "Incredible treasures of history" series,  is Marie-Antoinette's "Gazette des atours" or "Wardrobe Book"  for 1782.  It was a scrapbook in which Marie Antoinette's Mistress of the Robes and confidante Geneviève de Gramont, comtesse d'Ousun, pasted fabric samples of the Queen's outfits.  It used to be assumed that the book was used by Marie-Antoinette to help her decide what to wear. Thus Antonia Fraser: "the Wardrobe Book of the Queen was presented to her daily by her Mistress of the Robes together with a pincushion;  Marie Antoinette would prick the book with a pin to indicate her choices. The porters attached to the Queen's Wardrobe (this was three large rooms filled with closets, drawers and tables) then carried in the huge baskets covered in cloths of green taffeta."  According to Antonia Fraser, the actual pinpricks that the Queen made can still be seen in the book, and in recent years some of the long pins she used have been recovered from the floor of her room in Versailles. (Marie-Antoinette, p.207-8 in the pbk)

All this seems very reasonable.  However, in the video Pierre Fournier, director at the Archives Nationales, puts forward a different theory: according to him, the Wardrobe Book was an accounts book used for checking garments received against those ordered. Handling the royal accounts was certainly one of the responsibilities of the Mistress of the Robes - the comtesse d'Ousun was known to have been concerned by the laxity of Rose Bertin's record keeping -  and the book does indeed contain the names of designers and suppliers. The rather casual way the samples are put together also perhaps suggests it was intended for the comtesse's own use rather than for presentation to the Queen.  Even so I'm not entirely convinced.  If this is an account book, wouldn't you expect items to be dated or marked up in some way? I don't know where Antonia Fraser got all the circumstantial detail about the pincushion, the baskets and the green taffeta, but surely the book either has pinpricks or it hasn't?   M. Fournier himself admits there was a "wardrobe book" - apparently just not this book.....

Here is a bit more from Antonia Fraser about the contents of the book: 

"Each outfit is categorised and accompanied by a tiny swatch of material. There are samples for the court dresses in various shades of pink, in shadowy grey-striped tissue and in the self-striped turquoise velvet intended for Easter.  

But what is notable is the preponderance of swatches for the more casual clothes, the loose Lévites (wrapped gowns with a sash) shown together on one page in an array of colours, from pale grey and pale blue through to the much darker shades of maroon and navy, sometimes with small sprigs embroidered between the stripes.  There are redingotes (from the English word riding-coat) in the same palette of blues, as well as a particular mauve marked Bertin-Normand, coupling together the names of the couturier and the silk-merchant.  Swatches for the so-called 'Turkish' robes are shown in self-striped pink and very dark mauve, for the  robes anglaises in turquoise and self-striped mauve as well as dark maroon striped in pale blue.  One swatch of material, supplied by the other celebrated silk-merchant, Jean-Nicholas Barbier, uses the Queen's favourite cornflower to good effect, set in a design of wavy cream-coloured stripes. (Marie-Antoinette, p.208)

The Wardrobe Book of Mme Elisabeth

Summer "gazette" of Mme Elisabeth, 1792
A second Wardrobe Book from the Archives Nationales, belonging to Madame Élisabeth, was on display last year in an exhibition held in the the Domaine de Montreuil, Madame Élisabeth's residence in Versailles. This book dates from 1792, the last year that Mme Elisabeth spent at the Tuileries palace before the royal family's final imprisonment in the Temple.  The samples shows relatively simple patterns in light silks and cotton fabrics, with an absence of brocaded silks. The book is tidier than Marie-Antoinette's and this time there are definitely no pinpricks.  


Video from "Le Point":

A facsimile copy of the Wardrobe book was published in 2006;  see Sylvie Dallet, « Gazette des atours de Marie-Antoinette », Annales historiques de la Révolution français; janvier-mars 2007 (online version)
See also:
(For the comments of the inestimable Cosmo)

The Gazette of Madame Élisabeth:

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Vaucanson and the silk industry: early visions of the factory system

Statue of Vaucanson, Musée des Arts et métiers, Paris 
“ Whenever he steps out of practical mechanics, he is more a machine than those he makes" ( contemporary verdict, quoted in Gillispie, p.415)

Vaucanson's career divides sharply into two parts. In the first he appears as the creator of automata; for all the underlying enquiry into the secret workings of nature,he is an inventor of mechanical novelties. In the second half he takes on the reform of the silk industry, his goal the practical improvement of industry through technology. To some he is among the heroes of innovation, with a series of machines which he left to the Musée des Arts et métiers – spinning mill, loom, reels – which fuelled the industrial revolution. To others he personifies the ills of early capitalism: the imposition of the “expert” on traditional industries, factory models, profit based on technological innovation regardless of the human cost, indeed the transfer of the concept of “man as machine” to the economic sphere with all its attendant ills (pamplet by Olivier Serre). In reality, fortunately or unfortunately, Vaucanson's innovations had little immediate practical outcome and his visions of large-scale manufacture remained as much a dream as his automata.

Vaucanson’s mission of 1742

Vaucauson's first involvement in the silk industry was as a government agent. In 1740 Louis Fagon, director of the central Bureau du commerce, recommended the new darling of the scientific community to Controller General Orry to investigate silk manufacture, which was causing concern due to French weavers' dependence on imported silk thread from Piedmont.  In the 18th century not quite “industrial espionage”, but travel to gather information, had became something of a feature of government action, though it has to be said that Vaucanson's credentials for the job were by no means clear.
After six months fact-finding in Lyon, in June 1741 Vaucanson was duly given the grandiose title of "inspector of silk manufactures" and, accompanied by a progressive Lyon manufacturer, Jean-Claude Montessuy, he set out on a prolonged tour of inspection:  “They spent the better part of two years in northern Italy and southern France, entering shops on the strength of a royal passport, informing themselves of every step in procedures, taking back to Paris samples of raw and finished silk for testing, trying the tools in the Hôtel de Longueville, disassembling and reassembling pieces of machinery - reels, bobbins, loom, and mangle ”(Gillispie, p.415)*
Autograph of Vaucanson
Reproduced in Pierre-Marie Gonon. Vaucanson à Lyon

The heart of the problem was not so much the production and initial processing of raw silk - Orry had had some success in setting up small scale manufacturing (les petits tirages) in southern France - but the clear superiority of Piedmontese in silk throwing, the industrial process by which a strong finished silk thread ("organzine") is created by twisting and winding onto bobbins. In Piedmont this was carried out in sophisticated water-mills. The Piedmont industry was heavily regulated at every stage. Vaucanson became convinced that strict enforcement of regulations was the key to Piedmontese success; French inferiority, so his report claimed, was due not to natural factors, but to ignorance, indiscipline and disorder. 

The vision 
Vaucanson's remedy was, to say the least, thoroughgoing. He proposed that the state should centralise silk throwing in a number of great Royal Manufactures, funded by a company composed of the wealthiest Lyon merchants and employing silk mills and spinning machines invented by Vaucanson himself and operated according to his detailed regulation. Seven pilot plants were envisaged, two to be installed in Dauphiny, Provence, and Languedoc and one in the Vivarais. Each would employ 100 women in reeling silk, another 100 workers in making yarn, and 80 people in preparing warp and weft and in weaving, together with supervisory personnel and certain specialists. The investment for buildings and machinery, Vaucanson calculated, would come to 600,000 livres, the annual payroll and cost of maintenance and fuel to 243,000 livres, and the consumption of raw materials to 980,000 per year. Sales should amount to 1,655,00 livres, which allowing or interest charges of six percent on the investment would leave a yearly profit of 336,000 livres. In a world of conflicting local jurisdictions, small-scale production and hand-written ledgers, Vaucanson’s accounting precision was as much a dream as was his pursuit of the perfect mechanical man. Yet he seems to have been taken seriously. As Gillispie comments, “That a kind of mechanistic Saint-Just should think in terms of a clean sweep is less surprising than that seasoned officials - themselves swept off their feet, evidently - should have attempted to act on so technocratic a recommendation"

Fiasco in Lyons 1744
The initial proposal was at least pared down to a single establishment, which was to be set up in Lyon itself, with Mountessuy as director and Vaucauson himself as technical supremo. The model, which clearly assumed capitalist employer-employee relations of the starkest kind, had somehow to be accommodated within the regulation of the existing industry, with all its traditions, tensions and longstanding grievances. Massive new innovation of work practices. The denouement in the strike of 1744 has been noted in a previous post. Here the account in Gillispie:

For months Vaucanson and his associates in the ministry in Paris worked on a new set of provisions.  Their draft was adopted by the Council of State on 19 June 1744.  On 22 July Vaucanson and Montessuy took the coach for Lyon with 1,500 printed copies in their baggage.  "The document was clear and categorical.  In 181 articles under fourteen headings it called for converting merchant-manufacturers into employers and master-workers into employees.  All parties would learn their jobs by emulation of the model Manufacture royale now to be created.  Rumour had naturally preceded the posting of the proclamation.  On the night of 6th August the workers of Lyons rose and ran our reformers right out of town.  In the opinion of Pallu, the intendant, Vaucanson and Montessuy owned their very lives to having lodged in his residence, whence Vaucanson escaped in the disguise of a monk.   In less than three weeks after their departure from Paris they were back in the capital, having succeeded only in provoking the most serious strike in eighteenth-century France.  As often happens, the people knew their enemy, and he did not know them. (Gillispie, p.415)

Vaucanson after 1744

Vaucanson's loom for figured silks (reconstructed), Musée des arts et métiers, Paris.
Despite the date of 1745 for the museum exhibit the finished design probably dates from the 1750s
Despite the fiasco at Lyon, Vaucanson's star remained in the ascendant.  An emphasis on improvement, education and emulation privileged Vaucanson's inventions which were lauded in the press and continued to command popular attention. Under the direction of Trudaine from 1749 the Bureau du commerce itself turned away from regulation towards a policy of diffusing new technologies and educating manufacturers and merchants in the provinces. Vaucanson was able to abandon government office and evolve for himself the role of professional inventor (The Bureau paid him an annual salary of 12,000 livres). In 1745 it was an article in the Mercure de France on Vaucanson's automatic loom which prompted the comte de Maurepas, to force through his election to an unenthusiastic Academy of Sciences.  (In 1757 he was elected to the prestigious position of "associate mechanician", beating Diderot to the post). He was invited to make a public presentation of his latest innovation,a machine for automating organzine production, for which he was awarded 10,000 livres. His accompanying report renewed the attack on traditional small-scale production, les petits tirages, which left the manufacture of raw silk in the hands of "people from the countryside, unable to correct themselves and normally little inclined to allow others to instruct them"

"Espace Deydier" at Pont d’Ucel.
1744 to 1751 were Vaucanson's great years of technical contribution to the silk industry, with a whole catalogue of inventions [automatic loom, draw-loom for figured silk, throwing machine, mill for organzine production, mangle for creating watered (or moiré) silk]. All were aimed at improving quality, saving labour and standardisation of worker input. As Gillispie notes, all could have relatively easily been adapted to steam power. Despite the early resistance in Lyon, further government attempts were later made at implementation, this time not by direct intervention but by established local entrepreneurs. Negotiations with Enfantin in Romans with the Jubié brothers in La Sône, and with the estates of Languedoc over enterprises in Montpellier, met with limited success. The only substantial venture was that  Henri Deydier at Pont d'Aubenas in the southern Ardèche. Deydier was charged by letters patent of 5 September 1752 to create at his own expense a Royal manufacture for the spinning and throwing of silk with 25 spinning mills, 25 organzine mills and 60 spinning machines ("tours de tirage"), all to Vaucanson's designs. He was contracted furnish 6,000 livres of spun or milled silk over ten years. A light and airy model workshop was designed by the academician Guillot Aubry and Vaucanson himself, who lived nearby and was a close associate, came to oversee the work in person.  The manufacture even included a school to train female operatives in the new technology. However, it took two years to get the machines installed and maintenance was always problematic. Having returned a modest profit for a number of years, even this factory was finally forced to close in 1774.


  Olivier Serre, Vaucanson, ou le prototype de l'ingénieur (2009)  Pamphlet. On "":
Charles Coulston, Gillespie, Science and polity in France: the end of the Old Regime (2004)
p.413-421.  Extracts on Google Books.

Paola Bertucci  "Enlightened secrets: silk, intelligent travel, and industrial espionage
in eighteenth-century France" (2013) 54(4) p. 820-852

Pierre-Marie Gonon. Vaucanson à Lyon, en 1744: documents historiques pour servir à l'histoire de la ville de Lyon, au XVIIIe siècle (1844). 26p.

"Portraits d'Ardéchois - Famille Deydier"  and  "L'industrie textile en Ardèche". Information on the Royal Manufacture at Aubenas

List of Vaucanson's major innovations

1744 to 1751 were Vaucanson's great years of technical contribution to the silk industry, with a whole catalogue of inventions [automatic loom, draw-loom for figured silk, throwing machine, mill for organzine production, mangle for creating watered (or moire) silk]

1. Automatic silk loom. (1745)  Assemblies operated from a single input of power, which could be a man (working a pedal), a mule or donkey, or a mill-wheel.

2. Draw-look for brocade and figured silk (?1748). Following the work of Bouchon and Falcon, Vaucanson adopted a system of perforated paper mounted on a roller (rather like the mechanism of his automata).  It was this loom that, rediscovered, became basis of the Jacquard loom.

In the mechanism of Vaucanson's loom  the hooks that were to lift the warp threads were selected by long pins or needles, which were pressed against a sheet of punched paper, that was draped around a perforated cylinder. Specifically, each hook passed at a right angle through an eyelet of a needle. When the cylinder was pressed against the array of needles, some of the needles, pressing against solid paper, would move forward, which in turn would tilt the corresponding hooks. The hooks that were tilted would not be raised, so the warp threads that were snagged by those hooks would remain in place; however, the hooks that were not tilted, would be raised, and the warp threads that were snagged by those hooks would also be raised. By placing his mechanism above the loom, Vaucanson eliminated the complicated system of weights and cords (tail cords, simple, pulley box, etc.) that had been used to select which warp threads were to be raised during weaving. Vaucanson also added a ratchet mechanism to advance the punched paper each time that the cylinder was pushed against the row of hooks.

The idea behind the loom of Vaucanson was ingenious and technically sound, the prototypes also worked reasonably well. The problem, though, was that the metal cylinders were expensive and difficult to produce. Moreover, by their very nature, they could only be used for making images that involved regularly repeated designs. Obviously, by switching to new cylinders it is possible to produce designs of open-ended variety, but in practice the switching over of cylinders proved too time-consuming and laborious. A few examples of the loom did go into production, but it never really caught on and was soon discontinued."
3. Spinning machine [tour à la double croisade] for coverting fibres reeled from the cocoon into raw silk.  
The machine used a system of gears to automate the "croissade", the highly skilled preliminary twisting process associated with the preparation of silk thread.  preliminary twissting  making the spinners' expertise superfluous.  Vaucanson was awarded 10,000 livres by Bureau for his design, though it was strongly opposed by the Jubiés. 
4. Mill for the production of organzine (1750).
Strands were stretched on squirrel-cage reels, which were  automatically regulated (Inv. 00667-0000-) 

5. Mangle for the production of watered or moiré silk
In 1753 Vaucanson accepted 20,000 livres from the Fabrique in Lyon to study the possibility of a"calandre à moirer" .  A system of metalic cylinders serres in which two piece of taffetas were applied one against the other.  Installed in 1753 in a factory in Tour.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Jacques Vaucanson by Joseph Boze

Jacques Vaucanson, Oil by Joseph Boze, given by the artist to the 
Académie des sciences in 1784
Paris, Académie des sciences
© Académie des sciences – Institut de France

As  far as I can tell, this portrait of Vaucanson in old age by Joseph Boze is the only one for which he ever sat.  There are two copies, one that remained in the family and this one which Boze presented as a gift to the Académie des sciences.

The Dictionary of pastelists has a nice little snippet about how Boze, before he was diverted by Court patronage, hoped that he too might become a great inventor:

"Boze dabbled in inventions, including a machine for unharnessing runaway horses and a hands-free device for turning pages of music, and was a member of the Académie des arts utiles and the Société des inventions et découverts; some of his ideas were praised in a 1780 report to the Académie des sciences by the brilliant Vaucanson - whose portrait Boze exhibited at the Salon de la Correspondance in  December 1782...Boze evidently hoped to make money out of his inventions, but although they met technical requirements they seem not to have been put into production.  However they led to his meeting the comté de Tessé, premier écuyer de la reine who may well have been responsible for his introduction to the court.....

 "Boze" in Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of Pastellists [online version]

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The defecating duck of Jacques Vaucanson

An 18th-century automaton reborn

This beautiful, if slightly disturbing creation, is a modern replica, made in 1998 by automaton artist and restorer, Jacques Fréderic Vidoni, of one of 18th-century France's most celebrated automatons, the famous defecating duck of Jacques Vaucanson.   Until recently it took pride of place in the musée des automates in Vaucanson's birthplace, Grenoble, a private museum, now closed sadly  due to its proprietor's  ill-health.

 In December 2013, Vidoni's duck was sold at auction where it made a cool 36,000 euros!

Given the technologies at Vaucanson's disposal the original canard digérateur must have been a truly phenomenal piece of engineering. The duck was life-sized, constructed of hundreds of beautifully crafted parts covered in perforated gold-plated copper to allow view of the workings in its interior. It sat atop a substantial housing which concealed the clockwork mechanism.  A weight wrapped around a lower cylinder, drove a larger cylinder which in turn activated thirty of so levers connected to the Duck's skeletal system.  This allowed a wide repertoire of movements;  the duck waved its head, wiggled its beak in the water, quacked and adjusted its position in a fair facsmile of the real bird   Most impressively of all it appeared to eat pellets offered to it, with an realistic motion of it flexible neck, "digest" them and duly defecate.(producing authentic looking faeces made of dyed green breadcrumbs, rather than the more sanitary pearls of the replica). 

The duck is exhibited

The defecating duck first appeared on display in Paris in the winter of 1738 in a rented hall, the grand salle des quatre saisons at the Hôtel de Longueville, where it caused a sensation.  Its companions were two android musicians, a pipe-and-tabor player and a flute-player that had lalready been shown in the previous February.  Admission was a substantial three livres, but Vaucanson earned himself him in a season several times the amount he had borrowed to finance the venture. Automata became the flavour of the moment, dominating the so-called cabinets de physique at the fairs of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Germain. 

Journalists adored Vaucanson.  Pierre Desfontaines celebrated his exhibition in a long article in the Observations sur les écrits modernes as  "a masterpiece of mechanics, a prodigy of genius, and a miracle of art".  Prévost in Le Pour et le contre  eulogised "the most marvellous piece of mechanics that has appeared to this day".

Vaucanson even captured the fancy of Voltaire  who (in the Essai en vers sur l'homme in 1737) celebrated him as "Prometheus's rival" and in 1744, in a letter to the comte d'Argental, commended the soprano Lemaure and the "duck of Vaucanson" as the only remaining attractions of the capital left "to remind you of the glory of France".  Perhaps as a result of Voltaire's encouragement ,Frederick the Great, as early as 1740, contacted his agent in Paris to recruit Vaucanson to the Berlin court.  The inventor was offered a pension of 12,000 livres but, scenting still greater glories at home, refused. 

 The duck and his companions meanwhile were profitably sold off in 1742 to a consortium of Lyonnais businessmen who took them to London, mecca of automata and similar entertainments, where they caused yet more of a stir. According to the prospectus they were to be viewed in operation at the Opera House in the Haymarket " at 1,2,5 and 7 o'clock in the afternoon".John Desaguliers, chaplain to the Prince of Wales, translated "out of the  French original" Vaucauson's "Memoire to the Gentlemen of the Royal-Academy of Sciences at Paris" which was printed by T. Parker and sold in the Long Room of the Opera House in the course of the exhibition.

Who was Jacques Vaucanson?

There doesn't seem to be much in the way of detail about the precociously talented Vaucanson. There isn't the usual chatty 19th-century  biography - the only full-one dates from 1966 and is completely out-of-print. He was born in Grenoble in 1709, the youngest of ten children. His father, who died when Jacques was just seven, was a master glovemaker.  What little is known of his early life amounts to a couple of anecdotes: the young Jacques building a copy of the clock which hung in the church where his mother went to confession;  a refusal to take part in lessons until his model boat had crossed the school pond.  He attended the Jesuit college in Grenoble and later became a novice in the order of the Minims in Lyon, where he was furnished with a workshop and a grant from a local nobleman.  In 1727 - again so the story goes - he made some androids to serve up dinner to a visiting dignitary of the order, who discerned (quite rightly) his profane tendencies and had the workshop destroyed. 

Pleading the excuse of an "unmentionable illness",  Vaucanson was now released from the order and immediately ran away to Paris, where he may possibly have attended classes in anatomy and medicine at the Jardins du roi  He soon produced enough work to go on an exhibition tour of Brittany and in Tours met one of his main financial backers, returning to Paris with enough money to masquerade as a gentleman, in floral garments and carrying a sword.  He now fell ill again - Vaucauson suffered from bowel troubles, hence perhaps the interest in defecation  - and, in a state of delirium, hit upon the idea for the flute-player automaton which launched his career.

Vaucanson, his automata and "science"

One of the great puzzles about Vaucanson is his almost universal acceptance by the Parisian establishment, in particular the most illustrious members of the "scientific" community.  On the face of it automata belonged firmly to the world of fairground showmanship and illusion, along with circus acts, shadow theatre and of course the equally popular (though altogether more suspect) waxworks of Doctor Curtius.  Certainly the modern home of the replica, the small eclectic collection of Frederick Lara in Grenoble, had more of Ripley's than the Smithsonian about it. The answer lay partly in the strategies of the young inventor himself, who besides having startling ability, was clearly a man of persuasive personality and visionary marketing strategy.  Although the son of a mere glovemaker, Vaucanson was educated and took himself very seriously, taking trouble to articulated his purpose in a number of publications.  Members of the Academy were persuaded to view the Paris exhibition after which Vaucanson presented his memoir addressed to them. Fontenelle duly wrote a flattering certificate in which he attested to the "intelligence of its author, and his great knowledge of different aspects of mechanics".

 Vaucanson's central point - and the lynchpin of his "scientific" credentials - was the claim that his automata did not merely create the illusion of their living model but sought to replicate it. Thus his flute player was the result of prolonged study of the structure of the musical instrument, the mechanics of play and the "strength" and velocity of wind needed to achieve the sound. The automaton really played, without trickery.  It was, as it were, an experiment in the understanding of how the various components - instrument, mouth, fingers, airflow - worked together. Hence Desaguliers's claim that Vaubanson's memoir "in a few words gives a better and more intelligible Theory of Wind-Muscick than can be met with in large Volumes".  Similarly the duck purported to be an essay in the understanding of physiology.  Vaucanson explained that he left the workings of his mechanical duck "exposed to view" because he wished "rather to demonstrate the manner of the actions than to show a machine...:  : Perhaps some Ladies, or some People, who only like the Outside of Animals, had rather have have seen the whole cover'd; this is, the Duck with Feathers .But besides, that I have been desir'd to make every Thing visible; I would not be thought to impose upon the Spectators by any conceal'd or juggling Contrivance.".  

Vaucauson's aspiration to replicate natural functions chimed with a definite current of thought in the 1730s when a number of Parisian experts began to make "moving anatomies" of the human body.  Several prominent surgeons - La Mettrie and Quesnay among them - advocated the building of hydraulic machines to demonstrate physiological facts.  In this vein in 1741 Vaucauson proposed the construction under royal commission  of a new automaton, "to perform experiments on animal functions, and thence to gather inductions to know the different states of health of men so as to remedy their ills.  This ingenious machine, which will represent a human body, could in the end serve to perform demonstrations in an anatomy lecture".  He was duly recruited "to execute in this manner the circulation of the blood", a fraught and unsuccessful project from which he was felicitously rescued in 1742 by his appointment as inspector of the silk industry. 

What became of the duck?

The subsequent fate of Vaucauson's  three automata  was much less illustrious.  They changed hands a number of times .  A perfumer and glovemaker named Dumoulin travelled with them through Europe and pawned them in Nuremburg.  They were next seen, boxed up in an attic, by the German writer Christoph Friedrich Nicolai, who published an account in 1783 in which, to  Vaubauson's embarrassment,  he  pointed out that, despite its innovative rubber tubed intestine, the duck's central function was a fraud;  the duck didn't "digest" at all; the ducky pooh was merely concealed in a hidden compartment and released at the appropriate moment. (The magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdon  is often credited with the revelation in 1844 but he was not the first).  As a result of Nicolai's attention, the automata were rescued  by Gottfried Christoph Beireis, doctor to the duke of Brunswick  and collector of curiosities.  As seen by Goethe in 1805, they were "utterly paralysed"; the duck, a  skeleton without feathers, "still devoured the oats briskly enough, but had lost its powers of digestion"

Twenty years later a theatrical impresario called George Dietz rescued the duck from another pawnbroker, had it renovated and took it to the Universal Exhibition of 1844. It then supposedly resurfaced in a museum in Krakow, where it was destroyed, this time definitely, by fire in 1882. Subsequently, however, some mysterious  photographs came to light in the archives of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris -  the core of which was Vaucanson's own collection.  Nothing is known for sure and opinion differs as to their authenticity  but, as Gaby Wood points out, the pictures are strangely moving:  "They show a crude, featherless bird, made of spring-like windings of wire and perched on a huge wooden frame that contains a mechanism resembling a watermill. They are extraordinary views, reminiscent of the sorry skeleton Goethe described."  Such, then, are the ruined after images of Vaucanson's Enlightenment dreams.


The modern replica

Website of Fréderic Vidoni, with specifications and additional videos of his creation.

Another video of the replica duck, plus catalogue entry for the 2013 auction.(Galerie de Chartres)

The Musée des automates in Grenoble

Article from a Grenoble magazine on Francis Lara and his museum of automatons  [on the website (English version)]

Lara was by all accounts an interesting character: a accomplished mime artist and imitator of automatons as well as a collector.  His little museum emphasised  not "science" but childhood, imagination and "mechanical dreams".

On Vaucanson and his duck 

On display at the
Musée des automates
"Vaucanson" on

Extract from Gaby Wood, Living dolls: A magical history of the quest for mechanical life (2002) published in The Guardian.

Simon Schaffer, "Enlightened automata" in The sciences in Enlightened Europe (University of Chicago Press). 1999. [excerpts on Google Books]

David M. Fryer and John C. Marshall, "The motives of Jacques de Vaucanson", Technology and Culture 1979, 20(2), p.257-69 [Jstor article : ]

Jessica Riskin, "The defecating duck, or, the ambiguous origins of artificial life", Critical Inquiry  2003, 29(4), p. 599-633 [Jstor:, table/10.1086/377722]

Vaucanson et l'homme artificiel: des automates aux robots". Exhibition held at the Musée dauphinois, Grenoble,  Spring 2010.

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