Tuesday 28 February 2017

The waxworks of Francesco Orso

The first and the oldest (exhibition of waxes) is that of Citizen Curtius, boulevard du Temple [....].  The second is that of Citizen Orsy, sculptor, whose display is situated near the gate on the Boulevard St. Martin, in the old Opera auditorium.  He models first in clay, then in marble or wax, from life, from a painting or a drawing.  His figures stand out through the veracity of their depiction and the naturalness of their attitudes.  The other displays of this type that may exist in Paris are imitations of these two, and thus cannot interest the amateur. 
Claude-François-Xavier Mercier de Compiègne,.Manuel du voyageur à Paris Year VII - 1798,  p.139-40

Thanks to Madame Tussaud, Curtius remains a well-known figure, whilst other wax artists of the late 18th century have fallen into almost complete oblivion.  Recently rescued from neglect is Curtius's principal rival during the Revolutionary years, the Piedmontese artist Francesco Orso ( François Orsy).  Orso has been the particular study of Andreas Daninos, historian and expert on the art of wax modelling.  In 2012 Daninos curated an exhibition of Italian life size wax figures at the Fortuny Museum in Venice, which included several splendid  (if rather scary) models created by Orsy for the court of Savoy at Turin before his departure for France.  In 2016 Andrea Daninos published Une Révolution en cire, a detailed history of early wax exhibitions in France, together with a catalogue raisonné of Orso's work.

According to Daninos, Orso arrived in Paris from Turin in early 1785, probably drawn by the prospective patronage of the comtesse de Provence and comtesse d'Artois, the two daughters of Victor-Amédée III of Savoy.  His wax portraits of the comtesse d'Artois's two sons, the duc d'Angoulême and the duc de Berry, were exhibited in December 1785 in the Salon de la Correspondance and sent to the court in Turin the following year.  He continued to exhibit in the years which followed and in 1788 received 4,100 livres for a commission from the comtesse de Provence.

Mirabeau by Boze,
 Musée Granet
The Revolution clearly destroyed Orso's courtly patronage and forced him to seek new sources of income. His first surviving appearance in the world of commercial waxworks dates from June 1791 when he advertised viewings of a life-sized wax effigy of Mirabeau, modelled after the well-known portrait by Boze.  The entrance fee was a comparatively high 24 sous.  The figure was housed in a specially constructed wooden building close to the seat of the  National Assembly in the Manège, a site Orso continued to occupy until  November 1793 when he moved into two adjoining boutiques in the Palais-Royal arcades.

 For Orso, as for Curtius, the Revolutionary years were not without their tribulations.  In 1794  both men were  attacked for their popular tableaux of  Marat and Le Peletier ("les deux sujets les plus beaux de la Revolution") which were preferred over David's edifying paintings in the Convention. [Athanase Détournelle, Journal de la Société républicaine des arts (1794) p.18-20].    In March 1794 Orso was actually arrested for showing a wax model of Charlotte Corday, who was considered by some Revolutionary purists to have provoked too much sympathetic publicity;  he managed to extricate himself only by insisting that the wax in question was in fact an abstract figure of "Liberty" (p.63). The effigy evidently had appeal, for according to  Les Chroniques du Palais-Royal (1860) Curtius's fortunes were not at all aided by his rivalry with "a certain Orsay, who, in the Palais-Royal, showed the assassination of (?by) Charlotte Corday" (p.283)

By 1797 Orso had moved his show to one of the rotundas in the garden of the Palais-Royal, and in late 1798 he too moved out altogether,  to  premises in the Boulevard Saint-Martin, not far from the cabinet of Curtius.  He died on 21st November 1799 and at this point his business disappears from history.

Orso was always a versatile artist who worked in clay and marble as well as wax. The inventory of his salon at his death shows that at this time he  preferred allegorical and genre scenes over the wax likenesses associated with Curtius.

The only wax by Orso to survive from his time in France is a tableau featuring small-scale figures of Voltaire, Rousseau and Franklin in the Musée Révolution française,Vizille (Daninos, Catalogue no.9,  p.101).  The wooden frame measures 89cm x 85cm x 60cm.  The spiritual fathers of the Revolution are placed in a natural country setting.  Rousseau is writing Émile with a young boy, no doubt Émile himself, seated beside him;  a young black girl sits beside Franklin.  The piece is signed ORSO and probably dates from 1790, the year of Franklin's death, or shortly after.

The group was acquired by the museum in 1987 from a private collection in Paris.  The clothes are not original.  It may have originally been part of Orso's public exhibition, but it could equally well have been a private commission.  The composition recalls the grouping of Voltaire, Rousseau and Franklin seen by Mrs Cradock at Curtius's cabinet in the Foire St-Germain in 1784.


Andrea Daninos, Une Révolution en cire (2016), p.57-72; p.101.

"Waxing eloquent:  Italian portrait figures in wax", Exhibition at the Fortuny Museum, Venice, 10 March – 25 June 2012, Enfilade, post of 5.3.12.

The Curtius waxworks in the Revolution

Jean Baptiste Le Sueur, Première scène de la Révolution française à Paris, 12 juillet 1789, c. 1792-95.
 Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Events of 12th July 

And thus I can glory in the fact that the first act of the Revolution began chez moi. 
Services du Sieur Curtius, 1790.

And so it was - one of the first iconic popular actions of the Revolution began famously at Curtius's waxworks:

12th July 1789, a Sunday:  News of the dismissal of Necker was greeted with mounting indignation by the crowd gathered in the Palais-Royal, haranged by Desmoulins and others. In the late afternoon a large contingent moved off towards the Opera to demand the closure of the theatres as a sign of mourning.  A group of protestors arrived at Curtius's premises in the Boulevard du Temple just as he was closing up and made off with the wax busts of Necker and the duc d'Orléans. They were then covered in black crepe and paraded through the streets, accompanied by black banners and muffled drumming.  Curtius, who was after all the duc's man, reluctantly agreed to give up his figures.   According to one published account, the waxworks were taken on deposit - "en déposant la valeur" (Récit de ce qui s'est passé à Paris le 12 juillet, quoted, Daninos, Une Révolution en cire, p.36)  Curtius managed to dissuade the protestors from commandeering the full-length portrait-figure of the King which would be too heavy and cumbersome to handle.

 Jean-François Janinet, Curtius delivers the busts of Necker and the duc d'Orléans on 12th July http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b6942738f  (detail)

The crowd - according to one estimate now 6,000 strong - returned via the Palais-Royal, to the place Vendôme, then moved on to the place Louis XV where it clashed with a contingent of dragoons who was stationed there.  Spilling into the Tuileries Gardens,  it was "charged" by the prince de Lambesc, at the head of a contingent of the Royal-Allemand; at least one person was killed and many others were injured. 

In the turmoil, the citizen carrying the bust of Orléans, a pedlar named François Pépin, was shot in the ankle and taken back to the Palais-Royal to have his wounds treated. The citizen carrying the figure of Necker was allegedly killed by one of the dragoons as he fled. Curtius's man, who had been trailing the protestors, was able to retrieve the bust of the duc, which was deposited at the Tuileries;  the damaged statue of Necker was restored to the waxworks a few days later.

Curtius later gave his deposition to the Châtelet : Here he emphasised his lack of political involvement:  he had been aware of groups forming and public activity in the Palais-Royal for some time, since he had observed them on his way to his premises in the gardens.  But "he had never mixed with these groups, and did not know the object of the movements".  He stated that he had handed over the busts to two well-dressed men and a "Savoyard with a black bonnet on his head", clearly Pépin who was in fact well-known to Curtius.  "A young man in a stripped silk coat with two watches" - perhaps the actor Bordier -  had taken charge  of the bust of Necker and given the bust of Orléans to Pépin, who seemed overjoyed with the honour. (Pépin was temporarily relieved of his charge at the Porte Saint-Martin but later recovered it; he himself testified simply that he found it abandoned by a protester in the place Louis XV.)
[Daninos, p.39;  Hubert La Marle, Philippe Egalité (1989) p.252]

In 1790 Curtius himself published the following account:

On the 12 July, following a resolution made at the Palais-Royal, where news had just been received of the departure of M. Necker, a crowd of citizens made its way to my salon in the Boulevard du Temple.  They demanded the wax busts of the Minister and of M. le duc d'Orleans, to carry them in triumph around the Capital.  I handed them over quickly, imploring the crowd to treat them carefully. [....]

I will not retrace the horrors committed on that memorable day.  I can say only that the man who carried the bust of M. le duc d'Orléans was wounded in the pit of the stomach by a bayonet thrust  and the one who carried M. Necker was killed by a Dragoon in the place Vendôme.  The bust of M. le duc d'Orléans was returned to me without damaged, but that of M. Necker was given back only six days afterwards by a Suisse of the Palais-Royal;  its hair had been burnt and its face was marked by several sabre cuts....
Services du Sieur Curtius, 1790, quoted by D. McCallam

Curtius, "Vainqueur de la  Bastille"

Events had turned Curtius, however reluctantly, into a Revolutionary activist. On 13th July he joined the citizens' militia and was elected captain of the pères de Nazareth district.  According to his own account, he performed his functions conscientiously.  He collected all the arms he could lay hands on, and hired four men at his own expense to keep surveillance over the neighbourbood.  On the night of 13th he peacefully dispersed a group of protestors, torches in hand, who were intent on setting fire to the Opera and theatres.  However, although he later claimed the title of "Vainqueur", he did not in fact personally take part in the storming of the Bastille: whether by chance or by design, by the time he and his men arrived in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, the fortress had already fallen.  His company were allotted the task of accompanying a group of prisoners to the Hôtel de Ville; Curtius took advantage of the confusion to deposit them safely at a local hostelry.  His tardiness did not go unnoticed;  Palloy commented in his register of Vainqueurs that Curtius, though officially received, had "arrived in the fight when everything was over" (Daninos, p. 36)

On 23rd July, as soon as was decently possible, Curtius resigned his commission, though he remained a member of the garde bourgeois.  He took the precaution of obtaining from the Hôtel de Ville a paper accepting his resignation with regret and recognising the valuable service he had given in the position.  The following day he donated forty-eight livres to the district committee as a gesture of goodwill (see Chapman, The French Revolution as seen by Madame Tussaud, p.85).  On 5th-6th October he contrived to avoid accompanying his fellow guardsmen to Versailles when he was ordered to take eight men and guard the deserted Bastille.  On 6th he was on hand to help to help with the less dangerous task of shepherding the crowds which escorted the Royal family back to Paris, an immense procession  "preceded by a great convoy of flour wagons, a train of artillery and a multitude of carriages".  In Curtius's version of events his commanding officer Hulin embraced him and said he had rendered as good a service as if he had come to Versailles (Chapman, p.83).

No doubt Curtius was grateful afterwards to return to his business.  His priorities may be surmised from a surviving letter of 11th November addressed to the members of his district in which he suggests a  voluntary contribution to raise a guard for the Boulevard du Temple. [MS Letter from the Bibl. de Ville,  of 11th November 1789, quoted in Arthur Heulhard,  La Foire Saint-Laurent (1878),p.147-8]. 

In April 1790 Curtius received the right to appear in the official list of "Conquerors of the Bastille".  In order to bolster his Revolutionary credentials and to stem the rumour he had arrived too late to participate in events, he published a pamphet: 

Services du Sieur Curtius vainqueur de la Bastille depuis le 12 juillet jusqu'au 6 octobre 1789, 1790, 27 pages.

Sadly I can't find a complete text, though much of it is summarised in the secondary sources. Curtius boasted that he had been active in the National Guard from its very inception, heroically defended the Opera district against six hundred "incendiaires", and taken an active part in the storming of the Bastille.  He had arrived at the head of his company of garde bourgeois "in time to share in the final dangers and glory" (p.8)   At the end of the text he appended no less than twelve certificates and documents to serve as "authentic proofs" of his "zeal and activity". He complains of the time and money that he has expended: "I have proved my zeal by the sacrifice of time normally dedicated to my work.  It is a loss for an artist. To this I should add considerable and exceptional expenses" (p.6-7) As David McCallam comments,  the pamphlet  "reads much more like and advertisement for his Salon than accurate political commentary"  (p.21)

Inevitably, the events of the Fourteenth of July became one of the principal attractions at Curtius's cabinets; the fact that he himself had participated added an air of authenticity to the exhibits. The inscribed gun and sword awarded to him as a "Vainqueur" were displayed throughout the Revolution; indeed the gun survived to feature in Madame Tussaud's Baker Street exhibition.  In the winter of 1790 the German playwright August von Kotzebue, saw among the figures at  the Palais-Royal, Lafayette, Bailly, Clermont Tonnerre and the prisoners of the Bastille "Trent und la Tude".  The  Almanach général  listed at the Boulevard du Temple in 1790 the King, Lafayette and Bailly, plus "the famous sieur Hulin, sieur Elie and the others principal victors of the Bastille, with celebrated prisoners of the fortress".  There was also a plan of the prison engraved on a stone, plus various cardboard models.

The stone was purchased from Palloy on 18th January 1790 and was said to have come from near the entrance to one of the  Bastille's dungeons.  Curtius had it engraved with a patriotic couplet. In February he wrote to Palloy to request a copy of the misplaced certificate of authenticity, since he wished to present the stone to the Assembly.  He evidently kept it in his exhibition for a while since it was it only presented to the Assembly on 18th November 1790  [Daninos, p.36-8].  

A stone from the Bastille,  with key attached, was displayed at Madame Tussauds until 1925; but this was a different one, purchased by waxworks in 1860.

Curtius's later Revolutionary career

 Curtius continued his prudent support for the Revolution and successfully weathered the Terror, despite his incriminating German origins.  He became a member of the Jacobin Club towards the end of 1789 and remained a loyal Robespierriste.  Following the municipal reforms of May 1790 he was elected captain of the company of Chasseurs attached to the section of the Temple into which the former pères de Nazareth district had been incorporated. (The duties of the newly formed Chasseurs involved mainly policing the barrières and prevent loss of revenue through smuggling.).  It is from this time that the only surviving portrait of Curtius dates,  a  head-and-shoulders profile in the uniform of the Chasseurs, which was similar to that of the National Guard but with green ornamentation.  We are informed that the engraving (of which there are two variants) was  executed using  Gilles-Louis Chrétien's "physionotrace" machine after a portrait by Jean-Baptiste Fouquet. Curtius is identified as "citizen of Paris" and "volunteer of the Bastille"(see Daninos, p.30 and 31; Pauline Chapman, p.89).  

Apart from the Tussaud Memoirs, evidence for Curtius's activities are piecemeal:  

Pauline Chapman reproduces a letter dated 16th September 1792 addressed to the Assembly in which Curtius put forward a suggestion for the exchange of refractory priests, "whose conscience and ridiculous theology cause so many troubles and massacres in this empire" for soldiers and sailors held by the Dey of Algiers; Curtius signed himself "capitaine de la Bataillon de Nazareth". the letter was annotated by an official and included in the Assembly's Order of the Day. In the context of the September Massacres,  no doubt Curtius's main motive was to reassure the Assembly of his continued loyalty. (see Chapman, p.124)  https://archive.org/stream/histoiredelaterr04ternuoft#page/406/mode/2up

In October 1792 the Jacobin Club appointed Curtius defenseur or protector of Austrian or Prussian deserters, whom he was forced to accommodate at his own expense in folding beds on his premises (Chapman, p.127).

There are records of various financial contributions:  In the course of 1792-3 he made at least two "voluntary donations" of 120 livres to the war effort. In October 1793 he undertook to donate a further 200 livres every six months for the duration of the war in the Vendée (Daninos, p..40).

From  November 1792 the National Assembly entrusted Curtius, a German speaker,  with several missions to the Army of the Rhine.  Perhaps Curtius himself instigated this: his second patriotic donation of 120 livres on 5th October 1792 had been accompanied  by a letter to the President of the newly formed National Convention asking for General Custine's help in pursuing his lost inheritance in the newly-captured Mainz. (Chapman, p. 126).  By December Curtius himself was in Mainz:  a letter of  2nd December 1792 read to the Jacobin Club confirmed his friendly reception by the local Jacobins, the "Mainzer Club". A further letter to the President of the Convention,  dated 27th June 1793, which warranted an "Honorable Mention",  excused the tardiness of his latest voluntary contribution on the grounds he had been away on mission "visiting the storehouses of the Army of the Rhine" (Chapman, p. 140). In all probability the mould for the life mask of Custine in the Musée Grévin dates from this time.

In August 1793 Custine was to be executed as a traitor and for a moment it appeared that Curtius might suffer by association.  Part of the accusation against Custine involved a letter addressed to the duchesse de Liancourt in which he told her not to believe "rumours spread about the clubs of Paris by Curtius";  according to Marat, however, this was Curtius's innocent, if ill-judged, conclusion that Custine was a good patriot (Chapman, p.137)

If Curtius himself survived the Terror, his business faced increasing difficulties.  At first the Salon de cire seems to have prospered: the Almanach général for 1791 fulsomely praised the patriotic displays.  An anti-Revolutionary pamphlet published in 1790, Supplément au Nouveau dictionnaire français, even used an imaginary tour of Curtius's "living busts" as a vehicle for ironic comment on the plight of the Royal family and the pretentions of Revolutionary politicians.

However, the need to keep pace with changing political trends soon became a serious matter.  Already in 1789 Curtius felt constrained to abandon the figure of Jean-Joseph Mounier, which he had started and replace it with that of Barnave. (Nogaret, Anecdotes du règne de Louis XVI (1791) vol. VI, p.321; Daninos, p.41)

In 1790 Curtius's name appeared in a publication which purported to list secret gratifications entered in Louis XVI's personal account book, the so-called "Red Book".  It was revealed that in 1784 he had received a remuneration of 2,000 livres "in consideration of his talents and services":  having been obliged to abandon his cabinet of criminals, Curtius had merely substituted thieves of a different sort "farmers-general, lieutenants of the police, and princes of the blood"; now "whether through laziness or economy", he recycled former villains into Revolutionary heroes.

In 1792 the Almanach général,  which had praised Curtius so generously the previous year, condemned him  for his "false and dangerous patriotism". It is not certain exactly what fault Curtius had committed, but on 24th August 1791, he wrote to the Assembly to acknowledge his error of judgment in exhibiting a figure of Lafayette - recently declared an enemy of the Revolution:  to make amends he had publically decapitated his model and impaled the head on a lance (Archives parlementaire, cited Daninos,  p.42).  Nonetheless, in September - less than three months after the flight to Varennes -  he was sufficiently imprudent to exhibit a coloured bust of the "Prince Royal" in the Salon du Louvre, open for the first time to non-Academicians.

At some point in 1791 or 1792 Curtius gave up his Salon de cire at the Palais-Royal and moved his models back to the boulevards.  He can occasionally be glimpsed introducing new Revolutionary subjects.  On 23rd January 1793, the Jacobin Club had ordered Curtius to make a bust of Le Peletier, who had been assassinated on 20th. For the Salon, he produced an elaborate wax tableau showing Le Peletier on his deathbed as  depicted in the spectacular funeral laid on by David on 24th. The wax work anticipated David's painting, which was presented to the Convention on the 29th. In July 1793 came the death of Marat. In December 1793 Curtius was added Madame du Barry's severed head to his exhibition.  Prudhomme's Révolutions de Paris,  criticised Curtius for neglecting to model Louis XVI on the scaffold; perhaps, even for Curtius, this was a step too far. 

Death of Curtius

In 1793 Curtius had began to make payments on a small house in Ivry-sur-Seine.  It was here that he died on 3rd October 1794.  In his will, dated 31st August 1794, he left his silver and jewellery  to the poor of the Temple district, but otherwise named Marie Grosholtz, "my pupil in my art", as  his sole heir.  The will and the inventory drawn up after his death are published as Appendices in Daninos's Une Révolution en cire.   Despite the dislocation and financial exactions of the Revolutionary years, the inventory reveals that Curtius was still reasonably well off.  Among his possessions were more than 60 paintings and 114 drawings and engravings, suggesting perhaps that he had a sideline in art dealing.  The Salon de cire itself contained various mirrors and paintings, plus the Egyptian mummy "in its painted wooden box". There were twenty-eight standing figures in wax, ten further busts and 68 other models, representing various persons and animals, in cages and glass cases. Figures mentioned are Marat, Le Peletier, Franklin, Voltaire, Rousseau and Joseph Barat.


Andrea Daninos, Une Révolution en cire:  Francesco Orso et les cabinets de figures en France (Milan, 2016), chapter 2: "Philippe Curtius"

Pauline Chapman, The French Revolution as seen by Madame Tussaud, witness extraordinary (1989).  [Pauline Chapman was the archivist at Madame Tussaud's for 18 years]

D. McCallam,"Waxing Revolutionary: Reflections on a Raid on a Waxworks at the Outbreak of the French Revolution"[Article of 2002]. http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/archive/00000629/


A favourable review:
Salon of Sieur Curtius,  boulevard du Temple entre Nicolet and Les Associés.
Admission prices: In front of the partitioning balcony, 2s.  Beyond the balcony, to go everywhere, 12s.

Sieur Curtius, is a German artist,  naturalised a Frenchman through many years’ domicile in France, and  even more so by the patriotism he has shown during the Revolution,  when he distinguished himself  most honorably  on several different occasions and in different manners.  He has kept for many years on the boulevard du Temple and under the galleries of the Palais-Royal,  cabinets  of wax figures, which perfectly imitate nature;  in both venues are also rare and curious objects, paintings, sculptures, and precious relics.  Every year Curtius renews the two salons entirely and every month he changes something.   There are fantasy figures, which are made for him in town; he keeps a copy when the heads have character or beauty.  Besides these are modern Heroes who can be instantly recognised, and who are dressed  from head to foot in costumes of the greatest veracity.

The figures most in vogue this year (1790) in Curtius’s Salon are:  the King, MM. Bailly, Lafayette, and several illustrious deputies of the National Assembly;   the famous sieur Hulin, sieur Elie and the others principal victors of the Bastille, with celebrated prisoners of the fortress.  There is a plan of the prison engraved on a stone by a prisoner;  also cardboard models of the Bastille, both intact and half-demolished,  which are very fine pieces.  But still more impressive is the shirt which Henri IV, that model of Kings, wore when he received the fatal blow which plunged France into universal mourning. This shirt, with the bloody hole left by the assassin's knife, is accompanied by authentic historical certificates which leave no doubt as to the genuineness of the piece.  Sieur Curtius conserves, among other things, an Egyptian mummy, the body of a princess of Memphis dead more than 3000 years ago.  He takes trouble to offer to an avid public curiosity all sorts of new objects that excite interest in France.
Almanach général de tous les Spectacles de Paris et des provinces for 1791.

August von Kotzebue,  on his visit to Paris in the Winter of 1790
Another crier drew us to the Salon of lifesized wax figures,  which is truly worth seeing.  The King, the Queen, the Dauphin and his sister, Lafayette, Bailly, Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, the two famous prisoners (of the Bastille) Trent and Latude, the Indian ambassadors who were once here,  Madame du Barry, sleeping and half naked, Maria Theresa, Clermont Tonnerre, and God knows who else, stand here in an extraordinary way, in their normal attire.

Extract from: The Livre Rouge, Or Red Book (1790)
...... the Sieur Curtius filled his saloon next year with thieves of another sort.  He exhibited a collection of ministers, farmers-general, lieutenants of the police, and princes of the blood.  M. Necker, it may be supposed, was not forgotten; and the artist, as an encouragement for his talents, had a secret pension bestowed upon him in the Red Book.

In the mean time, he continues to shew at two-pence a piece, the king, the queen, the little children, the marquis de la Fayette, M. de Clermont-Tonnere, &c. But, whether from laziness or economy, M. Curtius has furbished up some of his old busts for our modern heroes; converting Mandrin into the Count Mirabeau, Nivet into the Sieur Thouret, Cartouche into the famous Chapellier, &c. This circumstance was announced at the corners of the streets, in some pompous verses to the praise of the hero of America, and M. Bailly.

Condemnation in the Almanach général for 1792:
M. Curtius has dishonoured himself by the publicly insulting esteemed men whilst awarding honours to individuals whose names posterity will utter with scorn.  We will say nothing about his cabinet; it is no longer of interest to anyone since a false and dangerous patriotism has taken hold of sieur Curtius.
Quoted in Arthur Heulhard. La Foire Saint-Laurent, son histoire et ses spectacles.... 1878, p.145-6

Prudhomme criticises Curtius for not displaying a model of Louis XVI on the guillotine.
The Cabinet of Curtius
At present in the Cabinet of Curtius the figure of Lepeletier can be seen laid out on his deathbed, as he was displayed in the place des Piques and taken to the Pantheon.  We should be grateful to an artist who exercises his talents on such subjects, suitable to sustain the public spirit.  No doubt he will soon join with it the bust of the infamous Pâris, his assassin.  But what prevents Curtius, who we know is a good patriot, from representing the death of Louis XVI?  The sight of the tyrant on the scaffold would attract a large number of viewers.  Such a subject is suitable for a republican people.  Curtius for a long time showed Louis XVI at the dinner table with his family.  That royal banquet amazed provincials, who returned home proud of having seen the royal family eat and drink.  Louis XVI on the guillotine would be worth a full treatment.  Hasn't Curtius made many lots of 2 sous showing Desrues and his wife?  Hasn't he hurried to adorn his collection with the the busts of Lafayette, Favras, Barnave and Mirabeau, of his Holiness the Pope and the Great Turk?......If Curtius was really a patriot he would hurry to model Louis Capet guillotined; it is the way to attract people to his cabinet, which patriots will soon desert if the artist delays in offering this spectacle to fellow-citizens who could not be present themselves at the execution of the last of our tyrants.  The Republic gives refuges to the arts only on condition that they serve to consacrate fortunate events and good principles.   If they had done this before, J.J. Rousseau would never have banished them without pity from every free and well-ordered state.
Prudhomme, Révolutions de Paris No.188 9th-16th February 1793

Another Revolutionary critic: Salon de Curtius:
The Revolution must take place in the Arts, the same as in other parts of the political machine...The theatre of Nicolet, which is often indecent, and the Salon of Curtius, where the figures are  no better in taste, must be abandoned... Enamel eyes, hair tastelessly fixed on a mass of wax, bright costumes, a head which is a vague likeness, mounted on a block of wood covered by a straw-stuffed coat - these seduce the people; the peaceable countryman, takes part of his salary from his pocket, and returns home full of admiration for waxworks which are far from true representations.  Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin are unrecognisable;  Brutus is wearing a speckled and striped satin wrap instead of his consular robes.  It is time to open one's eyes to this charlatanism.  If Curtius wants to takes money off a foolish amateur who desires his own image, I am far from stopping him:  but he should be stopped from publically exhibiting these bogus representations which so easily trick those with little experience....I believe that Curtius's boutique should be closed, and that of citizen Orsy at the Palais-Egalité, which is no better....
Athanase Détournelle, Journal de la Société républicaine des arts (1794) p.18-20.
See Daninos, p.43-4.

A later verdict:  Curtius showed himself to be a patriot from the very beginning of the Revolution;  he showed figures of Lafayette, Bailly, Mirabeau and other deputies of the Constituent Assembly, those of the principal prisoners and conquerors of the Bastille, and two models of this fortress prison, one in its original state and the other in ruins.  But Curtius was a weathercock, like many men who don't boast about it, and have made a lucrative living out of it.  He offered to the homage or horror of the public, the great men of the day, great men who were fashionable, triumphant or victims, showing their apotheosis or their punishment according to the circumstances.  Thus were seen, turn by turn, in his salons, Girondins and Montagnards, Vergniaux and Danton, the duc d'Orleans and Philippe-Egalite, Marat and Charlotte Corday, the pere Duchesne and Robespierre, madame Roland and the capuchin Chabot, madame Tallien and Barras, Dumouriez and Talleyrand, Bonaparte, his familly, his marshalls, his favourites and some of his chamberlains and senators.  His death or that of his inheritor, twenty years ago, may have stopped them showing effigies of kings, heroes of the Restoration, princes of the Holy Alliance etc. But they have been supplanted in that noble task by their successors and imitators in the boulevards St Martin and du Temple, who, lacking anyone better, have to show "great men"  who are of very little consequence.
Dictionnaire de la Conversation et de la lecture (1832-9) vol.18

Monday 27 February 2017

The Salon de Cire: popular figures in Pre-Revolutionary France

"For several years he has shown the Royal Family, several foreign princes, and almost all the famous people of our times". Almanach de Palais-Royal 1785

Pierre Charles Duvivier, Changez moi cette Tête!, c. 1783 (detail)
The waxworks cabinets of Curtius, particularly the Salon de cire in the Palais-Royal, specialised in effigies of Royalty  "and almost all the famous people of our times".  A conspicuous feature of Curtius’s exhibition in its heyday was its constant change - indeed, the rapid transformation of his models,  sometimes with only a cursory redistribution of props, was the source of much ironic amusement. Nonetheless, a sense of the emerging concept of “celebrity” is evident  in the mix of court figures, philosophers, actors and popular heroes like Blanchard the first man to cross the Channel in a balloon.

Here are a few of the attested waxworks from the pre-Revolutionary period:

1. "Royal family and several foreign princes"

  • Louis XIV, Marie-Antoinette, the Dauphin and Madame Royale
  • The duc d'Orléans and his sons
  • The Emperor Joseph II
  • Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia
  • Frederick the Great of Prussia
  • Madame du Barry as Sleeping Beauty (?)
Illustration from an anonymous almanach of 1784
The Grand couvert à Versailles, a depiction of the weekly ritual appearance of the Royal family at dinner, was the most enduring and consistently remarked upon of Curtius's tableaux. The royal family "seated at an artificial banquet" is mentioned by Mercier as among the models at the boulevard du Temple in 1782.  The piece was subsequently transferred or reproduced for the Salon de cire in the Palais-Royal, where it was the centralpiece and main attraction. The group included the figure of the Emperor Joseph II who visited Versailles in the summer of 1777.  In February 1784 the English visitor Mrs Cradock saw the King, Queen and Dauphin "beneath a canopy" at the waxworks in the Foire Saint-Germain; in July she partook of ices in the Palais-Royal and visited the Salon de cire  where she describes the famous Grand couvert - "the King, Queen and the whole Royal family seated at a ceremonial meal".  She observed that the King of Sweden (sic) remained standing because he was travelling incognito.  Mrs Cradock was also very impressed by the model of Frederick the Great: "All the busts were very good likenesses, but that of the king of Prussia, surpassed all one could have hoped for;  you would have thought that it was actually living" [Journal de Madame Cradock (edited 1896),  p.5-6; 59-60; see  Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud, p.25-6.]

Though the diners changed, the Grand couvert remained on show in the boulevard du Temple into the 1830s.  The Romance of Madame Tussaud identifies the London Royal family as a different tableau, depicting the seated figures of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their two children in full-dress court costume (p.33-4). According to the Tussaud catalogue this version dated from 1790; it is certainly later than 1789, since the "Dauphin" represented is Louis-Charles.

As is often observed, Curtius's depiction of Royalty represented a significant erosion of the boundary between public and private. The Grand couvert, in real life a carefully orchestrated and controlled Royal appearance, was made visible, at least in effigy,  to the ice-eating pleasure-seekers of the Palais-Royal. According to Kate Berridge, Curtius went further than this and also exhibited a tableau of Marie-Antoinette preparing for bed,  turning the Queen, "into a fantasy boudoir femme fatale" (Berridge Waxing mythical, p.74-5)   Certainly, the exhibition testified to the Queen's transformation into a fashion icon:  the figure of Marie-Antoinette sported a replica gown made by the royal dressmaker Rose Bertin herself (In 1838 Madame Tussaud noted the insurance value of her genuine Bertin dress as £22: see Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud, p.124).  

The Tussaud memoirs perpetrated the myth of willing collusion, insisting that members of the royal family themselves "submitted to Madame Tussaud, whilst she took models from them".I n hindsight, the  duc d'Orléans may be judged to have played a dangerous game by openly patronising Curtius. He gave him the official title of his painter and sculptor and in January 1785 took sons to see exhibition, where they were represented in effigy, though with "not very much resemblance" (Hubert La Marle Philippe Egalité (1989), p.64).

2. Warriors, statesmen and heroes of the American War of Independence

  • Benjamin Franklin
  • George Washington (?)
  • Lafayette (?)
  • Comte d'Estaing, the admiral who commanded the French expeditionary fleet. (Mayeur de Saint-Paul/ Mercier, 1782)
  • Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, the first French ambassador to the U.S. (according to Pauline ChapmanFrench Revolution as seen by Madame Tussaud , p.330)
  • Antoine-Louis Séguier,  avocat-général of the Parlement of Paris, a well-known society figure 
  • Necker (in 1789)

3. Exotic figures 
  • The Ottoman"Grand Turk" (and members of his harem)
  • Mustapha Ali, Turkish murderer
  • Chinese Emperors
  • Hyder Ali of Mysore 
  • Tableau of the ambassadors of "Tippou-Saib"(Tipu Sultan) of Mysore
See Meredith Martin,"Tipu Sultan’s ambassadors at Saint-Cloud: indomania and anglo- phobia in pre-Revolutionary Paris", West 86th, 21(1), 2014, p.37-68.

During the American War a French expeditionary force had been sent to the aid of Haider ("Hyder") Ali, ruler of Mysore; he was widely rumoured to have met with the French admiral Suffren to discuss a coalition against the British. In 1788 Haider's son Tipu Sultan sent three ambassadors to France to pursue the prospect of an alliance and to further commerical ties. They stayed for three months and were widely seen in Paris, where they were a source of great fascination.  Their visit spawned large quantities of merchandise, from prints and portrait busts to porcelain cups and fashion plates. Claude-André Deseine sculpted them and Elizabeth Vignée Lebrun painted their portraits.  The duc and duchesse d'Orléans stole the limelight by receiving them publically in the Palais-Royal. 

Deseine, The Ambassador Mohammed Osman Khan, terracotta; Louvre.
According to Madame Tussaud, courtiers at Versailles played a jolly trick on the Indian party by setting up a mock wax tableau at Versailles, which contained real people rather than wax effigies.

Le Vachez, Interior of the new Circus at Port-Royal with the Ambassadors of "Nabab-Tipu" (detail)  http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8410572j/f1.item

4. Icons of the Enlightenment

  • Voltaire
  • Rousseau
  • Linguet
  • Buffon

Voltaire and Rousseau were among Curtius's most long-standing subjects. The American Elkanah Watson who visited the boulevards in 1779 described as the most striking of the wax figures,  "the celebrated Voltaire, who is closely engaged with a table full of books papers etc. before him.  His countenance expressed the very sensation of being a philosopher."  (quoted by Pauline Chapman, p.23).  In 1784 Mrs Cradock was less approving of a tableau featuring Franklin, Voltaire and Rousseau seated at a table: "the workmanship was so good that the very character of these famous, though baneful, men was conveyed by their appearance" (p.5-6; 59-60)  Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud, p.25-6.

Another author who is mentioned several times was the lawyer and journalist Linguet, whose  Mémoires sur la Bastille, featured prominently among Robert Darnton's "forbidden bestsellers". According to Professor Darnton, Linguet and Mirabeau, were  "the two writers who did more than anyone else to turn public opinion against the government in the 1780s" [Darnton, The Forbidden bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1996) p.75]

5. Heroes of Aviation
  • Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who made the first balloon crossing of the Channel on 7th January 1785.
  • Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, who died in a ballooning accident at Bologne on 15th June 1785. For a short time Pilâtre de Rozier had been another of Curtius's neighbours in the Palais-Royal, where he set up a scientific museum in December 1784.

6. Actors and showmen

  • Louise Contat ,the actress who played Suzanne to much acclaim in Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro in 1784.
  • Volange / Jeannot, a popular comic actor
  • Alessandro Cagliostro, the Italian Freemason and occultist, who was banished from France in 1784 when he was implicated in the Diamond Necklace affair.
  • Guiseppi Pinetti, a showman who specialised in "experimental physics"; he  appeared in Paris periodically between 1783 and 1787, and often performed at the Théâtre des Menus-Plaisirs. 
  • Mesmer
  • Tarrare - a showman who engaged in feats of eating.

On Jeannot, see  Frederick William Hawkins, The French Stage in the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2 (1888), p.257-8
In 1779 playgoers flocked to the farces of Dorvigny at the Foire Saint-Laurent. Their success owed much to talents of the actor for whom they were written, a buffoon of the Foire, born Volange, but better known after one of his characters, as "Jeannot" (sometimes "Janot")

For a time the achievements of Jeannot were the principal topics of conversation in Paris; he received invitations into the best society, and portraits and busts of him were to be found in every drawing-room. According to the memoirs of the actor Fleury, they became a sort of currency:
The Queen, perhaps too ready to fall into the error of following instead of leading the fashion, purchased a number of busts to distribute among the courtiers, who regarded them as an insignia of knighthood.  Recipients of busts in plaster or biscuit ranked only as knights of the order; recipients of busts in alabaster or Sevres were treated as grands cordons or commanders.  Fortunately Jeannot was not cast in bronze.

7. Rogues and thieves
  • Cartouche
  • Mandrin
  • The Widow Lescombat (murderess executed in 1755)
  • De[s]rues (poisoner, executed in 1777)
  • The Comtesse de la Mothe-Valois (of Diamond Necklace fame)
Curtius's cabinet des grands voleurs may have lasted only briefly, but he continued to exhibit villains, both historical and contemporary - certainly they were a feature of the later exhibitions in the Boulevard du Temple.

Ali Mustapha, the furious Turk

The model of the Turk Mustapha Ali is singled out for particular mention by Mayeur de Saint-Paul in his well-informed account  of Curtius's salon de cire in the Palais-Royal in 1788:
I was struck by the head of a certain Turk, called Mustapha, who - according to the guide who for two further sous explained what you had not understand for the first two - massacred those who amused themselves setting fire to his beard in the Auxerre coach. This head had great character and expressed fury, just as that of Tarare expressed cowardice.  However I  could not prevent myself from making a joke which made my companions laugh:  I asked how it had been possible to reproduce the lower half of the Turk's head, since his chin had been shattered by a pistol shot in the course of his arrest.  Curtius signalled to me to keep quiet, which I did, since I did not want to do him harm.
François-Marie Mayeur de Saint-Paul, Tableau du nouveau Palais-Royal (1788), p.97-8

I was curious to find out more about this Turkish fury.  Here he is in a coloured engraving in the Bibliothèque nationale, purportedly  "drawn from life by a passenger":

The caption explains that Mustapha had been roused from his sleep by the pranksters burning his beard; having armed himself with an hatchet, he had promptly killed his interpreter, a nurse and the three soldiers who had affronted him. He could only be arrested after he had been shot with a pistol and, as a result, he died from his wounds at Sens three days later.

It is worth noting that the Auxerre coach in which the incident took place was not a stagecoach but the famous "coche d'eau" which ran a regular passenger service along the Seine.  According to the historian Annie Delaitre-Rélug,  there was enough space on board for passengers to stretch their legs, making for "a promiscuity which was not to the taste of delicate travellers".(http://adelaitre.pagesperso-orange.fr/CochesDiligences.htm)

This blog retraces the coach's route:

An account in English was published in several different 19th-century compilations, though this seems only to embroider the information already available from the engraving: 


Ali Mustapha, who was born at Candie, in the year 1734, was endued with a most violent and vindictive disposition.  This Turk was continually upon excursions, and as he preferred the most economical way, his travelling was always humble.  Having entered a barge on the Seine, with his interpreter, the day being exceeding sultry, he fell fast asleep.  Three soldiers, who were likewise on board, anxious to have some sport with the Turk, but totally unacquainted with his disposition, took some strips of paper, which they lighted with the candle, and burned his beard almost close to the skin.  The interpreter, apprehensive of some ill consequences, endeavoured to dissuade them from their ill-timed mirth; he expatiated much upon the warmth of his master's temper, but no remonstrance availed; they were determined upon fun, and dearly paid for it: the flame touching his chin, awoke the Turk, who, upon discovering the joke, seized a hatchet that was unfortunately lying in his way, and dealt such violent blows promiscuously about, that the innocent as well as the offending, suffered.

His beard now burnt, what vengeance the Turk hurl'd
On all around. He would have killed the world!

During this unequal conflict the people endeavoured to run away, but the impetuous Mustapha followed.  His interpreter, for whom he often professed a regard, was first of all attacked, being now esteemed the greatest offender for suffering so great an injury to be offered to him.  A nurse and her infant were murdered, likewise the three soldiers whose mirth had incurred this most extraordinary disaster.  Some few made their escape by leaping out of the barge; but the accident was so instantaneous, there was no time to think of escaping.  One man, who had a sword, endeavoured in vain to defend himself, but it was impossible to parry off the strokes of so dangerous a weapon, guided with such impetuosity.  There being now no method to calm his ruffled temper, one of the persons who had a pistol in his pocket, properly loaded, fired at him:  The Turk fell, and was secured.

Happy, indeed, there was a pistol near
To stop his wild, impetuous career.

He died three days after this at Sens, in consequence of the wounds he received from the pistol, Sept. 6,1787, aged 53.

The Wonders of the Universe, or Curiosities of Nature and Art, Exeter: J. &. B. Williams, 1836

The engraving is  reproduced  in the 19th-century compilation by Paul Lacroix,  XVIIIe siècle : lettres, sciences et arts, which can be found on Gallica.  In this version there is an accompanying verse, sadly too splodgy to make out.
The caption reads: 

Gravure populaire sur bois, coloriée, ou canard, accompagnant une complainte en douze couplets, au sujet de meurtres commis par un Turc, Ali Moustapha, dans le coche d'Auxerre. (Communiqué par M. le baron Pichon.)

Fortunately, the BN has a second variant engraving which includes a somewhat more plausible account of what happened:

Since it was his custom to rest leaning against one of the ropes attached to the floor, some jokers took advantage of his position, to cut his beard and then the rope that was holding him, so that he fell face down on the bench.  The Turk, in fury stabbed a young boatman with a knife, then seized a hatchet, with which he massacred his interpreter and the three Soldiers who had committed the outrage against him.  There is talk of twelve to fifteen people who are dangerously wounded.  In his fury, he always respected the Women who were on the coach.  It was only possible to stop him only after he had been felled with a pistol shot, from which he died in Sens five days afterwards.

There is still no clue as to what on earth Mustapha Ali was doing in France in the first place - sadly, the details are probably lost to history!

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