Tuesday 7 February 2017

Yet more Revolutionary heads....

Andrew Graham-Dixon's Art of France is currently being broadcast by the BBC. On the website is this intriguing video - it is described as a "clip" but it wasn't part of the original programme.  It  took me a while to work out where Andrew actually was; this is the Paris waxworks, the Musée Grévin - ("Véronique" is Véronique Berecz, their head of external relations.)  Like Madame Tussaud's in London, the  Musée Grévin is not a museum, but it is still disconcerting  to find precious relics stored in a cardboard box;  still more to learn that they have not been seen for sixteen years!

The casts are clearly old;  they look to be hollow plaster, possibly painted or varnished. It would be interesting to know how they into the possession of the Musée Grévin. I haven't managed to find out any more about them on the internet (though I notice that the Marat  has a his name inscribed on the shoulder which ought to make it easier to identify in old photos.)

The Robespierre  looks extremely like the cast described in a previous post which belonged to Gabriel Thomas, the manager and major shareholder of the Musée Grévin in the late 19th and early 20th century. Thomas was a great art collector, so it seems quite likely that all four heads originally belonged to him.

Born in Passy in 1854 Gabriel Thomas (1854-1932) belonged to a dynasty of financiers. In 1882, when he had already made a fortune on the stock exchange, he joined the museum as its accountant.  He became chief administrator in 1883, artistic director in 1887 and president in 1883.  He was also president of the Eiffel Tower company, inventor of the Bateaux-Mouches and chief administrator of the moving sidewalk company for the 1900 exposition.  He was a great collector of modern painters, above all Maurice Denis.

Despite Andrew's lurid description, there is no need to suppose any of the masks represent moulds created at the foot of the guillotine.  In December 1792 Curtius was sent on a brief mission to General Custine, commander of the army of the Rhine, in order to assess his loyalty and patriotism, which he did in favourable terms.  No doubt he would have had opportunity to create a life mask - perhaps the cast was among the items dispersed on Curtius's death in September 1794.

It is worth noting that the original death masks of Mirabeau and Marat are not reliably attributed to either Curtius or Madame Tussaud. The likeness of Mirabeau was taken by Houdon and subsequently by Claude-André Deseine. The official records of the Conseil général of the Commune records that the Jacobin sculptor Pierre-Nicolas Beauvallet was commissioned to make a death mask of Marat and to create his bust.  The irrepressible Deseine, who enjoyed a certain favour due to his impeccable Revolutionary credentials, announced in the Chronique de Paris (no.199, Thursday 18th July 1793, l'an 2) that he too had made a "masque sur nature" of Marat; his sculpture of Marat was presented to the Convention on 6th August. (Charlotte Corday et la mort de Marat; documents inédits, 1909, p.218). There is also some question of a mask created for David (see Delécluze, Souvenirs, p.154,nt.)


Mask which belonged to Gabriel Thomas





  1. On Beauvallet's Marat: see https://www.richardfordmanuscripts.co.uk/catalogue/18269

    Petition addressed by Pierre-Nicolas Beauvallet, dated 26th Janary 1795 requesting national benevolence as a "bon Republicain". Beauvallet confirms that he is the author of "good busts of Marat and Chalier that the Convention has daigned to accept".
    Beauvallet presented his sculpture to the Convention on 23rd July and also exhibited a plaster bust in the Salon of 1793.

  2. Do you know if there's a profile view of the Robespierre? Because his profile is extremely distinctive (very perky!).

  3. I've made some screencaps from the clip:
    I'm still unsure – a pity there aren't any clearer views. Mirabeau and Marat are convincing. But I'm not sure about Max. The mask is quite handsome, certainly, but I wish more was known about the provenance.

  4. I've made some profile comparisons here:
    The nose is the one thing that doesn't fully convince me with the mask. There must have been quite a lot of young men with good cheekbones and smallpox scars: I wonder if someone has thought the mask resembled Max, and has perhaps identified it as him for marketability? But the nose lacks the slight 'ski-jump' quality which is very distinctive and is in the physionotraces.


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