France’s First Police Minister Joseph Fouché

Joseph Fouché. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

On 20 July 1799, Joseph Fouché, 1st Duke of Otranto (1st Duc d’Otrante) became the first Minister of Police, but he had not started out to be the head of Napoleon’s security. He was born in a small village near Nantes known as Le Pellerin and was schooled at the college of the Oratorians, a Roman Catholic Society of apostolic life of Catholic priests that was founded in 1611. Eventually, he transferred to Arras and in 1789 began studying for the priesthood when he encountered Maximilien Robespierre, who would go on to become one of the best-known figures of the French Revolution, and their meeting resulted in Fouché becoming a Jacobin. Thus, when the college of the Oratorians dissolved in May of 1792, he gave up the church having never taken his vows. A few months later, soon after the Tuileries was stormed on 10 August, he was elected a deputy in the National Convention and was one of the deputies who voted for the immediate death of Louis XVI. Continue reading

The French Sherlock Holmes, Detective Eugène François Vidocq

Eugène François Vidocq. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The French Sherlock Holmes, detective Eugène François Vidocq, was born on the 24 July 1775* in Arras in the Pas de Calais, Nord, France. He was the third child of a baker named Nicolas Joseph François Vidocq and his wife Henriette Françoise Dion. Vidocq earned the nickname le Vautrin (“wild boar”), and this was the same name that the French author Honoré de Balzac later used for a fictional character based on Vidocq in his La Comédie humaine series. Moreover, the famous writer Victor Hugo based two characters from his book titled “Les Miserables” on Vidocq – both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. If being immortalized by two famous writers was not enough, Vidocq earned the nickname “French Thief Taker,” a name similar to that used by London’s Jonathan Wild, a notable crime figure who was called the “Thief Taker General” and who operated on both sides of the law in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Continue reading

Napoleon’s Favorite Actor François-Joseph Talma

Napoleon Bonaparte. Author’s Collection.

Napoleon was an avid theatre goer who went to the theatre weekly and sometimes saw plays more than once. For instance, he saw the tragedy Cinna twelve times. He also had a favorite actor, François-Joseph Talma. The two men met while Napoleon was a general and forged a friendship. However, initially, their friendship consisted of Napoleon, Talma, and a third gentleman sharing ghost stories and tales about old castles.

Over time Napoleon and Talma’s relationship became closer. Part of the reason their friendship developed was that Talma appeared to be the theatrical personification of Napoleon and he taught Napoleon about the theatre. Napoleon in turn, supported Talma and brought him into his inner circle after he became First Consul. One insight into the relationship between Talma and Napoleon follows: Continue reading

Auguste Edouart Silhouette Artist Extraordinaire of the 19th Century

Silhouette of Edouart by himself. Public domain.

One of the most popular silhouette artists of the 19th century was a Frenchman named Auguste Armand Constant Fidele Edouart. Supposedly, he got his start one night while visiting a family. They showed him some silhouettes produced by a machine and he condemned them. The family challenged him to do better, and he took up the challenge “seized upon a pair of scissors and the cover of a letter, and putting the father in position, ‘in an instant … produced a likeness.’”[1] He also did the mother’s likeness, and his natural skills were so outstanding, his career as a silhouette artist began that very night.

Edouart was born in Dunkerque in 1789 and left France in 1814 heading for England. Prior to his career as a silhouette artist, he supported himself and his family in what he called mosaic hair work that involved creating images from various shades of hair. The work was painstakingly slow and tedious, and according to one person when describing a mosaic hair work man-of-war: Continue reading

Jean-Baptiste Biot and L’Aigle Meteorite in 1803

Jean-Baptiste Biot and L'Aigle Meteorite in 1803
Jean-Baptiste Biot. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Jean-Baptiste Biot was a French physicist, astronomer, and mathematician who had a fascination with meteorites. He was born in Paris on 21 April 1774 to a treasury official named Joseph Biot. Like many other Frenchmen, Biot was educated at the École Polytechnique, a prestigious school founded by Lazare Carnot and Gaspard Monge, during the French Revolution.

Part of the reason he was fascinated by meteorites was because stories about them seemed unbelievable. For instance, at Barbotan, in the South of France, inhabitants reported that they sought refuge in their houses after a hail of stones rained down upon them on the evening of 24 July 1790. Most of the people in the area did not believe stories about meteorites, even though some specimens of the stones from this shower were preserved in people’s private collections. Continue reading

The French Actress Charlotte Vanhove

Charlotte Vanhove in her 50s. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Charlotte Vanhove (also known as Caroline Vanhove, Caroline Petit-Vanhove, or Cécile Caroline Charlotte Vanhove) was the daughter of two actors of the Comédie-Française named Charles-Joseph Vanhove and Andrée Coche. Vanhoe was born at the Hague on 10 September 1771, and many people claimed she was destined for the stage from an early age.

Vanhove made her stage debut at the Théâtre-Français at the age of 14 in 1785 and was well-received. She starred in Jean Racine’s Iphigenia, a dramatic five-act play, in the role of Iphigenia. While young, she also performed in the role of the dumb boy in Jean-Nicolas Bouilly’s 5-act comedy, L’Abbé de L’Epée. Her performance was so moving spectators cried, and a writer at the time was so touched, he wrote, ” If … she can affect us so deeply without the aid of words, what would she do with them?”[1] Continue reading

Madame Romain or La Belle Limonadière of France

La Belle Limonadière, Courtesy of the National Gallery of Arts, Washington D.C.

Lemonade was a popular drink in the 1700 and 1800s, and of all the lemonade sellers in France, Madame Romain, or La Belle Limonadière, as she was called, was said to be the most popular. La Belle Limonadière was also a Parisian personality known for her striking beauty during the First Empire and the early years of the Restoration. One visitor who saw her in Paris in 1815 described her thusly:

“A complexion like Parisian marble, and black eyes and hair in striking contrast with it. The usual aids of colour to the cheek were not forgotten, but quite what the French call au natural — a word merely meaning something less artificial than the last stage of artifice.”[1]

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The French Conjuror Val in England

The French conjuror Val made his first appearance in London in the spring of 1803 at Willis’s Rooms, charging an admission of seven shillings. Val, like other conjurors, performed tricks that usually involved some sort of sleight of hand and appeared to be magical. However, those who saw Val quickly discovered he was no ordinary conjuror and that his performance was superb. They loudly praised him stating: Continue reading

Claude Villiaume Marriage Broker Extraordinaire in the Time of Napoleon

 

“Off for the Honeymoon” by Fred Morgan. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Claude Villiaume marriage broker extraordinaire established a marriage brokering monopoly in Paris in the early 1800s. Born in 1780, Villiaume’s early years did not indicate that matchmaking was in his future. That was because his first job was as a soldier. Moreover, soon after, he became a soldier he became involved in an assassination attempt against the First Consul Napoleon.

Villiaume’s assassination attempt against Napoleon failed. In fact, it landed Villiaume in the lunatic asylum of Charenton. It was an asylum that had been founded in 1645 by the Frères de la Charité or Brothers of Charity, and it was while incarcerated there, that Villiaume developed the idea of arranging marriages: Continue reading

Phantasmagoria and Paul de Philipstal

Illustration of a performance by Phylidor, from a 1791 handbill. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paul de Philipstal (sometimes spelled Phillipstal, Philipsthal, or Phillipsthall) was actually named Paul Philidor based on a booklet from 1805 that mentions Philidor’s alias as “Philipsthal.” Philidor (also spelled Phylidor or Phyllidor) began to present a prototype phantasmagoria show in Berlin in early 1789. Phantasmagoria shows were a dream-like spectral performed in darkness. Philidor’s shows also involved seances and raising the dead. However, near the end of March 1789, after having conducted numerous shows, he was accused of being a fraud, prohibited from performing his shows again, and ordered to leave Berlin. Continue reading