Madame Tussaud’s Mentor: Philippe Mathé Curtius

Wax figure of Philippe Mathé Curtius by Madame Tussaud. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Philippe Mathé Curtius was a doctor living in Bern, Switzerland. He was also a bachelor and hired a domestic servant, who was the widowed mother of Anne-Marie Grosholtz (the future Madame Tussaud). While living in Bern, Curtius became interested in providing anatomical models for medical students and began to create miniature flesh-tinted models from wax for study purposes. These tiny anatomical replicas initially sparked local interest. News also spread about Curtius’s realistic wax models, and among those who learned of his wax models was the French Prince of Conti, a cousin to Louis XV and a celebrated art collector.

When the Prince of Conti visited Bern, he decided to see Curtius’s models for himself. He was so impressed that he proposed a financially beneficial patronage to Curtius but required Curtius to move to Paris. The offer was appealing enough to cause Curtius to renounce the medical profession, pack up his belongings, and settle in Paris in the Rue St. Honoré. When Curtius left Bern in 1765, he also left behind Marie and her mother. However, when Marie was about six years old, she and her mother joined Curtius in the bustling city of Paris.

Lafayette. Author’s Collection.

In Paris, Curtius became acquainted with some of the most talented and interesting men in France. Curtius was also a brilliant conversationalist, which was part of the draw for visitors to his home that reputedly included such illustrious guests as the French enlightenment writer Voltaire, the philosopher Jacques-Jean Rousseau, and a French Revolutionary writer, orator and statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, better known as the Count of Mirabeau. Benjamin Franklin also visited Curtius’s abode after he was dispatched to France as commissioner for the United States in December of 1776. Also joining in the discussions at Curtius’s table was the French aristocrat and military officer who later fought for the United States in the American Revolutionary War, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, known simply as Lafayette.

During Marie’s early years in Paris, her curiosity about Curtius’s waxworks grew. She also acquired a love and appreciation for art, and, over time, Curtius revealed his trade secrets to her. By 1777, she began working for Curtius, and, eventually, she developed such skill that it was practically impossible to tell her waxwork creations from his. As Marie trained in wax, Curtius opened his first exhibition in 1776. It was located at the St-Laurent fair, near the Temple, whereas his home and workshop were located on the Boulevard du Temple. A few years later, around 1784, Curtius moved his exhibition into number 7 at the Palais-Royal and his Salon de Cire became fashionable and popular.

Curtius cared about the accuracy of his wax figures, and he wanted to attract people to his exhibitions. He soon realized that one thing that seemed to draw crowds was the execution of criminals. In fact, executions were a big draw for the public. “The rich came in carriages and hired places in widows and on rooftops overlooking the place of execution. Poor people crammed the area, pushing and fighting to get the best possible view.”[1] Curtius realized if he had an exhibition where people could see condemned criminal up close, visitors would come in droves. He thus opened a new venture on No. 20 Boulevard du Temple, and, as he predicted, his Caverne des Grand Voleurs, was a hit.

Sometime after late 1786 and before July of 1789, Curtius moved his Salon de Cire from the Palais Royal to No. 20 Boulevard du Temple where his Caverne des Grand Voleurs was located. The Palais Royal had changed since he had initially established his Salon there. Now, it was haunted by prostitutes and con-men and the clientele that had visited the Salon were less willing to visit him at the Palais Royal. So, the move to No. 20 proved positive and his clientele increased.

Jacques Necker (left) and Duke d’Orléans (right). Public Domain.

On 12 July 1789, protestors arrived knocking at Curtius’s door, and, according to Marie, they wanted a life-size figure of the King and two wax busts to carry in a protest march. The busts were of the Duke d’Orléans and Louis XVI’s popular finance minister Jacques Necker. Curtius refused them the King stating that it would fall apart if they tried to carry it, so protestors settled for the bust of the Duke d’Orléans and Necker.

Marie was there when the protestor appeared. She claimed that she was not the least bit apprehensive and reported:

“M. Curtius, when he found them coming, gave directions to shut the gate of a railing which was in front of his house, to prevent their rushing into his museum. They, making no attempts to enter, but civilly demanding what they required, and having in part met with compliance, they departed, without offering the slightest outrage.”[2]

The protestors then commandeered heads of Necker and the Duke d’Orléans, placed them on pikes, held them aloft, and marched through Parisian streets beating drums. Later that day, the mob arrived at the Place Louis XV and encountered royal guards, who staunchly refused to salute their busts. The protestors took offense and insults led to a fracas where a royal guard hacked off part of Necker’s head. Curtius later offered this account in 1790:

“I will not retrace the horrors committed on that memorable day. I can say only that the bearer who carried the bust of … 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 … The bust of … Orléans was returned to me without damaged, but that of M. Necker was given back only six days afterwards by a Swiss guard of the Palais-Royal; The hair was burned, and the face bore the imprint of several blows of the saber. So, I can boast that the first act of the Revolution began at my house.”[3]

When the revolution broke out and the Bastille was stormed, Louis XVI was hunting. He learned about the attack the following morning when he appeared at the Assembly. Curtius was among the first of the revolutionaries to don the uniform of red and blue that represented the citizen soldiers. The day before the attack on the Bastille, Curtius joined a band of eight to nine-hundred soldiers, who became known as the vainqueur de la Bastille. The storming of the Bastille by the vainqueur was an attack against the symbol of the monarchy, and it was the beginning of the end for Louis XVI because it changed the political landscape of France forever. 

In the citizen army, Curtius was elected a captain. He was with the citizen soldiers when they searched for weapons before the Bastille was taken, but he was not there when the Bastille was stormed, although he did arrive there shortly afterwards. However, years later, in 1790, Curtius published a thin pamphlet about his heroic feats at the Bastille called Services of Mr. Curtis (Services du Sieur Curtius vainqueur de la Bastille depuis le 12 juillet jusqu’au 6 octobre 1789). It was full of exaggerations and read as if he had seized the prison single-handedly even though he had not been there.

Pierre Charles Duvivier’s “Changez moi cette Tëte!” Courtesy of British Museum.

When the revolution occurred, Curtius was also poised to take advantage of the fact that the monarchy was under siege and that politics were being determined by the common person on the street. Censors were censoring plays, censoring newspapers, censoring journals. Curtuis was under no such censorship, and, so, he could easily provide up-to-date tableaus of the happenings related to the revolution. One 1783 etching by Pierre Charles Duvivier, titled Changez moi cette Tëte!, captured the popularity of his Salon and depicted the ever-changing waxed figures that populated his exhibition.

After the Bastille fell, the marquis of Launay who was the governor of the Bastille was killed. Revolutionaries blamed him for not surrendering and for causing the death of ninety-eight of their comrades. Launay’s head was severed and put on a pike. In addition, another gentleman named Jacques de Flesselles was accused of misleading people about the location of arms before the storming. He was also murdered, and his head impaled on a pike too. Marie states that after the heads were removed from their pikes, both showed up at Curtius’s and she made casts that later appeared in Curtius’s Salon de Cire.

Soon the question cropped up as whether to destroy the Bastille or not. Some thought it should remain as a permanent monument, but the decision was made to raze it to the ground. A committee was then established, with one of its members an entrepreneur named Pierre-Francois Palloy, who saw the destruction as way for him to make money. He soon took charge, and a memorabilia industry grew out of it that Palloy called “relics of freedom.” These relics included such things as etched or engraved sugar-sized cubes of stones, endless numbers of authentic Bastille keys, inkwells made from metal guaranteed to have come from leg irons, and models of the Bastille carved from its stones.

Curtius obtained a piece of the Bastille as a souvenir. In fact, he wrote to Palloy requesting a certificate of authenticity as he intended on presenting the stone to the Assembly. Palloy sent the certificate to him, but somehow Curtius lost the certificate and requested a second certificate of authenticity that was dated 16 February 1790. However, despite the certificate attesting to its authenticity, the stone Curtius possessed never made it to the Assembly rather it ended up on display at his Salon de Cire (Salon of Wax).

Curtius became a Jacobin and regularly attended meetings. He also attended meetings at the riding school and listened to the National Assembly’s proceedings. As he became more involved politically, Marie took on more responsibilities at his Salon. It was difficult to keep the Salon up to date as important figures changed daily will all the varied interests fighting and prominent personalities changing day by day. After the King and his family attempted to flee in 1791, revolutionaries were more concerned than ever, and rumors began to circulate that caused Parisians to believe they might be invaded by Prussia and Austria at any moment.

Princess de Lamballe. Public Domain.

Tensions grew and finally in early September of 1792, a slew of massacres broke out that became known as the September Massacres. At the time, foreign invaders and royalist supporters had joined forces and were slowly making their way to Paris. The enemy was also winning the war, and Parisians feared that the foreign and royalist invaders would free inmates in the city’s prisons and join with them to kill Parisians. Therefore, the began to slaughter prisoners, which resulted in 1,200 to 1,400 prisoners killed, including the Princesse de Lamballe.

Shortly, thereafter, in October, the French turned the tables and began to win the war. Curtius was appointed defenseur of all the Austrian and Prussian deserters. In addition, Curtius had become a chasseur in May of 1790, and, so, when deserters began applying to the Jacobins for relief, Curtius found himself setting up cots at his house to accommodate them.

After the revolution began, profits fell for Curtius. He could not raise his entrance fee at his Salon de Cire because money was tight for the new patriots and everyone was feeling a financial pinch. Money constraints remained a problem by late 1792. Everyone was short on cash partly because many men joined the army and couldn’t perform in their regularly jobs. In addition, it was difficult to attract new visitors to the Salon because most of the wax figures in it were political figures.

It was supposedly around the time of Louis XVI’s execution that Curtius received orders to make a cast of the decapitated King’s head. As Curtius was also tasked with duties as captain, Marie was left to model the dead king’s head. Supposedly, only Curtius, Marie, and those that had ordered the death mask knew it had been taken. Curtius never displayed the mask and Louis XVI’s execution did not become one of displays at Curtius’s Salon, which caused one journalist to violently attack Curtius asking why he did not show it when he showed so many other criminals.

Around March of 1794, Marie maintains the Convention compelled Curtius and Marie to make death masks of guillotined individuals. Soon after, Marie claims that she herself came under suspicion and that she was imprisoned with Joséphine de Beauharnais, the first wife of Napoleon I.* According to Marie, she, “her mother, and aunt, were carried off in the middle of the night by the gens d’armes, and placed in a fiacre (hackney coach).”[4] Curtius supposedly could not intervene or help to free them because Maximilien Robespierre sent Curtius to the Rhine because he spoke German. Thus, Marie claims that a preeminent artist of the era, who painted in Neoclassical style and was an active supporter of both the French Revolution and Robespierre, Jacques-Louis David, freed her because her waxworks of value to him in his paintings.

By 1794, finances had not improved for Curtius. He was also being criticized. At a meeting of the Societe republicaine des arts, Athanase Détournelle called Curtius a charlatan. Détournelle also denounced Curtius proclaiming the dangers the public faced if they visited his exhibition:

“Curtius’s salon must be empty. … It is time to open people’s eyes to charlatanism; … he [must] not publicly display these ridiculous busts whose false illusion easily fools those without acquired knowledge. … I will cite more than one example of the danger of displaying these cold copies; I have seen volunteers preferring Le Peltier and Marat in these stories to the beautiful paintings of the Convention.”[5]

As Curtius was struggling financially, worse news came for Marie when on 26 September 1794, Curtius died. He was 57 years old, having been born on 30 January 1737. Curtius had suffered a short illness, and although Marie visited him regularly, she was busy running the business in Paris. Curtius was living at his house at Ivry-sur-Seine, which he purchased in 1793. Curtius died at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and his death certainly must have been hard for Marie. She probably did not learn about it until later that evening because she did not appear at his home until the following morning, when at which time, two friends accompanied her.

Madame Tussaud at age 42. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Marie requested a post-mortem be done on Curtius. She also later alleged that an autopsy ascertained Curtius had been poisoned. But the doctor did not mention it, and, in fact, he reported, Curtius died of natural causes. Moreover, Curtius must have known that he was ill because before he died, he called his lawyer and dictated his will. It happened on 31 August 1794 (14 Fructidor Year II) and was notarized by Sieur Hubert Gibé and attested to by two witnesses. It read:

“I declare I do not have, or know of, any female heir either in France or in a foreign country. I give and bequeath to the poor of the Section du Temple in Paris, all my silver ware and all my jewellery. …

I appoint and institute as my residuary legatee the Citizeness Anne Marie Grosholtz, spinster, of full age, my pupil in my art who has lived with me under my roof for more than twenty years.

I desire that she should have from my estate, immediately after my death, everything that the law allows me to give, in view of my not having an heir. I make her executrix of my Will.”[6]

– – –

*Records do not show that Marie was ever imprisoned. However, bribes were regular taken to keep people’s names off the prison records, so it is possible that at some point Curtius or one of his friends intervened and that the name Marie Grosholtz was removed.

References:

  • [1] Chapman, Pauline, The French Revolution and Madame Tussaud, 1989, p. 39-40.
  • [2] Hervé, Francis E. ed., Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France, Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), p. 8.
  • [3] McCallam, David, “Waxing Revolutionary: Reflections on a Raid on a Waxworks at the Outbreak of the French Revolution,” French History White Rose University Consortium, accessed August 14, 2017, http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/629/1/mccallamd1.pdf, p. 21.
  • [4] Herve, p. 292.
  • [5] Schwartz, Vanessa R., Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 95–96.
  • [6] Leslie, Anita and Pauline Chapman, Madame Tussaud: Waxworker Extraordinary (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1978), p. 81–82.

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