History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
Curtius leaves Berne for Paris—The Hôtel d'Aligre—The Court of Louis XV—Madame arrives in Paris.
IN response to the Prince de Conti's invitation, Curtius left Berne for Paris a few months later, and for once the time-honoured adage proffering a warning to those prone to rely upon the promises of princes had no bearing, for this Prince kept his word.
On his arrival at Paris, Curtius found a handsome suite of apartments awaiting him at the Hôtel d'Aligre, hard by the Croix du Trahoir in the Rue St. Honoré. They were spacious and well furnished, and in style and comfort far exceeded his expectation. The Rue St. Honoré on the north, the Rue Bailleul on the south, the Rue de l'Arbre Sec on the east, and the Rue des Poulies on the west, outline to this day the ground on which the hotel, with its gardens, then stood.
The Hôtel d'Aligre was a place that had seen better days. It had, like so many of the great family dwellings that existed in Paris towards the end of the eighteenth century, demanded of its owners a longer and more speedily replenished purse than they possessed. The sheltering of a stately and magnificent household had long been unknown to this once famous residence, and its handsome rooms had been divided up and let as separate tenements.
The building contained a fine salon, which at one time was placed by a Chancellor d'Aligre at the service of the Grand Council, and so late as the year of Curtius's arrival in Paris we hear of it being used for an exhibition of pictures displayed under the ægis of the Académie de Saint Luc. Of this académie Curtius was soon elected a member, and it may be presumed that some of his own works were shown in the exhibition.
During its latter days the hotel figured under a dual appellation, the ancient name of d'Aligre being prefaced by that of the renowned Schomberg. Finally it was known to the good citizens of Paris, shortly be-fore its total disappearance, as the Old Hôtel Schomberg d'Aligre.
This building occupied a position that could hardly have been better chosen for Curtius's purpose, for it stood in the very heart and throng of the busy capital —that is to say, close to the Louvre and at no great distance from the Tuileries—and was surrounded by the houses of the wealthiest and most influential inhabitants of the city.
We should like to follow the footsteps of Curtius, and enter with him into his new home in Paris; but with the meagre information we have concerning these early days in his career we can only picture him as settling down to his work and drawing around him many famous patrons, to some of whom we shall have to refer as we make progress with our story.
Doubtless the ideals he had conceived of the French capital as a citizen in far-off Berne would not have squared with the actual state in which he found the city when he took up his domicile within it..
Report had carried the splendours of Versailles far beyond the frontiers of France, and might well have enlivened the imagination of an artist like Curtius, who, doubtless, would have hoped to enjoy the pleasure of witnessing them for himself; but on his arrival in the capital he found the glories of the palaces had set, and that the Court of Louis XV had not only grown dull, but had even gone out of fashion.
The King himself had become weary of the great Court functions and sumptuous entertainments, and now preferred to indulge in complete seclusion the appetites that still remained to him. The military exploits of his reign had not brought him any great renown, and in recent years he had suffered reverses that had cast a gloom over these closing days of his life.
He had also been reminded more than once that the levelling hand of Death took no heed of rank and power. That dread visitor had already unceremoniously claimed the King's son (the Dauphin) and his wife, and his own neglected Queen, Marie Leczinska, was fast failing in health.
The temper of the people towards the King had undergone a great change, and the days of "Well-Beloved"-ness had long since departed. During the reign of his predecessor, Louis XIV, the excessive taxation and the state of semi-serfdom had been borne by the lower classes with something like resignation, for they had received some compensation through the glory of his military achievements and the extension of his power. But small reason had they for so patiently bearing the ever-increasing burdens that had signalised the reign of his successor, Louis XV, whose military exploits had brought the country little by way of glory, and whose career had naught to show but a long life of wanton extravagance, combined with a painful disregard for the welfare of his people.
What Curtius did in the four years that succeeded his arrival in Paris one cannot say for certain; but there is little doubt that he was busily engaged in executing commissions for his numerous and ever-increasing list of patrons, whose liberality and kindness not only equalled, but far surpassed, the Prince de Conti's promises.
It is quite evident that soon after his arrival Curtius tried his deft hands upon a model of the Queen of Louis XV, and it is this comparatively early work that constitutes one piece among a mere half-dozen examples that have been handed down to us. Probably the influence of his friend, the Prince de Conti, aided him in obtaining this commisson.
It was after having practised his profession as artist for some years that Curtius repaired to Berne for the purpose of fetching his sister and her little daughter.
That was in the year 1766, and Madame Tussaud was then about six years old. On the authority of her Memoirs, published in 1838, it would appear that she was born at Berne in the year 176o; but documentary evidence exists which appears to indicate that her birth actually took place a year later. Be that as it may, we first hear of her when she accompanied her mother to Paris as the guest of her uncle.
This brief review will not permit us to dwell long on the early days of the young girl in Paris, nor on those events that prefaced the outbreak of the Revolution. Truth to say, between 1766 and 1789—a matter of twenty-three years—the details concerning the lives of Curtius and his niece are neither very full nor very clearly defined. This seems to be all of a piece with the nature of the work they produced, for it is astonishing, having regard to the considerable output, how small a quantity of it has been handed down to us.
One has, therefore, little material to assist him in gaining an insight into the artists' careers, or to guide in the forming of a just opinion either as to the exact character of their work or the nature of their subjects. Miniatures in coloured wax, modelled in fairly high relief and framed and glazed in the ordinary way as pictures, seem to offer a general idea and the best conception of the work that emanated from the studio during these momentous years, so pregnant with meaning for the near future.
The pity of the loss is that the work, taken direct from life, afforded a faithful record of important personages. Of this there is ample proof, and that the models should have been of so ephemeral a character is a matter of great regret, extending far beyond the feelings of the artists' descendants. Yet, when one remembers the hatred of the populace towards the aristocrats and those holding authority under the Old Régime, it is not to be wondered at that many portraits should have shared, with their originals, the destructive effects of the antipathy that was shown both to patrons of art and to the art itself. It goes without saying that during the Reign of Terror people would be disposed to hide, or even to destroy, any art subject in their possession indicating their attachment to the Royalists.