History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
Madame Elizabeth of France—Madame Tussaud goes to Versailles—Foulon—Three notable groups—"Caverne des Grands Voleurs."
IN the year 1780 the ill-fated Louis XVI had been six years on the throne, and Curtius by this time had become well ingratiated with the followers of the New Régime.
Among the many distinguished visitors who honoured Curtius's studio with their presence in 178o was one who was destined to exercise a great influence on Madame Tussaud's life. This was the King's sister, Madame Elizabeth of France, who, at the time we speak: of, was sixteen years of age. Her disposition was singularly sweet and charming, and the keen interest she took in the models and mysteries of the studio caused her to bestow upon the niece of Curtius very special attention.
Madame Elizabeth, according to her young protégée, was of medium height and slight build, her forehead was high and intellectual, and she had kind, soft, blue eyes. Her _expression and demeanour were most sympathetic, and on the slightest provocation her amiable countenance became wreathed in smiles, the parting lips revealing a perfect set of teeth.
So infatuated did Madame Elizabeth become with this pleasant work of modelling in coloured wax, which was soon to become a veritable craze, that she asked Madame Tussaud to instruct her in the art, and for that purpose invited her to live with her in her apartments at the Palace of Versailles, for the Princess seldom visited Paris.
Her overtures to his niece met with little opposition on the part of Curtius, who, in spite of the fact that he had decided leanings towards the cause of the people, yet, in order to further his relative's interests, readily gave his permission to her accompanying the Princess. This concession Curtius must have made at some sacrifice, for it deprived him of his niece's society and of the help she was then rendering him in his studio.
Madame Tussaud accordingly bade her uncle fare-well, and left Paris for Versailles.
The quarters then occupied by Madame Elizabeth were situated at the end of the façade of the south wing of the palace, and looked out upon the Swiss Lake.
One wonders whether the fascinating work of modelling in wax was the sole influence that prompted Madame Elizabeth's friendly feeling towards Madame Tussaud. The Princess had already shown a marked predilection for the Swiss, for both at the palace and on her own private estate of Montreuil hard by she had many Swiss people about her.
Unfortunately, little is known of the life of Madame Tussaud either at Versailles or at Montreuil, which the King presented to his sister with the understanding that she should continue to make Versailles her official home until she attained the age of twenty-four.
We are told that the Princess was very fond of modelling sacred subjects, and many of these works produced by her own hands she gave away to her friends. She showed her attachment to Madame Tussaud in many ways, and required her to sleep in an adjoining apartment.
Curtius's niece often found herself engaged in many duties besides those associated with modelling in wax, and it was no unusual thing for the girl to be made the means of conveying alms to the Princess's numerous pensioners.
For nine years she enjoyed the confidence and almost daily company of her patroness, and throughout the long life vouchsafed to her she deemed them the happiest she had known. Seldom could she be brought to dwell upon these days, or call to mind the fate of her illustrious pupil and the other members of the Royal Family she then so often encountered, without the tears, sooner or later, welling to her eyes. Indeed, not even after the passage of some sixty years, when her own days were drawing to a close, and when one might have expected her grief to have become assuaged, could she restrain her emotion at the memory of their sad and tragic end.
We have already referred to the second and larger Exhibition opened by Curtius on the Boulevard du Temple. A. collection of wax figures representing famous personages, living and dead, attired in their everyday costume, and exhibiting their usual pose and attitude, was known as a "Cabinet de Cire."
The house wherein Curtius opened this second Exhibition was formerly occupied by Foulon, the Minister of Finance, who earned public execration by his ill-timed suggestion that if the people could not get sufficient bread they might eat hay. When the Revolution broke out Foulon was one of the first victims for the mob to vent its rage upon. They hanged him, decapitated the body, and then paraded the streets with his head stuck on a pike, between his lips being placed a wisp of hay in memory of the cruel sneer at the people's want.
For his Exhibition Curtius modelled several notable groups. Three of these call for some mention.
The first was a representation of the Royal Family dining in public, a curious ceremonial of that period. There was, within the walls of the Palace of Versailles, a chapel whither the family repaired to hear mass every morning; and on Sundays, after returning from prayer, they held a grand couvert in the palace. The dining-table was in the form of a horseshoe, the Cent Suisse (or Swiss Bodyguard) formed a circle around it, and, between them, the spectators were permitted to view the august party at their dinner.
To this spectacle everyone had access, provided the gentlemen were fully dressed—that is, had a bag-wig, sword, and silk stockings—and the ladies were correspondingly attired. Even if their clothes were thread-bare the visitors were not turned back; nor were they admitted, however well clad, unless they presented themselves as etiquette prescribed.
The costume of the Swiss Bodyguard was magnificent, being similar to that worn by Henry IV of France. It comprised a hat with three white feathers, short robe, red pantaloons or long stockings (all in one, and slashed at the top with white silk), black shoes with buckles, sash, sword, and halbert.
The Royal Family generally remained three-quarters of an hour at table. The spectacle was such an interesting one that Curtius, ever alive, as his successors have been, to satisfy the popular imagination, modelled a group for his Exhibition depicting the incident.
The second tableau represented an Indian group. In the grounds of the Palace of Versailles are two residences, the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, the latter having been a favourite retreat of Marie Antoinette because of its secluded position and charming attractions.
Curtius—assisted by his niece, who was now a full-grown woman, sensible of her responsibilities, and able to execute commissions of her own—modelled a group of figures, consisting of the envoys of Tippoo Sahib and several sepoys in their picturesque Eastern costumes, which was arranged under a tent placed in the Grand Trianon.
Tippoo Sahib was the Sultan of Mysore, and he had sent to Louis XVI to invoke his assistance in expelling the British from his dominions.
On the 10th of August, 1788, after spending the night at the Grand Trianon, the envoys were escorted to the Palace of Versailles, and received with great pomp.
This was one of the last occasions on which Ma-dame Elizabeth appeared in public at the palace and on which the King was able to receive freely the representatives of a foreign Power. The winter that followed was long and severe, and had much to do with hastening the outbreak of the Revolution and the downfall of the monarchy.
We do not know for certain whether the commission for the third group was prompted by Madame Elizabeth or by Marie Antoinette herself, but we know for certain that it was one of the groups shown in the Petit Trianon before those disturbing elements manifested themselves that heralded the terrible upheaval which was to come. The tableau comprised the seated figures of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette with their young children, the Dauphin and the Duchesse d'Angoulême, all attired in full Court costume.
A very special interest attaches to this group, inasmuch that, except for the renovation necessitated by the long passage of time, it is now shown within the walls of the present Exhibition exactly as it was when first modelled.
While Madame Tussaud was fully occupied at Versailles her uncle was busy with his Museum in Paris.
In 1783 Curtius added to his collection on the Boulevard du Temple the "Caverne des Grands Voleurs," which we may fairly regard as the forerunner of the present Chamber of Horrors.
There seems to be some doubt as to the distinctive character of Curtius's two Exhibitions. One authority informs us that his rooms at the Palais Royal contained the effigies of famous and celebrated men, and that the venture on the Boulevard du Temple was devoted to those of notorious and infamous scoundrels. One cannot say. for certain what were the characteristics of the two collections at this time, but there can be no doubt that both attracted great numbers of people for a very long period.
The descriptive accounts of Parisian amusements of the time make mention of Curtius's "Cabinet de Cire" —or, to make use of the titles given to it on a copper-plate etching of that period by Martial, "Théatre des Figures de Cire, ou Théatre Curtius"—as a sight well worthy of inviting the attention of persons of rank and condition. "One may see," said Dulaure in 1791, "waxen coloured figures of celebrated characters in all stations of life."
Upon closing the Exhibition at the Palais Royal, Curtius conveyed its figures to the Boulevard du Temple, wherein merged all the models that had been previously on view, thus combining the peculiar characteristics of the two establishments and constituting the Madame Tussaud's Exhibition as we know it today.