Life-size figuresMuseum at the Palais RoyalExhibition on the Boulevard du TempleBenjamin FranklinVoltaire.
A GOOD deal of hearsay and some incontestable evidence helps to fill the hiatus between the time Curtius came to Paris and the outbreak of the Revolution.
Although the many years spent by Curtius in the production of miniatures in coloured wax do not appear to have brought him a very great or a very wide reputation, yet they were the means of leading him to the modelling of life-size portraits in this same material, with the express intention of forming them into a collection solely for the object of exhibiting them to the public.
Now it is to this important departure in the treat-ment of his works that we owe the present Madame Tussaud’s Exhibition, an establishment with which his name must be for ever associated.
He seems to have set his mind upon this venture round about the year 1776, and some years later to have opened a Museum of life-size portrait models at the Palais Royal, an enterprise that was soon to be followed by the opening of a second Exhibition of a far more renowned and interesting character on the Boulevard du Temple, to which we shall have occasion to refer more than once.
The Museum at the Palais Royal seems to have proved a lucrative concern, and to have been devoted to the portraits of men and women of position, holding for the time being a prominent place in the public eye. Little is known concerning it, except for a few meagre and commonplace references in the literature of the period, and it may, to all intents and purposes, be considered as relegated to the domain of the forgot-ten past.
We shall not, however, find ourselves able to dispose of the Exhibition on the Boulevard du Temple without rendering an account of it, for in the course of a few years it figured very largely in the Revolution, and had associated with it several incidents of an important and far-reaching character.
There is the record about this time of an acquaintance between the sculptor and Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman and philosopher.
Franklin had come to Paris in December, 1776, “to transact the business of his country at the Court of France,” his chief purpose being to obtain political and financial assistance in consolidating the newly formed United States of America.
Curtius and his niecenow a young woman of six-teen yearshad the pleasure of entertaining the Doctor, who took considerable interest in their work. Not only did he commission them to execute several distinct portraits of himself, but he also ordered models of many other notable characters of the day. One of his own portraits is the identical figure which has been shown at Madame Tussaud’s ever since.
This model was executed in 1783, in which year Franklin assumed great prominence as one of the signatories to the Treaty of Peace between the Mother Country and the United States, which recognised the latter as an independent nation. The figure in question is a life-size one; but, in addition to this. Curtius, aided by his capable niece, who was now earnestly supporting her uncle in his work, produced several miniature portraits of the statesman which went directly into his possession. Indeed, it is well known that Franklin had in his rooms in Paris many works that had emanated from Curtius’s studio.
In Franklin’s Autobiography there is an account of his home in Market Street, Philadelphia, in which he finally settled, and the following extract under the date 13th July, 1787, from a journal kept by an old friend of his, the Reverend Dr. Manasseh Cutler, a distinguished scholar and botanist, of Hamilton, Massachusetts, who had recently paid him a visit, shows that he took with him from Paris a number of miniatures, many of which he had obtained from Curtius :
Over his mantel he has a prodigious number of medals, busts and casts in wax or plaster of paris, which are the effigies of the most noted characters in Europe.
When Franklin returned to America in 1785 there sailed with him, on board the same ship, Houdon, the eminent French sculptor, who had been in his early student days a friend and companion of Curtius, who engaged his services, and to whom he rendered considerable assistance in his work.
Houdon’s skill was highly appreciated by Franklin, and the object of the journey to America was that the sculptor might execute a statue of Washington for the State of Virginia, the instructions for the work coming from both Franklin and Jefferson. The voyage was made in the London Packet, and the date of the embarkation was the 27th of July, 1785.
Perhaps the most famous man of this period was the satirist, philosopher, and dramatist, Voltaire, who, throughout the whole of his long life, had championed the cause of the people against arbitrary and despotic power.
After an absence of twenty-eight years the aged Voltaire left his home on the shores of Geneva and returned to Paris, arriving there on the 10th of February, 1778. He was welcomed by an ovation that might well have befitted the homecoming of a great conqueror.
Curtius’s reputation at that time stood at its high-est, and Voltaire gave him several sittings soon after his arrival. It is owing to this circumstance that the artist was able to place among the models of his recently opened Exhibition on the Boulevard du Temple a life-size standing figure of this popular idol.
It is a matter of exceptional interest that the self-same figure still exists, and is shown today as one of the most attractive and notable objects in Madame Tussaud’s, where it has stood for just upon a century and a half.
Besides producing this figure, Curtius took the opportunity the sittings afforded him of executing several miniature models, one of them representing the philosopher during his last moments. To this he gave the title of “The Dying Socrates.” Several copies of this are known to exist, and we give an illustration of the one in the Tussaud collection. These were the last portraits produced of him from life, and they were completed none too soon.
The stirring reception accorded Voltaire on his arrival in Paris, to which he responded with great energy, coupled with the strenuous effort and anxiety attending his personal superintendence of his new tragedy, Irene, soon affected his health. The sittings were given during the months of March and April, and on the following 30th of May his eventful life terminated at the age of eighty-four.