The art of wax modeling can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when it was used for efﬁgies, death masks and portrait miniatures. In Renaissance Italy, Florence, Venice and Naples were among the ﬁrst centers to recognize the possibilities of using wax to imitate human ﬂesh, arguably one of the earliest instances of hyper-realism in art. Some of these studies were portrayed with terrifying realism such as a Cadaver in Decomposition by the Neapolitan Gaetano Guilio Zummo, circa 1695. In later centuries, busts or life-size portraits were created from this pliable material, as were anatomical models, a practice known as moulage.
In the late eighteenth century in France realistic wax modeling would take on an entirely new purpose. In an age of over-exposure to photographs and moving images is easy for us to under-appreciate the impact the realism of wax and the commercial possibilities of the medium were first realized by a physician, Philippe Curtius (1737-1794). Working in his home town of Berne in Switzerland, he had built up considerable experience and skill creating anatomical models of the kind mentioned above. His models were so remarkable that the Prince de Conti, on seeing the small museum he had established there, persuaded him to travel to Paris.1 Conti was an enlightened member of the French Royal Family, who undoubtedly much to the annoyance of his cousin Louis XV, maintained a lively salon of contemporary artists and philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He also established a lodging house for artists on the Rue St-Honoré, where Curtius lived during his formative years in Paris.2 One of his few surviving confirmed creations is a self-portrait, now at the Musée Carnavalet (figure 1).
Curtius’s first wax exhibitions were held in fairgrounds; his earliest permanent setting was at the St-Laurent fair close to the Temple, which was used to house a visitor attraction and to conduct a lively trade in private wax portraits. It is also recorded that a private trade in table-top miniatures in erotic poses was particularly successful.3 By 1787 Curtius had a more permanent establishment nearby at 20 Boulevard de Temple where he lived and made, dressed and stored his models. The visitor experience was divided into two sections; the Salon, full of the most distinguished and famous figures of the age, followed by the Caverne des Grands Voleurs which was presented in gory detail and was the ancestor of the modern ‘chamber of horrors.’ In 1784 Curtius was one the earliest tenants in the rather more up-market setting of the Palais Royal, which had just been converted for commercial use. It would become one of the liveliest and most bustling centers of pre-revolutionary Paris with Curtius’s Salon de Cire (Wax) at its heart; recent academic enquiry has labeled it as “the greatest show in prerevolutionary Paris” and “the center of a renaissance of marketplace culture.”4
The Salon de Cire was a considered title; the exhibition was intended to resemble an intellectual salon, of the kind led by Madame Geoffrin. It comprised elaborate tableaux, including a popular scene of the Royal Family eating their dinner (figure 2), as well as life-size single figures and many busts. The dinner tableau allowed visitors to examine closely the arrangement of the table and the exquisite clothes of Queen Marie Antoinette, which were closely modeled on reality; Curtius paid Rose Bertin, the queen’s dressmaker, to recreate the her favorite dresses. The exhibition was visited in 1784 by Mrs Cradock, an English tourist who was particularly was impressed by a tableau of Voltaire, Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. She commented “the workmanship was so good that the very character of these famous, though baneful, men was conveyed by their appearance.”5 Alongside these three great worthies of the time, the show also featured others including Jacques Necker, popular finance minister to Louis XVI, the astronomer and mathematician Jean-Sylvain Bailly, the distinguished General Marie-Joseph Lafayette and the Duc d’Orléans. Popular female figures included Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry and the actress Louis François Contat.6
According to his niece and successor, Marie Grosholz, later famous as Madame Tussaud, Curtius was at the center of a lively circle; she claimed that Voltaire, Frankin, Rousseau, the Comte de Mirabeau, the Duc d’Orléans and Marat were well acquainted with her and her uncle, and frequently dined with them. In 1778, not long before his death, Voltaire is recorded as visiting, when Marie took the opportunity to take his likeness; the subsequent model was set up in the museum in a tableau at a desk surrounded by books. Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, was represented in the exhibition in his own clothes which he insisted on sending himself; the model was frequently noted as being considerably more scruffy than the others.7
Curtius’s associations with the great and good of European public life hint at the enormous popularity of wax modeling during the final decades of the ancien régime. The remarkable, near-scientific, realism the medium offered chimed closely with the wider preoccupations of the Age of Enlightenment, and it was therefore little wonder that Curtius was apparently so close with some of its chief exponents.
The present models most certainly fit within this tradition. They are wearing French outfits, including undergarments and finely knitted stockings, expertly recreated in miniature with remarkable skill and at considerable expense. Perhaps it is even possible to speculate that the figures have an association with Curtius; beneath their clothes the bodies are modeled with anatomical precision, and we have seen how Curtius was prepared to use actual tailors to recreate clothing for his models. We have also seen how supplementary to his Salon de Cire Curtius undertook a lively trade in portraits and table-top models; it seems very likely that he may have been prepared to make miniature versions of those leading celebrities on display at his exhibition as a souvenir or collector’s piece for one of his wealthy customers.
Both figures are clothed in exquisitely made outfits. The figure in red has been confirmed by a Curator at the Victoria and Albert Musuem in London as wearing a garment “typical of French court attire of this period” (1780s). His stance, gesturing hand and open mouth suggests a figure famed for his oratory, perhaps a politician. As we have seen above, politicians did feature as part of Curtius’s repertoire, and repeatedly one is mentioned; Jacques Necker (1732-1804), shown in figure 3 in a portrait by Joseph Duplessis circa 1781, is perhaps a prime candidate as a subject for this model. He was Minister of Finance to Louis XVI and became popular for his attempts to reform the French financial system. His attacks on the royal pensions system, the royal family’s spending and the wider conduct of the nation’s financial affairs were published in his Compte Rendu, which would trigger his resignation in 1781. However his popularity endured and the king was forced to re-employ him in 1788 in the desperate hope that he would be able to stabilize the French economy.
The second ﬁgure is, according to the V&A Curator, wearing a “fashionable rather than ceremonial suit.” It could be that this is a model of the most famous philosopher and enlightenment figure of the late eighteenth-century in France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).
Maurice Quentin de La Tour had painted Rousseau in a portrait which had been exhibited at the Paris salon in 1753 (figure 4), which also presents the sitter wearing a grey wig and beige-colored suit. Although he died in 1778, some years before Curtius’s establishment in Paris, he remained a cause célèbre for the French enlightenment, and as suggested above, remained one of the most popular attractions in the ‘Salon de Cire’ right up until the revolution. In her memoirs, Madame Tussauds recounted how Rousseau “wore a short round wig with curls, something like that worn by George III, and what coachmen used to wear…he is generally dressed in a snuff-colored suit, very plain.”8
It was of course Curtius’s neice, Marie Tussaud, whose name has gone on to become synonymous with waxworks of celebrity into the modern age. Inheriting his business after his death, she would derive much success and fame by exhibiting wax figures taken from life of leading figures of the French Revolution in London. She was to become an astonishingly successful businesswoman, and would tour England with her waxwork show for 34 years, and eventually housing her collection in a permanent space in Baker Street, London.
The origin of these remarkable wax sculptures is not certain; there is no signature to be found. Yet the quality of the figures’ modeling, their exquisitely made clothes and their appearance suggest strongly an association with this great age of wax modeling in pre-revolutionary Paris, and are likely to be a very rare survival from this time of a medium so fragile, still dressed in their original apparel.