Strange Career of An Artist

 Compiled by Steven Connor as part of The Dumbstruck Archive, a continuing, online supplement to Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).


For many years past I have visited every Sunday in Paris a painter's studio, where artists, authors, public functionaries and manufacturers assemble on that day. All of these gentlemen generally are able to tell something about the events of the past week, and so the conversation is profitable to all. One Sunday I met there a stranger, already beyond the prime of life, but of exceedingly agreeable appearance. Not only had he seen the lands of all kings, but also been personally acquainted with the kings of all lands. His descriptions of the most celebrated men of Europe and the United States of America were as interesting as they were instructive, and all listened to him the more eagerly as he possessed a very sonorous voice, and did not betray in his narratives even a tinge of that self-importance which so often characterizes the bearing of men who have long been in foreign lands. He was interrupted by the entrance of several persons, and the conversation now turned from one subject to another. My curiosity had been excited by his having repeatedly mentioned the most illustrious representatives of German literature, with whom he seemed to have been well acquainted. I, therefore, seated myself by his side, and expressed to him the desire of hearing some particulars in regard to his acquaintance with them. 

"I have been more or less intimately acquainted with the eminent representatives of German literature, art and science, who lived in the second, third, and at the beginning of. the fourth decade of our century," he said. " Do me the honor of visiting me, and I shall gladly communicate to you what might be peculiarly interesting to you." 

He handed me his card, and took his leave. 

I read on it the name of Alexandre Vattemare, and knew no more than before. It was not until I had made inquiries about him that I learned it was the famous ventriloquist and actor Alexander, who in his time had set the pens of all journalists in motion, and excited the admiration of Blumenbach, Osiander, and Alexander Von Humboldt. 

I did not hesitate to pay him a visit, and found him in a large old room, filled with books, portfolios, cartoons, and fascicles. After the usual conventional phrases had passed between us, he said: 

"I love Germany for it was there that I entered upon my career as an actor and I met at the hands of the most illustrious men many proofs of kindness, nay, I may. say, of friendship." 

"How did it come that you, being a Frenchman, entered upon your career in Germany?" I inquired. 

"In this wise," he replied. "After my early youth, which, owing to exceedingly strange family relations, had passed in a very gloomy manner, I studied surgery, and in 1814 was commissioned to take three hundred convalescent Prussian soldiers from Paris to Berlin. I performed this task with the conscientiousness of a man who has the welfare of his fellowmen at heart, and the second Prussian war-medal was conferred upon me. Inasmuch as, during the Hundred Days, I refused, for reasons easily understood, to enter the Prussian army as surgeon, I was detained as prisoner of war in Berlin. I was at that time not yet twenty years old, was passably good-looking, and well liked everywhere on account of my talent of imitating all sorts of voices. The then French Embassador at the Prussian court, M. de Caraman, who had grown very fond of me, and, although an ardent Bourbonist, emphatically approved my determination not to enter the Prussian service, said to me one day he did not see why I should not become a professional ventriloquist." 

" 'Brave all prejudices,' he exclaimed; 'you will not rue it.' " 

"Now, there lived at that time in Berlin a family of French emigrants in the most reduced circumstances. I resolved to give a performance for their benefit ; it was so successful that I looked upon the family as my own and made a professional journey through Germany, where I was treated everywhere with the utmost courtesy and kindness. In Germany I commenced also collecting autographs and original drawings. I have now nearly ten thousand autographs," he continued, pointing to the portfolios, bundles, and fascicles, "and among them almost all the great men of German literature are represented." 

He opened one of the portfolios, and I saw immediately the following lines written by Goethe: - 

"I could not express my approval of M. Alexander's performances more emphatically than by declaring that it affords me pleasure to indorse all the testimonials that have been given to him. He knows how to recommend himself. 
                                                                                "F. W. VON GOETHE." 
These lines were dated Jena, June 8, 1818. 

I admired on this paper the imprint of a seal, representing a magnificent antique head. 

"An interesting reminiscence is connected with this seal," said Vattemare. "Many persons asserted that Goethe was stiff and cold. As a matter of course, he did not unbosom himself to those who visited him from mere curiosity. Toward me he was the most amiable of men. I had given him some specimens of my talent, and he seemed to be well pleased with them. When I told him I should like to get his autograph, he immediately went to his writing-table. He had already handed me these lines when he asked me to return them, and, taking the seal from a drawer, said, "This seal has just been presented to me; let us see now how the impressions look on paper." 

"Both of us were well pleased with the impression, and old Goethe then, with a smile which I shall never forget, wished in the most amiable manner that I might be prosperous in my career." 

"Did he speak French with you ?" I asked. 

"He did; and he spoke French very ; fluently; however, he interrupted his French words repeatedly with German sentences inasmuch as he knew that I spoke German tolerably well, and understood it perfectly. 

"Whenever I afterward met a celebrated man," added Vattemare, "I was requested to tell him all about my visit to Goethe; Walter Scott, whose acquaintance I made in the spring of 1824, was most anxious to hear me speak of him. Scott was a noble and good man! A more honorable, simple and kind-hearted nature cannot be imagined. I was treated by him and his excellent wife as a son, and the merry hours which I passed with him at Abbotsford and in Edinburgh will never fade from my memory." 

So saying, he showed me a very fine bronze medal, fastened in a brass locket, and on which the interesting head of Walter Scott was exceedingly well engraved. The reverse contained the words: " M. Alexandre, with Lady Scott's best compliments. Edinburgh, May 15th, 1824." 

"'This medal" said Vattemare, "was sent to me by Lady Scott previous to my departure from Scotland. Like almost all able and vivacious men, Walter Scott was fond of a good joke. One day he introduced me to a Dr. Taylor in Edinburgh. He was a queer little old fellow with a very ugly face. After conversing with him a short time, we left. him, and Walter Scott asked me if I was able to closely imitate the doctor's physiognomy and bearing. I replied that I could do so without any trouble whatever. In fact, I had carefully stamped the curious appearance of the doctor on my memory, and could imitate him in the most striking manner. Walter Scott was well satisfied with my imitation, and conducted me, after I had procured a suit such as the doctor wore, and put on a wig. to a sculptor, who immediately addressed me as Dr. Taylor and gladly complied with my request to be portrayed by him in a bust. The sculptor went to work immediately and labored most as siduously. At the fourth sitting the bust, moulded in clay, was to be completed. Walter Scott wished to have it multiplied in plaster of Paris, and thus surprise the doctor himself and his friends. But I on my part also wished to surprise Walter Scott, and requested him to be present at the fourth sitting. He gladly consented. As in all former sittings, so I now also spoke English with the sculptor and hemmed and hawed like the doctor. After an hour the sculptor said his work was done; whereupon I said that he must slightly alter the hair at the temples; while he was doing so, I quickly doffed my disguise. When the artist turned again, and, instead of the shriveled old man saw a slender blonde young fellow, he stood for a moment as if petrified, and, to add to his astonishment, I said to him in French, 'I thank you, sir, for the splendid bust, whose resemblance leaves nothing to be wished for and does honor to your talent.' Walter Scott, who had thus far remained in a corner of the study, took pains to look very grave; but, seeing the bewildered face of the artist, he burst into a fit of laughter. Both of us now explained to the artist the joke which we had permitted ourselves toward him; we could not convince him, however, until I had seated myself before him again in my former disguise. 

"This joke," added Vattemare, " was soon generally known, not only throughout Scotland and England but I may say, all over Europe; and when I visited Munich eight years afterward, King Louis wrote to me that he wished to ascertain the name of the Scotch doctor as well as that of the sculptor." 

Vattemare showed me the King's letter. In this letter I noticed the following phrase: "Quoique peu de temps à ma disposition, j'aime écrire à un artiste si célèbre comme vous." The reader sees that King Louis wrote French as he wrote German; only he made in French, as the letter showed, the most grievous grammatical and orthographical blunders. 

"The King of Bavaria," said Vattemare, "was the incarnation of curiosity. When I visited him, he withdrew with me into his small cabinet and overwhelmed me with questions. He alluded a great deal to Goethe who had died a few months before, and mentioned repeatedly with visible satisfaction that he had been honored with his friendship. 

"At the same time I made the personal acquaintance of all great German poets, and all of them readily contributed to my album, which contained already several thousand autographs. I remember with great pleasure Ludwig Tieck, who was then already in feeble health, and unable to witness the performance which I gave at Dresden. I asked of him a few lines for my collection and received the following letter from him: 

" 'My disease is a great obstacle for me and deprives me of many pleasures. Thus it prevented me to my intense regret from getting acquainted with your mimic talent which is admired byeverybody. However, your personal amiability, esteemed M. Alexandre, has not remained unknown to me, and I take pleasure in dedicating these lines to you for your album, which I have repeatedly turned over with a great deal of interest: how many names it contains, and, among them, how many illustrious ones! How glad I was to see the autographs of Roscoe and many others! " 'May Providence, honored sir, vouchsafe to you health and vigor for many years that you may gladden by your talents yourself and others. 
                                                                           " 'Your obedient servant, 
                                                                           " 'LUDWIG TIECK. 
                                                                           " 'DRESDEN, Sept. 12th, 1833.' 
"After receiving this letter, I gave him a performance at his house. Next day he sent me the following note: 
"' 'Many thanks, my dear M. Alexandre, for kindly giving me in my room a few specimens of your talent, which far surpassed all that I had expected. It was a marvelous performance. This rapid contortion of all features, so that no one was able to recognize them, these wonderful changes of the voice, combined with so much grace and wit, has greatly astonished me. Rcceive my thanks for the great kindness with which you afforded an invalid so pleasant an hour. These impressions will never fade and pale, and there are a great many actors who, I wish, would possess but a part of your wonderful talents. 
                                                                             " 'LUDWIG TIECK' 
"Tieck had large, magnificent eyes," said Vattemare, "which shot fire as soon as he warmed in an animated conversation. He.followed with the closest attention the performance which I gave before him, and deplored then that but few actors were good mimics; that they could not do anything with their faces, and although they often distorted their features in moments of passion, yet did not know how to express the various emotions, either by their voice or their action. They did not study nature enough. And then he said very vividly so many true and beautiful things about mimic art, that his words held me perfectly spell-bound." 

"How was it possible for you," I inquired, "to play all persons in your pieces without making even a momentary pause on the stage? How could you appear in one and the same minute as an officer, as an old woman, as a young girl, and keep up the illusion of your audience?" 

"These questions have been propounded to me thousands upon thousands of times during my professional career. Yes, there were but few persons who believed that I really played all persons at my performances. The most incredulous of all was the Duchess du Berry. Having witnessed some of my performances at the Théatre de Madame, she told me very bluntly she would never allow herself to be convinced that I performed all the rôles in my plays myself unless I proved it to her in the most irrefutable manner. A short time afterwards I performed at St. Cloud before the royal family. As at all my performances, so I saw now again very strictly to it that no one, whosoever it might be, was admitted behind the scenes. I had to represent a coachman in the first scene. When I appeared in roy heavy cloak and seated myself swearing and grumbling, at the table, where I was to fall asleep, I noticed that the Duchess crept up behind roy chair and seized the collar of my cloak. I allowed her to do so, spoke my piece, and then appeared by another door as a Norman wet-nurse with a baby in my arms. The Duchess, who still held the end of the collar of my cloak in her hand, uttered a cry of surprise when she discovered that nothing but the cloak, from which I had slipped, like a chicken from the egg, without her perceiving it, was still sitting at the table." 

"That was very well done," I said; "but it is no answer to my question." 

"An Englishwoman," he replied, "Miss Wylton, who faithfully served me and my family for twenty-five years, accompanied me everywhere and assisted me with extraordinary skill She alone was behind the scenes and was at every change of costume at hand to facilitate my metamorphosis, which had to be accomplished with lightning speed. In many instances I wore several costumes, one above the other, so that I was able to peel like an onion; and, finally, my real art, that of imitating other voices, assisted me most powerfully. As I was able to imitate all voices, all sorts of noise with the utmost accuracy, it was very easy for me to constantly engross the attention of the audience. If I myself was not on the stage, my voice was there, and I could soliloquize on the stage or begin there a conversation interrupted by the cries of animals, while I changed my costume behind the scenes." 

"I have been told," I said, "that you were able to imitate the voices of all animals, the noise of all tools, in short, all sounds that fall on our ears, in such a striking manner that no one thought they were mere imitations." 

"I have displayed this skill not only at my regular performances, but also in private circles, when I wished to amuse a party," replied Vattemare. "Let me relate to you an occurrence which is not generally known. When I was in Berlin in 1834; the then Crown-Prince of Prussia and his consort treated me with particular kindness. The Crown-Prince gave me a very warm letter of introduction to his sister, the Empress of Russia, so that I met with the most flattering reception at the court of St. Petersburg. The Emperor Nicholas, whose name so many persons never uttered without a shudder, soon grew very fond of me. One evening, when I was at court in the midst of a group of distinguished diplomatists and army officers, and Nicholas seemed to be unusually grave, I said it was not difficult to exhilarate him. At the same moment an impudent blue-bottle-fly commenced humming round the autocrat's head. He made a movement to keep the disagreeable insect from his head. In vain! The insect became more and more impudent, until the Emperor finally lost his composure and angrily grasped his hair with both hands. The insect, humming all the time, fled under a small table, aud when the Emperor learned that it was I who made the noise, he burst into loud laughter, and was henceforth in the best of humor." 

"But how could you permit yourself this jest?" I inquired. 

"The lords of this earth," he replied in a melancholy tone,"forgive everything when we amuse them. Court-fools could permit themselves everything. The terrible Czar was the incarnation of amiability toward me. He invited me to Peterhot; showed me the magnificent apartments of the palace, and always made me enter the first, saying, 'Monsieur Alexandre, je suis chez moi.' He wished to see my albums, which contained a great many drawings of celebrated artists. I took the collection to him. But, when he was about to open the portfolios, I laid my hand on them, and told him it was my rule to open these treasures only to those who enriched them by a contribution." 'I have no drawing,' he said.- 'Sire,' I replied, 'the drawing lying on your writing-table.' - ' It is a uniform for my grenadiers.' - 'Your Majesty will copy it.' - He smiled and gave me the drawing, after adding his name and the date to it." 

Vattemare showed it to me, as well as a drawing made by the present Emperor Alexander. The sketches were no masterpieces. 

I asked him if he had never traveled under the name "Vattemare?" 

"As a ventriloquist," he said," my name was Alexander; in private life, and as a collector of duplicates my name was Vattemare. In my youth already I had noticed, to my regret, that many public libraries, cabinets of medals, and museums contained duplicates of many works and objects of art, which were entirely wanting to other public institutions. So the idea occurred to me that, by an interchange of duplicates, almost all libraries, etc., might add greatly to their treasures without spending a sou for that purpose. The realization of this plan seemed to me so important that I have never ceased laboring for it, during all my travels in Europe and the United States. But I encountered the most unexpected obstacles. When the laziness or ill-will of librarians and custodians thwarted the wishes of Vattemare, the traveler, Alexander, the jester, made his appearance and attained his object. I still remember that I once, in a German capital, caused myself to be announced to the Minister of Public Instruction in order to interest him in my plan. I had to wait a long time in the ante-room. At length the footman came back and told me his Excellency was very busy and could not receive me. 'Inform his Excellency' I exclaimed, 'that M. Alexander desires to pay him a visit.' No sooner had the footman left me than the door opened, and the minister, holding out to me both hands, hastened to me, drew me into his cabinet, and promised me, amidst the most flattering remarks about my talents to promote my plan. But for Alexander, all doors would have been closed against Vattemare." 

This first visit established very friendly relations between Vattemare and me. Thenceforth we met often, and he repeatedly expressed the wish that I might publish his recollections. He offered to furnish me for this purpose all written and printed materials and to add to them by verbal communications. Afterwards, however, when speaking of the publication of these recollections, I noticed a certain embarrassment in his manner, which I was unable to account for. He evaded the subject, and, as I saw, with regret and vexation. After his death, which took place four years ago, I learned that his eldest son, a clergyman, had opposed the idea of publishing them. His second son, Hippolyte Vattemare, to whom France is indebted for a number of excellent essays on the political condition of the United States, placed with the utmost readiness at my disposal many valuable relics that had belonged to father, among them many original letters of German poets, savants and princes. Of these papers I still have the manuscript ofVattemare's autobiography. The pages which depict the events of his youth, and the commencement of his career as a ventriloquist and mimic, are highly interesting. A curious fact is that Vattemare disliked appearing before the public; nay, in his later years, he frequently had to restrain his tears when stepping on the stage. He hated theatres and never witnessed plays. Since he had abandoned his art, even his intimate intimate friends could no longer prevail on him to perform before them. He was occupied exclusively in his hobby, the international exchange of books. He had succeeded in bringing about an interchange of three hundred thousand volumes between France and the United States alone! 

Vattemare had in all classes of Parisian society many devoted friends who esteemed him as an amiable and interesting conversationalist, and, above all, as a good and honest man. 

'Strange Career of An Artist', Hours at Home, 7 (1868): 534-9