NATTE, dit Marseille, JEAN-SÉBASTIEN, soldier, painter, and puppeteer; b. 20 Jan. 1734 in Marseilles, France, son of Jean-Noël Natte and Françoise Gassin; m. first 6 Feb. 1758 Marguerite Ducheneau, dit Sanregret, at Quebec, and they had three daughters; m. secondly 5 May 1781 Marie-Louise Fluette, the widow of Joseph Barbeau; d. 12 July 1803 at Quebec, Lower Canada.
Jean-Sébastien Natte, dit Marseille, came to Quebec in 1757 as a soldier in the Régiment de la Reine. After the conquest he chose to remain in Canada. It is not known when he left the army, but in 1766 he called himself a painter, and in 1770 a master painter. As a house painter he worked on the church at Saint-Michel-de-Bellechasse in 1773. The account book of the fabrique shows payments to Natte for two pictures: a Guardian Angel and a Blessed Virgin. But there is nothing to confirm that Natte had painted them; it is more likely that he had only restored, mounted, or framed them. In 1784 Natte painted the churchwardens’ pew and the sides of the altar in the church of Notre-Dame-de-Liesse at Rivière-Ouelle and part of the interior and exterior of the church of Saint-Joseph (at Lauzon) in 1787 and 1788.
Before 1781 Natte showed himself to be a poor and unlucky businessman, experiencing numerous disappointments in his invariably frustrated attempts to acquire a house. Having been forced in 1766 to give up a lot belonging to his wife, in August 1770 he bought from François Lemonier a house at Pointeaux-Trembles (Neuville), near Quebec, which he kept for only three months. Three years later he purchased a house on Rue Saint-Jean at Quebec, outside the walls, but it was burned during the siege of the town in 1775 [see Benedict Arnold; Richard Montgomery*]. The lot, on which the yearly mortgage payments had not been made since before the fire, became unsaleable. Natte was thus burdened with an ever-increasing debt. In 1780 a lawsuit went against him and he had to give up the lot, but he still had to pay his creditors the full amount of the arrears, which could not otherwise be recovered. Ten months after this incident Natte remarried, and from then on he seems to have had no further financial worries.
After the fire Natte had moved into a house on Rue d’Aiguillon where he later set up a puppet theatre. In 1792 he called himself a “puppet player”; it is not known how far back this theatrical activity went, but it seems to have coincided with his second marriage. Running a puppet theatre proved very profitable. The Nattes opened their theatre every year between Christmas and Lent, a period of about 10 weeks. In his Mémoires Philippe-Joseph Aubert* de Gaspé provides an account of it as it was remembered by his parents. The burlesque productions, which he describes as “brilliant theatre,” were lively and highly amusing. In addition to speaking, the puppets did little dances accompanied by a violin, a drum, and occasionally a fife. Natte, who was distinguished by an “enormous mouth,” endeavoured to “provoke to laughter the numerous spectators eager to hear the banter that he put in the mouths of his puppets.” The performances, which lasted two hours, were normally for children, but Natte and his wife, Marie-Louise, regularly transported their equipment to private homes, including those of “heads of families in the forefront of Canadian society.” The show, which amused adults as much as children, was often followed by a supper and sometimes even by a ball.
Natte used his talents as a painter to mount the shows; his equipment included not only “a set of puppets,” but “everything that goes with it, such as a painted cardboard town, also little figures painted on cardboard and the theatre with its fittings.” Among the “fittings” there may have been backdrops for the various productions included in the repertoire. For the sign on the door of the house there was a full-length picture of a grenadier, painted in “bright and striking colours.” If credit for the farcical humour and the skill in painting required for the craft of puppetry belonged to Natte, it was “Mother Natte” who was responsible for putting those talents to work. Marie-Louise added sparkle to the shows, performing songs – such as “Malbrouk s’en va-t’en guerre” – and taking her seat of honour “below the stage” at every performance.
The Nattes had their greatest success when they played for Prince Edward Augustus, some time between 1791 and 1793. To enliven the show they presented for the first time a model of the town of Quebec, a miniature scene on which was staged “the siege of Quebec by the Americans in 1775, and . . . the sound thrashing, the British and Canadians gave them,” followed by a march-past of effigies of the royal family, which, it was said, caused the prince to weep.
It must be concluded, however, that even before they were outdoing themselves in this way the Nattes had made plans to retire; for in December 1790 they had arranged with a notary the sale of their house and its contents to François Barbeau, Natte’s stepson. The Nattes continued to live in the house, and they were active in the puppet theatre until the death of Marie-Louise in 1795 put an end to their collaboration.
Some months later Natte listed “dauber” as his profession. By the time of the 1798 census he had left the house on Rue d’Aiguillon and had definitely given up the puppets. He was living in Lower Town in “a shabby house” near the “king’s highway,” where he died in 1803, long forgotten.
Barbeau’s theatre did not stand up well to comparison with the Nattes’; the owner did, however, possess the virtue of perseverance, since he was able to carry on for nearly half a century. A third owner witnessed the destruction of the venerable establishment when the police came “to demolish” and “plunder” it at the time of the rebellion in 1837–38. The police are said to have stuck the names of rebels on the puppets and then carried them around the marketplace.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 13 juill. 1803; CN1-122, 5 nov. 1770; CN1-189, 5 janv. 1759; CN1-205, 19 juill. 1780; CN1–284, 17 déc. 1790. Arch. municipales, Marseille, France, État civil, Saint-Martin, 20 janv. 1734. MAC-CD, Fonds Morisset, 2, N282/J43. “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 100. P.[-J.] Aubert de Gaspé, Mémoires (Ottawa, 1866), 517, 544–52. É.-Z. Massicotte, “Les marionnettes au Canada, le théâtre du père Marseille,” BRH, 28 (1922): 8–13.