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Madame Marie Tussaud

Women In History

By Ruth Elizabeth StiffPublished about a month ago 8 min read
Madame Tussaud

(1761 - 1850)

She came dangerously close to being executed by ‘Madame Guillotine’ during the French Revolution. Being chosen as a tutor to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth of France, she lived and taught at Versailles and Montreuil for 8 years. During the French Revolution, she would make wax head figures using actual human heads that had been chopped off by ‘Madame Guillotine’. She had a strong stomach.

She would use actual heads as models

She was Madame Tussaud.

Marie was born on 1st December, 1761, in Strasbourg, France. Her father was Joseph Grosholtz, a German officer in the service of General Count Dagobert de Wurmser, (fighting for Maria Theresa of Austria). He was badly wounded in the “Seven Years’ War” and returned home to his wife but died two months before his daughter was born. Her mother, Anne-Marie Walder, moved to Bern, Switzerland, when Maire was 6 years of age, and became housekeeper and cook to Doctor Philip Curtius. Dr Curtius made anatomical models in wax. Marie soon became fascinated in the wax models, and the Dr introduced her to the ‘concept’ of wax figures.

Marie used to call the Dr ‘uncle’, and he moved to Paris in 1765, taking Marie and her mother with him. The Dr established a “Cabinet de Portraits En Cire” (a Wax Portraiture firm). He had become friends with a travelling noble, the Prince de Conti, who had encouraged him to move to Paris. The Prince thought that the Dr’s wax characters were better than any paintings, being cleverly dressed, dyed and painted, therefore conveying a ‘life-like’ image, and as it was the pre-photographic age, the Dr had no rivals.

Dr Curtius soon became a favourite at Court and was asked to model King Louis XV and Queen Marie Leczinska. With all of this success, the Dr was able to open the “Cabinet de Cire” which became a permanent exhibition. The exhibition attracted visiting dignitaries from all over Europe. The life-size re-creation of the Royal family eating dinner became a sensation.

Noticing Marie’s fascination and complete interest in his wax models, ‘uncle’ Philip took her on as an apprentice. Marie learned how to make plaster casts of a human head (dead or alive), how to make the moulds and mix the tinted wax to give the lifelike effect of human flesh. Very little is known about Marie’s ‘formal education’, but by the time she went into her mid-teens, Marie had become an accomplished wax modeller. She made portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Rousseau and Voltaire when she was a teenager. All of these were said to be ‘superb’, with the bust of Franklin still on display today in London.

King Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth, visited the “Cabinet de Cire” and met Marie in 1781. Being impressed by the wax models, the Princess wanted to try her hand at wax modelling and she engaged Marie (who was now 20 years of age) as her tutor. Marie moved to Versailles and Montreuil to live and work with the unmarried Princess. After eight years, Marie received word from Dr Curtius, warning her to leave the Royal Court and to return to Paris. He knew that the French Revolution was well on its way, and he welcomed it, even lending his models of the unpopular ministers and Princes to the Paris mob to parade through the streets.

Dr Curtius and Marie were much in demand during the Revolutionary years. They were called upon to make models of the Revolutionary leaders, heroes, an imaginative Goddess of Liberty, as well as former friends, and King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The list of casts includes Jean-Paul Marat and Charlotte Corday.

During the Reign of Terror, Marie and her mother were arrested on the charge of having Royalist sympathies. Their heads were shaved in preparation for ‘Madame Guillotine’ but both were released due to their known association with Dr Curtius.

During this time, Marie recalled the gruesome death of Robespierre (July 1794) :

“When he found that he had no means of escaping execution he endeavoured with a pistol to blow out his brains, but only shattered his under jaw, which was obliged to be tied up when he was taken to the scaffold. The executioner when about to do his office, tore the dressing roughly away and Robespierre uttered a piercing shriek, as his lower jaw separated from the upper, whilst his blood flowed copiously. His head presented a dreadful spectacle; and immediately after death it was taken to the Madelaine”. It was here that Marie took a cast of the head, which clearly showed the mutilated jaw.

Marie managed to keep calm in the midst of terrible danger and horrific sights. When it was ‘safe to do so’, Marie wrote in her memoirs about her grief for her dead friends, both Royal and aristocratic.

In September, 1794, ‘uncle’ Philip Curtius died and left everything to his 33 years of age ‘niece’ and pupil, Marie, who supervised the funeral and took over his three houses. Taking an inventory of the property, Marie began to realise that she was now a wealthy woman. She made sure to keep the exhibition open and changed the exhibits according to what was going on at the time, following the Doctor’s policy of adjusting the exhibition ‘to suit the changes of the political wind’. Marie would include villains in her Chamber of Horrors.

In the autumn of 1795, Marie married Francois Tussand who was a civil engineer 8 years younger than herself. A daughter was born who didn’t live past infancy, and two sons, Joseph and Francois, both of whom lived. Although there is an abundance of business records, very little is known about Marie’s personal life. Francois, unfortunately, didn’t have the business or the ‘artistic’ skills that Marie was used to (in her ‘uncle’), and also, she found that she could not rely on her husband. It was at this time that the people of Paris began to lose interest in her waxwork models, even the new ones of Napoleon Bonaparte and his generals.

Talking of Marie Tussaud, Anita Leslie and Pauline Chapman said: “She was among the first great career women, for although she never talked of feminist emancipation she created her own business and built up her own prestige without help from any man”.

Exhibitions had already been sent abroad to Baden in Germany, to England and to India, which were enjoyed as “spectacular novelties”. Marie decided to move and crossed the English Channel in 1802, with a great deal of the exhibition, leaving her husband behind. She opened a new exhibition in a London theatre which was an instant success. The English were fascinated when they saw the models of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre and many others who had so recently ‘transformed’ history. These are people who had only been read about in England, so to see them as full wax models made them ‘come alive’ to the English visitors.

Marie Antoinette

The profits soared. The success of the exhibition encouraged Marie to try new things, and she started to create ‘a special section’ in all of the shows, which eventually developed into a permanent fixture. “It” was referred to as “the separate room” and it was one which was “not suitable for ladies”.

The historian Pauline Chapman notes: “She (Marie) was not interested in taking the likeness of executed criminals just in order to introduce horror for horror’s sake. Madame Tussaud was essentially a journalist in wax and she liked to point out a historical or moral lesson too”.

The Exhibition went to Edinburgh in 1803 and was instantly a success, even as it was in Glasgow. Like her ‘uncle’ had built up clients in France, Marie started to do the same with lords, members of Parliament, and minor Royalty, all of whom were eager to sit for her, and Marie became a “fashionable portraitist in wax”.

It was at this time that Marie wrote to her husband: “We can each go our own way”, and from 1804 onwards she never saw Francois again. In 1822, her younger son joined Marie in England, and both sons travelled with their mother, helping with the exhibitions.

In the same year, King George IV had a state visit to ireland. Ever one to find an opportunity, Marie decided to take the exhibition to Ireland and show the King’s Coronation, which had been very popular in London and had made a good profit. Unfortunately, the ship Marie was on was caught in a storm and went down. Marie survived with a few of the others and, luckily, most of the exhibition models were still in storage in Liverpool. Another dangerous time for Marie and the exhibition was in 1831, when riots in Bristol started up. The Assembly Rooms, where the exhibition was being shown, was set on fire as well as the house where Marie was staying (along with most of the houses in the same street). Marie managed to escape the fire, and, with help from her assistants, managed to ‘save’ many of the models.

Eventually, Marie Tussaud and the exhibition settled down into a steady routine of touring and exhibiting in Britain. Marie and her assistants got the packing of the wax models off to a fine art, so that the exhibition survived the travelling around Britain fairly well. The heads and hands were modelled in wax, and the bodies were made of wood and stuffed leather.

After 32 years of travelling through the English provinces showing her exhibitions, Marie decided to settle down in London and put the ‘show’ in a permanent place. The exhibition finally settled in large rooms near Baker Street and became a part of the London entertainment landscape.

Marie’s sons were now in middle age and took over the daily running of the business from their mother, who was now 76 years of age. Chapman tells us: “She drummed her theories into their heads”.

“The show must be kept both entertaining and instructive; past and present should be combined, so that the great and humble, and, above all, they must always produce an atmosphere of glamour. When presenting human history in visual form, it was essential that the figures be accurate in every detail. These admonitions were accepted by her sons and they maintained the Exhibition’s standards as she decreed”.

King Charles III

Queen Victoria’s Coronation in 1837 made for a splendid exhibition, with the models being absolutely true to life.

During her declining years, Marie dictated her memoirs to her friend Francis Herve, but Marie was careful to exclude all personal matters. At 88 years of age, Marie Tussaud died in 1850. The wax exhibition was left to her sons, who had become British Subjects in 1847. Marie’s life was full of very unusual ‘activities’, but she made a real success of the exhibitions, using her skills and she became successful in life, which was unusual for a woman of that time.

Marie Tussaud was buried in the Catholic cemetery, St.Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Cadogan Street, London, ‘beside other revolution-era emigres’.


About the Creator

Ruth Elizabeth Stiff

I love all things Earthy and Self-Help

History is one of my favourite subjects and I love to write short fiction

Research is so interesting for me too

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