Charlotte,  France,  Western Europe

Madame Tussaud

Portrait of Madame Tussaud at age 42
Portrait of Madame Tussaud at age 42

Outside of creating some of the most renowned wax sculptures of all time, Madame Tussaud lived in a turbulent time which would eventually lead her to a life she would not have otherwise chosen. The life of Tussaud, while a bit underwhelming, is important to understanding how she became the great success she is today, nearly 150 years after her death.

We begin in Strasbourg, France where little Anna Marie Grosholtz came screaming into this world on December 7, 1761 to Anne, a single mother. Tussaud had always been called Marie to prevent confusion since mother and daughter had names that were so closely related. According to Tussaud’s own memoir, her father was a German soldier who had died in the seven years’ war but this has since been thought to be inaccurate. Scholars have studied her memoir and have found a substantial amount of lies, thought to be added on purpose, for unknown reasons. The story of her father is one of those added falsehoods as historians now believe he had been a public executioner.

Another possible candidate for paternity could also have been Dr. Philippe Curtius. Anne had taken a position as housekeeper for the well-to-do physician in Bern, Switzerland where Tussaud began a close relationship with Curtius, even calling him uncle as a term of endearment. Not long after uprooting to Switzerland, Anne, Tussaud and Curtius moved to Paris together as Swiss citizens, by this time Tussaud was only 6 years of age.

But it was in 1770, when a decision made by Curtius would change Tussaud’s life forever, he opened an art space which featured wax sculptures of well known people. This business venture proved successful as visitors frequented the space and Tussaud took the opportunity to learn to sculpt from Curtius. In 1776 Curtius moved his exhibition to the Palais Royal, a place at the time for the respected citizens of Paris.

There seems to be some debate as to which sculpture was Tussaud’s first, one being of Voltaire and the other of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unfortunately, both works no longer exist, although the oldest surviving sculpture still on display is of Madame du Barry, the famous mistress of King Louis XV.

The oldest surviving sculpture: Madame du Barry, also known as Sleeping Beauty
The oldest surviving sculpture: Madame du Barry, also known as Sleeping Beauty

It is important to remember that only 2 years after completing her first works, the French Revolution began. Curtius himself was known in Paris as a supporter of the revolutionary cause, whereas Tussaud began working for Princess Elizabeth, King Louis XVI’s sister, as a tutor of art and sculpturing in 1789, which she continued to do so for the next 9 years. This put Tussaud in a rather precarious situation, was she revolutionary by her association with Curtius or a Royalist supporter for her connection to Princess Elizabeth?

Royalist supporter. Tussaud had been arrested for supporting the royal family resulting in imprisonment and sentenced to death by guillotine. Obviously she was not executed as her work had barely begun. The most widely accepted truth as to what occurred was that Tussaud was forced to show her support of the revolutionaries by creating masks of those dying by guillotine. What is known for a certainty is that Tussaud did create these “death masks”, as they became to be known; her most famous masks include Marie Antoinette, Maximilien Robespierre and King Louis XVI. What is not a certainty is how these masks were created, but most sources agree that Tussaud would have had to sift through the piles of the executed to obtain the head and then make a plaster cast of that severed head.

During the gruesome life that Tussaud must have endured during the French Revolution, there were moments of brighter days ahead. Unfortunately, Curtius died but fortunately for Tussaud, he left his business and sculptures to her, thus allowing her to continue her work and his legacy. Next, she met a civil engineer by the name of Francois Tussaud, and yes, the surname gives away what happens next: the two marry in 1795.

The marriage produced 3 children, 2 of whom survived infancy, Joseph and Francis. Her two surviving sons would carry on the family legacy after Tussaud passed away. But the marriage may not have been a happy one; Tussaud left Francois in 1802 and took her eldest son Joseph with her to England, later her younger son, Francis, would join her. She never saw Francois again. Tussaud also never returned to France but the Napoleonic Wars prevented her and her sons from doing so.

Death mask of Maximilien Robespierre
Death mask of Maximilien Robespierre

The move to England proved to be a success for Tussaud’s career as the English people flocked to see the men and women who suffered at the blades of the guillotine, especially to see the likenesses of the nobles. From 1802 until 1835, Tussaud took her work on the road for a traveling show, but after 33 years of constant traveling, Marie settled into a shop, the famous Baker Street location. Even though she was the only sculptor from 1795 until her retirement, Tussaud didn’t change the name of her show to Madame Tussaud’s until 1808, before that she had continued to use Curtius’s name.

Tussaud continued to create new sculptures and worked until 1842 when she finished her final work of art, a self-portrait. Her two sons had been running the business by this point and took full control on April 16, 1850 when Tussaud passed away in London. Her legacy is known the world over due to the hard work and dedication of a Swiss citizen, French Revolution survivor, and artist extraordinaire.