|Marie Tussaud late in her life, circa 1840|
What do Benjamin Franklin, Marie-Antoinette and Grumpy Cat all have in common? The answer involves Madame Tussaud.
More than just a name on a wax museum, Madame Tussaud was a real historical figure whose long life not only encompassed the Regency era but was more colorful than anything the most imaginative fiction writer could invent. She barely survived the horrors of the French Revolution and lived on to devote her considerable artistic skills to bringing death to life - in wax.
She was born Anna Maria (“Marie”) Grosholtz in Strasbourg, France, in 1761 during the time of the monarchy or ancien régime. Her mother, widowed right before little Marie was born, supported herself and her daughter by working as a housekeeper for a Swiss physician, Philippe Curtius, who also happened to be an expert in anatomical wax modeling.
Curtius went to Paris in 1765 to establish a business making wax portraits. He worked on some famous figures, including a head of Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV who was famed for her beauty. After a few years, Mrs. Grosholtz took her daughter to Paris to join the doctor’s household as he continued to make a name for himself with his sculptures.
|Madame du Barry by Francois-Hubert Drouais|
Marie’s inner artist emerged as she grew older and Curtius, recognizing her talent, took her under his wing, teaching her the art of wax modeling and sculpting. In 1777, she made her first wax figure, a sculpture of Voltaire. Over the next decade she perfected her skills, making figures of famous people such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin (America’s first ambassador to France in 1778), celebrities of their time.
Things were going very well for Marie in Paris. Her artistic talent caught the attention of the king, Louis XVI, who hired her to come to his palace in Versailles and tutor his sister Élisabeth in drawing and modeling.
Princess Élisabeth by Louise Vigee Le Brun circa 1782
Then in 1789 the old order in France was turned completely upside down by the French Revolution. Suddenly, having royal connections wasn’t such an advantage. The monarchy fell and Marie was arrested. Thrown into La Force prison, for a time Marie shared a cell with Joséphine de Beauharnais, the future Empress of France and wife of Napoleon.
Marie seemed destined to share the same fate as the king, the queen, her pupil Élisabeth, Madame du Barry and the 40,000 or so others who lost their heads to the unforgiving blade of the guillotine. But just when her execution seemed certain – even her hair had been chopped off in preparation – she was unexpectedly released.
She was saved through the intercession of a French actor and revolutionary, Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois, who was a friend of Curtius. As a member of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror, Collot was able to influence his fellow revolutionaries to spare Marie’s life. Despite the clemency he showed Marie, Collot was no hero; he condemned over 2,000 people to death in the city of Lyon during the Terror.
|Collot d'Herbois by François Bonneville, late 1700s|
In exchange for her release, Marie promised the Assembly she’d make death masks and sculpt wax models of the heads of famous victims, people like Jean-Paul Marat, a Revolutionary leader who was assassinated in his bathtub, as well as other notables who’d been guillotined, including Marie-Antoinette.
Relieved to be out of prison, Marie set about her grisly task. In her memoirs, she says she combed through the bodies of guillotine victims looking for famous heads, though that claim has never been verified.
In 1794 the Reign of Terror ended, and its chief architect, Maximilien de Robespierre, met the same bloody fate he’d imposed on thousands of others at the guillotine. Tussaud made a wax sculpture of the dead revolutionary’s severed head and added it to her collection. Her inventory of wax heads expanded further that same year when her mentor, Curtius, died and left her his collection.
|Maximilien de Robespierre circa 1790|
The following year, 1795, Marie married a civil engineer, François Tussaud. Over the next few years, they had three children including two sons (François and Joseph) and a daughter who died at birth.
Then Marie’s life took another fateful turn in 1802 when she got an invitation to exhibit her work in London. The Treaty of Amiens had calmed relations between France and England, so she was able to go, taking her collection and her 4-year-old son Joseph with her. But when it was time to return to France, the Napoleonic Wars were raging and she couldn't travel back to the Continent. So Marie stayed in Britain and took her collection on tour throughout England and Ireland.
The tour was a big success. So much so that in 1822, her son François came to England to join her and become part of the family business. With her sons beside her, Madame Tussaud never went back to her husband in France.
After touring her work for decades, in 1835 Madame Tussaud created a permanent home for her wax figures in London on Baker Street. She also continued to sculpt, augmenting her collection with wax models of notorious English criminals and murderers.
|Portrait study of Marie by her great-grandson John|
Not everyone was a fan of Tussaud’s artwork. A writer for Punch Magazine referred to her exhibition as a “chamber of horrors” in 1845, but there's evidence that Marie had already used that phrase in her advertising a few years earlier.
The Chamber of Horrors is a well-known feature of Madame Tussaud's wax museums, and it often contains not just wax renditions of guillotined heads but also nightmarish scenes of executions and other atrocities. However, the London museum’s Chamber of Horrors may have been too graphic for general consumption; it's been closed since April 2016 as a result of complaints from visitors, especially families with young children.
Tussaud spent the rest of her long life in England, where she died in her sleep at age 88 in 1850. Her grandsons opened a museum for her collection on Marylebone Road in London in 1884, and it’s been there ever since, despite being ravaged by fire and rebuilt in the 1920s.
|Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London|
The collection is kept current with the constant addition of wax figures of the newly famous, such as movie stars, musicians, celebrities, politicians and anyone else who’s managed to catch the public eye. Regency fans might like to know that a wax figure of Colin Firth greets visitors in the London museum, though sadly, he’s not dressed as Mr. Darcy.
Today, Madame Tussaud’s wax museum is a major tourist attraction in London, and also at its 17 other branches around the world. In the U.S. you can find Madame Tussaud museums in Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York City, Orlando, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Now back to Grumpy Cat – here’s a short video of the famous feline getting measured for his body double by the staff of the San Francisco Madame Tussaud museum. Following the clip is another short take showing Grumpy’s reaction upon meeting his animatronic double.
And since Halloween is less than a week away, I’ve added another brief clip, showing a terrifying moment with Vincent Price in the 1953 horror classic, House of Wax. If nothing else, it’ll convince you to steer clear of wax museums at night, especially after hours. The special effects are little cheesy in this scene, but it’s still plenty scary, so be warned!
Resources for this post include:
- Madame Tussaud’s London museum website
- The History Channel (UK)
- “Madame Tussaud” on NNDB (beta version)