It has shocked me recently how many people do not know that Madame Tussaud was a real person yet think that Sherlock Holmes is true historical figure… Often people have heard of the real woman but know nothing at all about her and yes, there are a lot of people who think she was a Victorian. If you’re thinking that this is you don’t fret because you are certainly one of many. Say ‘Madame Tussaud’ to most people and they will tell you if they have been to the waxworks in London. Yes, Marie Tussaud did find the famous waxworks, but there is so much more to the story than that…
Anna Maria ‘Marie’ Grosholtz was born on 1 December 1761 in Strasbourg, France. Her father, Joseph Grosholtz was a German soldier and killed two months before Marie’s birth in the Seven Years’ War. Her mother took her to Bern, Switzerland, where she spent the first five years of her life where her mother worked as a housekeeper for Dr Philippe Curtius. Dr Curtius was a physician, wax modeller and artist. It is from him that the young Marie learnt the art of wax. In 1765 Marie and her mother moved to Paris with Dr Curtius. Marie enjoyed a great friendship with Curtius, calling him ‘uncle’ and I suppose he became the father-figure of her life. In 1770 (Marie Antoinette marries the Dauphin, Louis-Auguste, about now) Curtius opened a museum in Paris featuring life-sized wax models. Marie learnt much from her mother’s employer and met some of the great celebrities of the day including Benjamin Franklin, Francois Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1778 she created her first wax figure of none other than Rousseau. She later modelled Voltaire and Franklin.
Marie’s great talent was soon recognised and she was appointed by the Royal Family to be the art tutor to King Louis XVI’s younger and most adored sister, Madame Elisabeth in 1780. She was then invited to live at the magnificent Palace of Versailles. However at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 she was called back to Paris by Dr Curtius. Curtius was actively involved in the Revolution, participating in the Storming of the Bastille and entertaining some of the Revolutionary leaders. Marie met some important figures, including Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte.
However, during the Reign of Terror Marie was arrested. She was imprisoned with Josephine de Beauharnais, later wife of Napoleon and more commonly known as simply the ‘Empress Josephine’. Marie’s head was shaved in preparation for execution by guillotine even before supporters of Curtius had her released. She was employed to make death masks of victims of the Revolution including Marat, Robespierre and even Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. She was given the grotesque task of digging though the Revolution’s mass graves to find heads of those that may be of interest and the masks were often paraded around streets as trophies. It couldn’t have been very pleasant, but it saved her life.
In 1794 Curtius died, leaving his whole collection of waxworks to Marie. In 1795 she married Francois Tussaud; they had two surviving children, Joseph and Francois. In 1802 Marie Tussaud moved to England with her eldest son, Joseph, then four years old. Due to the Napoleonic Wars, she was unable to return to France so travelled throughout Great Britain and Ireland with her growing collection. In 1821/2 her younger son joined her. In 1835 she opened her first permanent exhibition in Baker Street, London. In 1838 she wrote her memoirs. In 1842 she made a self-portrait, still on display in the entrance to the London museum. She died on 16 April 1850 aged eighty-eight- a remarkable achievement considering the times and how she came so close to death.
Madame Tussaud’s wax museums have grown to be one of the most popular London tourist attractions and has branches worldwide. A few of her sculptures still survive today and are on display. I’m not sure if I agree with the publicity of the museums but they carry her name and legacy. Although it does nothing to educate people about this most remarkable woman.