German wax modeler Marie Tussaud (1761-1850) founded the famous London museum that bears her name early in the 1830s, and it remains one of the city's most popular tourist attractions nearly two centuries later.
Tussaud learned the art of creating lifelike figures out of wax during the French Revolution, claiming to have made her first ones directly from the heads of the recently guillotined. “Tussaud experienced sweeping social changes,” noted Marianne Brace, a writer for London's Independent on Sunday. “She saw the sacramental nature of kingship in the fated Louis XVI give way to the domestic primness of Queen Victoria; the mob transformed into the mass market. Moreover, her blend of entertainment and information was a precursor of a cultural phenomenon existing today,” that of the celebrity icon.
The woman known throughout Britain as Madame Tussaud was born Anna Marie Gresholtz (or Grosholtz) on December 7, 1761, in Strasbourg, a city located in the Alsace region between Germany and France. Little is known of her family background, save for information culled from her 1838 volume of memoirs, which later biographers deemed to be riddled with deliberate falsehoods. She claimed, for example, that her father Joseph was a soldier during the Seven Years' War and died in that conflict before she was born; more reliable sources determined that he was descended from a long line of public executioners in the city. Her mother Anne raised her and took her to Bern, Switzerland, when she became housekeeper to a prominent physician in the city, Dr. Philippe Curtius (1741–1794). Sources note that Tussaud was close to Curtius, called him “uncle,” and may have actually been his biological daughter.
Moved to Paris
Tussaud became a Swiss citizen, and learned the art of wax sculpting from Curtius, who had become quite skilled in the art from making anatomical models used in medical-school classes but also had a secret sideline creating erotic tableaux, or staged scenes, for private clients. Wax modeling of human figures dates back to 3000 BC, and became widespread in medieval Europe; wax effigies of kings were used for funeral processions, and those of saints were made for churches when costlier materials were unavailable. Tussaud and her mother apparently followed Curtius to Paris around 1767, where he opened a wax cabinet, or exhibition space, in 1770. His business grew to be quite successful, and over the years divided into two venues: the Palais Royal, which featured tableaux of the French royal family, and the Caverne des Grands Voleurs, or Cavern of the Grand Thieves, which opened on the Boulevard du Temple in 1782. The latter exhibit showcased famous villains throughout history, and was equally as successful as the royal family exhibit.
The first wax figure that Tussaud did on her own was in 1778 to commemorate the passing of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). She also completed a likeness of Rousseau's fellow luminary of the age of Enlightenment, the philosopher Voltaire (1697–1778), who also died that year. She claimed to have come to know several prominent figures in pre-Revolutionary France, and asserted she had even given art lessons to the Princess Elizabeth, the sister of Louis XVI, at the Palace of Versailles, but no records survive that support this claim. The French Revolution began in 1789, and at some point Tussaud was apparently targeted as a royalist sympathizer and sentenced to die by guillotine. Before the execution took place, however, it was learned that she was a skilled wax modeler, and she was spared the blade and instead recruited to make death masks of the most famous guillotine victims, among them the king, Louis XVI (1754–1793) and his wife, Marie Antoinette (1755–1793). This was her version of events; later biographers cast doubt on the story. The “gruesome replicas soon drew appreciative crowds to Curtius's waxworks,” asserted Sunday Times writer John Carey, “but it seems probable that he and Marie procured the originals by the simple expedient of hiring them from the executioner, rather than via the serial traumas Marie lays claim to.”
Left Husband Behind
The turmoil of the Revolution lasted for a decade, and in the meantime Curtius died, leaving all of his property to Tussaud, including the collection of wax figures. A year later, in 1795, she wed Franc¸ois Tussaud, an engineer. Their first child, a daughter, died, but two sons were born, Joseph and Franc¸ois, who would follow their mother into the waxworks business. Tussaud took her collection to England for exhibition in 1802, along with her four-year-old son Joseph, but when the Napoleonic Wars erupted she was prevented from returning to France and forced to remain in London. She negotiated a deal with the operator of a magic lantern show, Philipstal and his Phantasmagoria, to exhibit the wax collection on the lower floor of the Lyceum Theater. “Once in Great Britain, the shrewd businesswoman sniffed which way the wind was blowing,” noted Brace in the Independent on Sunday. “Curtius's exhibitions may have delighted the sans culottes [the working-class radicals of the French Revolution], but Marie set her sights on the burgeoning middle class who wanted respectable family entertainment.”
Many of the figures that Tussaud displayed were French luminaries who had died on the guillotine, and this was a subject of intense fascination for the English middle classes. “Exhibitions illustrating the iniquities of the Revolution were popular in Britain,” explained Pamela Pilbeam, the author of a Tussaud biography, in an article that appeared in Business History. “What made Marie's unique was that she and Curtius had made the figures from the living, or dead, bodies of their subjects. For the first time, English audiences could really see the features of the guillotined king and queen, whose deaths they had mourned.” Tussaud's career in England advanced significantly when she won an important commission from the Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia (1767–1820), the Duchess of York. This daughterin-law of England's king asked Tussaud to create a figure of a little boy, a rather heartbreaking request because Frederica's husband had recently left her for his mistress, and the couple was childless.
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Tussaud traveled extensively with her collection, still using Curtius's name until 1808. She spent time in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dublin, and across the English countryside she often staged her exhibits in newly built town exhibition halls, a fashionable civic fad in the era. “Her odyssey was amazing at the time, when almost no married women worked, and when travelling even a short distance was arduous,” wrote Pilbeam in Business History. “Marie remained on the road for nearly 33 years in total, visiting 75 main towns and some smaller places. The packing and unpacking alone, without the travelling, and model and costume making, would have been herculean tasks for a young person, but Marie set out when she was already middle-aged, with a tiny child, knowing noone and speaking not a word of English when she began.”
Opened London Wax Museum
In the early 1820s Tussaud was finally reunited with her son Franc¸ois, who joined the business of the traveling exhibit; her husband apparently remained in France permanently after squandering their investments there. In 1835, Tussaud set up her first permanent exhibition space on Baker Street in London, between Dorset and King streets. The museum featured tableaux of famous historical events, such as coronations and peace treaties, and Tussaud staffed the cash table personally until her death. She published an 1838 volume of memoirs that made much of her supposed connections to the French royals and other well-known personas of the era. None other than one of the most famed authors of the era, Charles Dickens (1812–1870), ridiculed “her cultural pretensions and her flexible approach to the truth in the character of Mrs Jarley in The Old Curiosity Shop, ” noted Carey in the Sunday Times article.
Tussaud died on April 15, 1850, in London, at the age of 88. Her museum became one of London's most visited tourist attractions, and remained so well into the twenty-first century. Outposts of the original London museum were opened in Las Vegas, New York City, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, and Copenhagen, Denmark. The exhibits at Madame Tussaud's, still located on Baker Street, are regularly updated to reflect current events and entertainers who have attained celebrity status, and members of England's royal family permit museum personnel to take photographs and measurements to update the likenesses that are on permanent display at Tussaud's in London. “The enduring success of Madame Tussaud's proves what every smart marketing person knows: Ordinary people get a tingle from being in the presence of celebrities, even if the presence is simulated, and even if the celebrities are those of bygone eras,” noted John Marcom, a writer for Forbes magazine. “Madame Tussaud's is a sort of three-dimensional version of People Weekly or Entertainment Tonight.”
Business History, January 2003.
Forbes, May 28, 1990.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), August 27, 2006.
Sunday Times (London, England), July 16, 2006.