views updated

Tussaud, Marie (1761–1850)

Wax modeler and entrepreneur who created one of London's most popular attractions, Madame Tussaud's. Name variations: known as Marie Grosholtz (1767–95), Marie Tussaud (1795–1850). Born Anna-Maria Grosholtz (also seen as Gresholtz) in Strasbourg, Germany, on December 7, 1761; died at age 90 in London, England, on April 15, 1850; daughter of Anna Maria (Walder) Grosholtz, of Strasbourg, and Johannes Grosholtz (a German officer from Frankfurt); married François Tussaud, on October 20, 1795; children: daughter (who died in infancy); two sons, Joseph Tussaud; François, known as Francis Tussaud (1800–1873).

Adopted by Dr. Philippe Guillaume Mathe Curtius of Berne; moved to Paris and tutored by Curtius (1767); hired to work with Madame Élisabeth of France (1781); modeled heads of guillotine victims (1792–93); inherited Curtius' fortune (1794); moved to England (1802); shipwrecked (1822); founded permanent exhibition in London (1835).

Madame Tussaud's, on the busy Marylebone Road, is a landmark for London visitors. Its founder was a talented artist in the unusual medium of dyed wax, and a farsighted entrepreneur. After maneuvering through the hazards of the French Revolution, being close to all its central figures but avoiding their fate on the guillotine, Marie Tussaud started a new life in Britain at the age of 40 and made an even greater triumph there than she had in her native land.

Her father was a German officer in the service of General Count Dagobert de Wurmser, fighting for Maria Theresa of Austria . Badly wounded in battle, Johannes Grosholtz returned to his young wife in Strasbourg, but died before their daughter was born. Tussaud's widowed mother Anna Maria Grosholtz moved to Berne in Switzerland almost at once and became cook and housekeeper to Philippe Curtius, a doctor who made anatomical models in wax. Some biographers speculate that Curtius and Anna Maria had been having an affair before her husband's death, and even that Curtius was Marie Tussaud's biological father.

Curtius graduated from making wax models of body parts (to help in medical education) to portraiture in wax, and opened a small museum of wax models in his Berne home. He was so successful with these models that he caught the eye of a traveling French noble, the Prince de Conti, who urged him to move to Paris. Conti was one of Rousseau's admirers and a leading patron of the intellectual opposition to the ancien regime. Curtius' three-dimensional likenesses—cleverly dressed, dyed, and painted—were even better than paintings in conveying a lifelike image, and he had no rival in this pre-photographic age. He became a favorite at court as well as among the intellectual opposition, and was soon summoned to model King Louis XV and Queen Marie Leczinska . Trading on this and other successes with the court, Curtius opened a permanent exhibition, the Cabinet de Cire, which attracted visiting dignitaries from all over Europe. Among its sensations were a life-size recreation of the royal family eating dinner, and the "Chambre Des Grands Voleurs" (Chamber of Great Robbers), showing the recently condemned and executed criminals of Paris.

Tussaud and her mother, who had at first stayed behind in Berne, joined Curtius in 1767. Noticing Marie's interest, Curtius took her on as an apprentice. Tussaud called him her uncle and from him learned how to make plaster casts of a human face, alive or dead, and how to make the molds and mix the tinted wax to give the lifelike effect of human flesh. Of her education we know little because she did not write a diary or any letters that have survived, but we do know that by the time she was in her mid-teens she too had become an accomplished wax modeler. As a teenager, she made superb portraits of Benjamin Franklin (the young America's ambassador to France), Rousseau, and the octogenarian Voltaire. The bust of Franklin survives and is still on display in London.

In 1781, King Louis XVI's sister Madame Elisabeth visited Curtius' Cabinet de Cire and met Marie. The princess was so impressed by the models she saw that she decided to try her hand at modeling too and engaged Marie, then aged 20, as her teacher. For the next eight years, Tussaud lived and worked with the princess, who was unmarried, at Versailles and Montreuil. In the spring of 1789, by which time Marie was a mature and accomplished wax-artist of 28, Curtius warned her to leave court and return to Paris. Influential and well connected with the Enlightenment intellectuals, he welcomed the onset of the Revolution and lent his models of unpopular ministers and princes to the Paris mob, which paraded them through the streets. He was present at the fall of the Bastille as a National Guard officer and made death-mask models of the Revolution's first victims, de Flesselles and Launay.

In the revolutionary years which followed, Curtius and Marie Tussaud were in demand to make models of the revolutionary heroes, representations of the republican virtues, and an imaginative Goddess of Liberty. Curtius was, besides, a friend and confidant of several leaders, Robespierre, Danton, Marat, and Sieyes, all of whom Marie Tussaud met at his house. The wax-workers made casts of former friends who were killed by the mob or the guillotine, including King Louis XVI himself, whom the Committee of Public Safety beheaded in January 1793, and his wife Marie Antoinette . Later that year, Tussaud modeled the head of Jean-Paul Marat whom Charlotte Corday had killed earlier on the same day. Her model was later used by the artist Jacques-Louis David in his famous painting of the incident. Two weeks later, Tussaud had the further job of modeling the severed head of Charlotte Corday after this young assassin in turn went to her death at the guillotine.

While the opportunistic Curtius, who profited steadily from the revolution and always stayed on good terms with the dominant party, was away on government business, Tussaud and her mother were denounced and arrested on a charge of Royalist sympathies. Within a week, they were suddenly released, however, thanks to the intervention of influential friends. After a short vacation to recover her nerve, Tussaud returned to work. The stay in prison introduced her to another condemned woman, soon to be reprieved, whom she would meet again, a few years later, as Napoleon's wife Josephine . In 1794, Marie Tussaud was still making money from masks and models of guillotine victims, as Danton and Robespierre in their turn mounted the scaffold. In her memoirs, dictated 50 years after the event, Madame Tussaud recalled the gruesome death of Robespierre in July 1794:

When he found that he had no means of escaping execution he endeavored 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 Robe-spierre 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 Madeleine.

There, Madame Tussaud took a cast of it. Still extant, the cast clearly shows the mutilated jaw.

Tussaud seems to have learned how to keep calm in the midst of danger, but we have no direct evidence of her emotional or political response to the revolution. The much later memoirs show her grieving for her many royal and

aristocratic friends (when it was safe to do so), but there is no sign of her having made any gesture on their behalf during the Terror.

Curtius died in September 1794, leaving everything to his 33-year-old pupil and "niece." She supervised his funeral, took over his three houses, with their vast inventory of property, and realized that she was a rich woman. She kept the show open to paying customers and followed Curtius' policy of adjusting the exhibits to suit changes in the political wind, emphasizing different factions, and placing models of villains in her chamber of horrors, according to current trends. A year later, in the autumn of 1795, she married a civil engineer, François Tussaud, who was eight years her junior, and this union led to the birth of a daughter who died in infancy and two sons, Joseph and François, later known as Francis, who survived. In her marriage, as with many segments of her life, we have an abundance of her business records but no personal papers and know nothing of her first meetings with François or her decision to marry him. In any event, he lacked the business and artistic skills of her uncle, and she found she could not rely on him. To make matters worse, Madame Tussaud found, in the following years, that Parisians were beginning to lose interest in her waxworks, even those which showed France's rising star, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his generals.

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.

—Anita Leslie and Pauline Chapman

She had already sent exhibitions abroad, to Baden in Germany, to England, and to India, where they had enjoyed the success of spectacular novelties. In 1802, she resolved to move, and crossed the English Channel with a large part of the exhibition, leaving her husband behind. When her exhibition opened in a London theater, it became an instant success. Her skill with masks and wax carving, and her good connections, first at court and then with the revolutionaries, enabled English viewers to see the actual faces of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Marat, and all the other larger-than-life figures who had transformed recent history. Despite stormy relations with her partner Paul de Philipstal, a French showman who had preceded her across the Channel with magic lanterns, a show of "ghosts," and optical illusions, she began to make money. The profits soared when she added models molded from the decapitated heads of English criminals, which she grouped under lurid blue light to emphasize their sinister nature. The most notable was an effigy of Edward Marcus Despard, an army officer who had conspired to kill the king and seize the Bank of England and the Tower of London before being arrested and executed. The success of such exhibits induced her to create a special section in all her shows, which developed into a permanent feature; it was referred to in publicity materials as "the separate room" and one which was "not suitable for ladies." But as historian Pauline Chapman notes: "She was not interested in taking the likenesses 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 a historical or moral lesson too."

In 1803, she took the show to Edinburgh. Success there and in Glasgow partly compensated for the financial failures of her inept husband back in Paris. She also began to raise money from portraits. Just as her uncle Curtius had built up a noble group of clients in France, so Madame Tussaud found lords, members of Parliament, and minor royalty eager to sit for her in England, and she became a fashionable portraitist in wax. After a successful show in Dublin the following year, she managed to buy her independence from her troublesome partner Philipstal. She also wrote her husband that she had no intention of returning to Paris, adding "we can each go our own way." Though her mother and her younger son were still with him in Paris, from 1804 onwards she never again saw François Tussaud. This younger son, Francis, came to join her in 1822, and from then on both sons helped their mother with the traveling exhibition.

The year 1822 was also the year of King George IV's state visit to Ireland. Madame Tussaud decided that she, too, would visit Ireland and display her models of his coronation, which had made her a handsome profit in London. But her ship, the Earl Moira, was caught in a storm and wrecked soon after setting out from Liverpool. She managed to get into an open boat and with a handful of fellow survivors reached a deserted stretch of shore. Soaked and freezing, the survivors walked until they came to a house. The sympathetic owner, Mrs. Ffarington , took them all in, fed and dressed them in warm clothes, and set them back on their feet. By good luck, many of the wax models had not been on board ship—they were safe in storage back at Liverpool. According to a story written by one of her descendants, Mrs. Ffarington was so taken with Madame Tussaud that she gave her a collection of old dresses and lace with which to clothe the replacement models for those that had been lost. Another dangerous moment for the collection was the Bristol riots of 1831, which broke out while her show was on display there. The house in which Madame Tussaud was staying was set on fire, along with most others in the same street, and the Assembly Rooms themselves were about to go up in flames when she and her assistants arrived to rescue many of the models.

Tussaud's life in Britain settled into a steady routine of touring and exhibiting. She showed the same political dexterity that had served her well in France and was able to do business throughout the Napoleonic Wars despite being a French citizen. This was the time to emphasize her royalist connections and to minimize her former closeness to the revolutionaries and Napoleon. Packing the delicate models every few weeks required care and patience, but through frequent repetition she and her staff reduced it to a fine art. The heads and hands were modeled wax, the bodies made of wood and stuffed leather. With proper crating, everything could survive the buffeting journeys back and forth by road and sea. As time passed, her life models of the French monarchy and revolutionaries became increasingly valuable. She had little time to model new celebrities but managed portraits of local dignitaries in the counties she visited, and still made effigies of condemned criminals in nationally famous cases. The most successful were traitors and the culprits in gruesome murders. After the French wars, her models of Burke and Hare, two bodysnatchers, became the chief draw. Burke and Hare had scandalized England in 1828 when evidence showed that they had lured the old and the poor to a boarding house, killed them, then sold their bodies in sacks for dissection in anatomy classes.

In 1834, Madame Tussaud returned from lengthy tours of the English provinces to mount her exhibition in London. Throughout her 32 years of traveling in Britain, the show had always used makeshift settings. But after a year of success in London, she decided to try putting it on a permanent basis, as Curtius had done in Paris. She rented large rooms in north London at the corner of Baker Street (later famous as Sherlock Holmes' address) in a building known as "the Bazaar." The next year, the display moved to a nearby building and from then on it settled down as a permanent part of the London entertainment landscape. Punch magazine nicknamed the more gruesome part of her work the "Chamber of Horrors" and said it contained "bloodshed and homicide in every variety." Charles Dickens used Madame Tussaud's as his model for "Mrs. Jarley's Waxworks" in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840), and it has since been featured in dozens of fictional representations of London. The Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo, whose effigy Tussaud sometimes placed alongside that of Napoleon, whom he had defeated, said that it was "the most entertaining place in London." Marie Tussaud was now 76 and her sons had reached responsible middle age so they were able to take over the daily running of the business. "She drummed her theories into their heads," says Chapman:

The show must be kept both entertaining and instructive; past and present should be combined, so should the great and the 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.

Within a few months of the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837, visitors could recapture the splendors of the Coronation and be certain that the models were absolutely true to life. Tussaud spent her declining years dictating her memoirs to a friend, Francis Herve, carefully excluding all personal matters. But we get a glimpse of her toughness from an 1841 exchange of letters between her sons, a mutual French friend, and her husband, who had traveled to England hoping for a reconciliation. Madame Tussaud and her sons absolutely refused to see him and said he had acted "scandalously," adding that he might find mercy from God but not from themselves. It is possible that he had been an adulterer, which had prompted her to leave him 40 years before, but it is not certain. So far as is known she had no close friends, did not go into society, and was regarded as a fascinating solitary by her large circle of London admirers.

Madame Tussaud died in her 90th year, 1850, having given full control and ownership of the waxworks to her sons, who had become British subjects in 1847. Passed down through the family, it has remained a successful venture up to the present, despite a ruinous fire in 1925 and German bombing in 1940. Always mixing scenes of historic interest with scenes of gruesome crimes and punishments, the exhibitors also include contemporary scenes of topical interest to increase visitors' enjoyments. Madame Tussaud was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Chelsea beside other revolution-era émigrés.


Chapman, Pauline. Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors. London: Constable, 1984.

——, and Anita Leslie. Madame Tussaud: Waxworker Extraordinary. London: Hutchinson, 1978.

Herve, Francis. Madame Tussaud's Memoirs and Reminiscences of France. London, 1838.

Tussaud, John Theodore. The Romance of Madame Tussaud's. London: Odhams, 1919.

suggested reading:

Pyke, E.J. A Biographical Dictionary of Wax-Modellers. Oxford: Blackwell, 1973.


Archives of Madame Tussaud's, Marylebone Road, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

Tussaud, Marie (1761–1850)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article