Sunday, 1 December 2013

Wax, Business and a Narrow Escape from the Guillotine: Marie Tussaud

Marie Tussaud (Anna Maria Grosholtz; Strasbourg, France, 1st December 1761 - London, England, 16th April 1850)


Marie Tussaud


We seem to have spent a lot of this week sailing the seas and hearing of some dark chapters in the nautical history of England but today we're back on dry land. Revolutionary France beckons once more, as I tell the story of a woman whose name has become synonymous with the a very particular form of sculpting.

The woman who has become known to history as Marie Tussaud was born Anna Maria Grosholtz, the daughter of Anne-Marie Walder and Joseph Grosholtz, a soldier. Grosholtz suffered devastating injuries during the  the Seven Years' War and died two months before his daughter was born. Left to raise her daughter alone, Anne-Marie travelled to Bern where she took a position as housekeeper to Dr Philippe Curtius , who became an influential figure in the life of the young Marie. Curtius was an enthusiastic wax sculpture and used the medium to illustrate anatomy lectures, whilst experimenting with wax portraits in his spare time.

In 1765 Curtius, whom Marie came to know as uncle, established himself in Paris with an exhibition of wax portraits; so popular did his work become that he decided to remain in France and accepted a commission to sculpt a wax model of Madame du Barry. Marie and her mother joined him in his new home, meeting the frequent and illustrious visitors who came to sit for Curtius. His first permanent exhibition opened in 1770 and was a great commercial success, followed in 1782 with the far darker Caverne des Grands Voleurs, a forerunner to the Chamber of Horrors. Curtius passed on his knowledge and skills to the young Marie, who joined his employ as an artist. In 1777 she completed a model of Voltaire, her first ever full wax figure and the start of a most illustrious career. 

For a decade Marie was in high demand and sculpted the great and good of Europe. She became a firm favourite of the royal family at the Versailles court and artistic tutor to members of the royal family even as Curtius deepened his political views, introducing Marie to those who would lead the country to revolution. When the Terror swept through Paris, Marie's closeness to the monarchy resulted in her arrest and imprisonment. Her date with the guillotine was set and the young woman's hair was shaved in readiness for execution.

In fact, her salvation would prove to be one of the men whom Curtius had befriended prior to the revolution. Collot d'Herbois had become an influential and somewhat notorious member of the Committee of Public Safety and he stepped in on behalf of his friend to save Marie from her fate. Under the terms of her release Marie was employed to make death masks of those who died on the guillotine and these were in turn used as symbols of the revolution. Marie found herself casting the most famous victims of the guillotine including those who had once been her friends at Versailles and the men who had been Curtius' political peers. Among her most famous post-mortem clients were Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI and Robespierre; she even made the preliminary sketches for David's famous depiction of Marat's death.

Curtius died in 1794 and left his collection to Marie. Just a year later she met and married engineer François Tussaud and though the couple had two sons, the marriage was not a happy one. When magician and showman Paul Philidor invited Marie to launch her collection in England in 1802 she accepted the invitation keenly, seeing a valuable chance to expand her career. Marie left both France and François behind, she would never see either again.

In England Marie found herself celebrated, yet her contract with Philidor was not financially lucrative and she eventually established herself without him, touring her exhibition with the assistance of her sons. She proved herself a talented promoter and continued to tour and sculpt for decades, finally opening a permanent exhibition in Baker Street in 1835. After her death at the age of 88 her sons and grandchildren in turn followed her into the world of wax sculpting, ensuring that the name of Madame Tussaud would live on.

11 comments:

Sassy Countess said...

Shut. The. Front. Door. Seriously, what a great piece you have written here! I didn't know that she lived that long ago. I had assumed the late 1800's, certainly not the 1700's! Absolutely amazing life story.

Madame Gilflurt said...

Thank you! Marie lived a very long and eventful life - an inspiring woman!

Julian Rixon said...

What a fascinating post! And people say that art is inconsequential yet so many times in history I see its rise or demise directly in association with the circles in which artists operate. This, in so many ways, is a really magical tale and - sorry to be corny - but why isn't there a film of this? I'd watch it... I wonder if the post mortem models are still around.

Madame Gilflurt said...

Some of her death masks do still exist and make for eerie viewing; her story is a fascinating one!

Michele said...

Amazing story! How awful would it be to do death masks of people who were friends and had died in such a terrible way!

Geri Walton said...

Good post!

Madame Gilflurt said...

She must have felt under immense pressure too, with the Committee watching her every move.

Madame Gilflurt said...

Thank you!

Charles Bazalgette said...

She was indeed a trouper (note spelling!) and had immense drive and talent. Thanks Catherine. I have a copy of a novel 'Marie' which is quite good.

Catherine Curzon said...

I don't know that novel, but I think I might need to seek it out; a trouper indeed!

Alison said...

Fascinating! Here's a recommendation for your next trip to Paris. It's worth the price of the ticket just to see the 'Palais des mirages'. Once inside the museum there are historical tableaux as well as contemporary figures in wax. Apparently the waxwork of Dr Marat is sitting in the actual bath he died in! http://www.grevin-paris.com/fr/univers/le-palais-des-mirages