Kickass Women in History: Madame Tussaud

One of the best books I read in 2018 was Little, Edward Carey’s fictional book based on the early life of Anna Maria Grosholtz, who was later known as Madame Tussaud. This book details the life of Tussaud as a child through the French Revolution. I had no idea who Tussaud was other than the fact that her name is on wax museum signs. I was thrilled to find out what a kickass woman she was in both the sense of being a talented artist and a skilled businesswoman, and in the sense of having survival skills that allowed her to survive an impoverished childhood, turbulent political times, and social upheaval.

Anna Marie Grosholtz (known as Marie) was born in France in 1761. Her father died during the Seven Years’ War before Marie was born. One story about Tussaud’s father is that he was not a soldier, but rather a member of a family of public executioners, the skills passed down from father to son. Tussaud claimed that her father was a soldier who was terribly wounded in battle and wore a false nose and lower jaw made of silver before his death. Most of what we know about Tussaud’s life comes from her memoirs, which may have been more colorful than truthful, so there are a lot of “may haves” in her story.

portrait done by her husband, at the time when she left France for London
portrait done by her husband, at the time when she left France for London

Regardless, she was raised by her widowed mother, who moved to Switzerland and worked as a housekeeper for Dr. Philippe Curtius. Dr. Curtius was fascinated by wax modelling. He used wax modelling as a way to study anatomy and as a form of art. He moved the household to Paris where he exhibited lifelike wax figures of people. Curtius developed the technique of arranging figures in clothing, with lifelike tableaus. Curtius had a close relationship with Tussaud, who called him “Uncle” (some speculate that he may have actually been her father). He taught her the art of making waxworks and eventually, after his death, left her his collection.

Curtius and Tussaud were quite successful in Paris, making waxworks of ordinary people as well as celebrities. Tussaud’s first solo works were of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. They made waxworks of Royal personages and exhibited them at the Palais Royal. Tussaud claimed that, while still a girl, she was hired to teach Princess Elizabeth, King Louis XVI’s sister, how to work with wax. Together, they made little wax figures that they left at churches as offerings.

All this blew up, almost literally, in Tussaud’s face during the French Revolution, when she was branded as a Royalist. She was imprisoned and sentenced to death, her head shaved, until Dr. Curtius was able to persuade her captors to release her. She was forced to make wax models of the guillotined heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre, who had once saved her life by catching her when she tripped going down a flight of stairs. Her skill and her tenacity kept her alive even as she sculpted the heads of her friends and acquaintances. Tussaud told grisly stories of collecting the heads from the foot of the guillotine seconds after the execution, but they were probably actually delivered to her in a somewhat tidied state after the, ah, event.

Tussaud's wax self-portrait
Tussaud’s wax self-portrait

Curtius died in 1794, and in 1795 Tussaud married Francois Tussaud. It was a marriage motivated by business interests, and was derailed by the fact that Madame Tussaud ended up making all the money while Monsieur Tussaud ended up spending it. They had three children, of whom two survived infancy. Frustrated with her marriage, Tussaud left for Great Britain in 1808, where she found herself stuck due to the Napoleonic Wars preventing her from returning to France.

Her husband promptly destroyed the business in France, but Tussaud flourished in England. She was on her own with a young son (her other son was still in France, and they weren’t reunited until the early 1820s) and initially didn’t speak English, yet she toured for 33 years around Great Britain and established a permanent museum in London in 1835. She wrote her memoirs in 1838, which describe events such as her work with Princess Elizabeth that may or may not be strictly accurate. Tussaud was as careful and deliberate about creating her self-image in words as she was in wax. Her wax portrait of herself still stands at the entrance to her London museum, and many of her original heads are still on display.

Madame Tussaud wasn’t just an interesting person. She left a legacy of expanding entertainment to the middle class, and of helping to create the idea of celebrity. People loved, and continue to love, the idea of interacting with celebrities, even when they aren’t real. The stories Tussaud told about her association with the people she moulded (Benjamin Franklin “had nice legs”) augmented that fascination. Today the main museum remains in London (it survived being hit by bombs during The Blitz) with smaller museums located all over the world. Madame Tussaud herself died at the age of 88.

In addition to Little, by Edward Carey, my sources were:

Encyclopedia.com

National Geographic

Artsy.net

History Today

Vintage News

and of course, my beloved Wikipedia

Adult Coloring Books

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