Queen of Death Masks, Madame Tussaud Narrowly Escaped Death in this Morbid Bargain

Madame Tussaud’s wax museums are famous across the world, notable for their remarkable lifelike figures of the rich and famous. The story of the founder of Tussauds wax museums, however, is potentially more fascinating than any of the exhibits. For Madame Anna Maria Tussaud was an artist and a survivor. She narrowly escaped the guillotine during the French revolution only to find herself serving the regime that nearly took her life, making death masks of her former employers. In her forties, she found herself a single mother, stranded alone in a country whose language she could barely speak.

Against the odds, Madame Tussaud not only survived but flourished, establishing a legacy that endures to this day. The original London attraction, founded by Marie Tussaud and her sons in the early nineteenth century, still pulls visitors from across the globe. Since then, Tussard waxworks have sprung up across the world with branches in places as diverse as Amsterdam, Blackpool, Beijing, Bangkok, New York, Hollywood, Singapore, and Delhi- to name just a few. Here is the story of their remarkable founder.

Madame Tussaud aged 20. Google Images.

Early Life

 Madame Marie Tussaud was born Anna Maria Grosholtz on December 1, 1761, in Strasbourg, part of the Alsace region straddling France and Germany. When she lived in Britain, Madame Tussaud claimed she was Swiss- probably because of the tension that could have been caused by being a Frenchwoman living in a country at war with her own. In fact, her family only moved to Bern in Switzerland when she was two after her widowed mother took a post as a housekeeper with a local doctor, Philippe Curtius.

Marie became very close to Dr. Curtius who came to regard her as a niece. Besides being a medic, Curtius had an interesting sideline: he was a waxwork artist. Initially, Curtius created models linked to his work; anatomical facsimiles, which were made by taking an impression of the body part, then creating a clay mold to hold the molten wax that formed the model. Very soon, however, his interests extended into portraits. As soon as she was old enough, he began to instruct Marie in the art.

In the 1780s, Curtius moved to Paris to establish a wax portrait firm and the Grosholtz family quickly followed him. Curtius became a success in Paris high society – and royal circles. He created a waxwork of Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV and began exhibiting his work. At the same time, Marie was becoming a waxwork artist in her own right, creating molded portraits which she then painted and tinted and adorned with hair to create a lifelike model of her subject. She became so skilled that it was said to be impossible to tell her work and Curtius’s apart.

Waxwork Bust of Philippe Curtius. Wikimedia Commons

Her first solo portrait was of Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1778, shortly after the philosophers’ death. Models of Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin followed. By this time, Marie had joined the royal court at Versailles as the artistic tutor of Madame Elisabeth, the sister of Louis XVI.

Or, so her 1838 memoir claimed. “Madame Elizabeth, the king’s sister and being desirous herself of learning the art of modelling in wax, Madame Tussaud was appointed to teach that princess, who, from having her young protégée often with her, became so attached to her, that she applied to M. Curtius to permit his niece to reside at the palace of Versailles,” Marie later recalled

Memoir aside, there is no actual documentary evidence to prove that Marie Tussaud was ever at Versailles. However, it is not impossible, for her family was already connected to the court. Aside from her patron, Dr. Curtius, at least three of her brothers were part of King Louis’ Swiss Guard. They were serving at the Tuileries Palace on August 10, 1792, when it was attacked by revolutionary forces just before the beginning of the Reign of Terror.