Childhood & Early Life
Marie was born Anna Maria Grosholtz on December 1, 1761, in Strasbourg, between Germany and France. Her father, Joseph Grosholtz, was a German soldier, who got killed in the ‘Seven Years War’ before her birth (according to her memoir). However, historical sources quote that he belonged to a family of public executioners.
Tussaud’s widowed mother, Anne Marie Walder, took her to Bern, Switzerland, where she worked as housekeeper for Philippe Curtius, a physician. The doctor was a wax modeler, too. He prepared anatomical wax models for teaching in medical school, but later made wax portraits, too. (Allegedly, he also secretly created erotic wax figures for private clients).
In 1765, Curtius relocated to Paris, where he started a wax portraiture firm (Cabinet de Portraits En Cire). Around 1766, Tussaud and her mother went to Paris. Curtius opened the ‘Cabinet de Portraits En Cire’ (Wax portraiture firm), and his first exhibition show in 1770. As his work received good response, he moved the exhibition to ‘Palais Royal’ in 1776. He created wax model of Madame du Barry, the last mistress of Louis XV, and other royalties. In 1782, he opened his second exhibition on Boulevard du Temple, which was called ‘Caverne des Grands Voleurs’ or ‘Cavern of the Grand Thieves,’ displaying statues of villainous characters from history.
Tussaud took up Swiss citizenship. She learned the wax modeling art from Curtius whom she called ‘Uncle.’ She began her work (in 1777) with wax molds of famous personalities such as philosophers François Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Benjamin Franklin. She came in contact with many well-known French aristocrats and scholars of that period.
In 1780, Tussaud was appointed art tutor for Princess Elizabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, and was invited to stay at the palace at Versailles (as per her memoirs, but is not verified). She returned to Paris in 1789, at the time of the ‘French Revolution.’
The unrest began after a court minister Jacques Necker was dismissed, and the revolutionaries took out a mock-funeral procession with wax casts of Necker and Duke d’Orleans. They were fired at and that was the beginning of the revolution. The casts used in the procession were from wax collection of Curtius and Marie.
During the revolution, Tussaud was considered a loyalist to the monarchy. In 1793, she and Joséphine de Beauharnais (the future wife of Napoleon) were arrested and imprisoned at the ‘Laforce Prison,’ Paris. (She has mentioned that she shared prison cell with Josephine, Napoleon’s future wife). She was even readied for execution by shaving her head, but after realizing that she was a wax modeling artist, she was forced to make head/face casts of the well-known executed personalities. She was made to show her loyalty toward the Revolution by modeling the executed monarchs, her former patrons. (In her memoirs, she has mentioned that she was saved from execution by the revolutionary actor-dramatist Collot d’Herbois, who knew Curtius).
During the ‘Reign of Terror,’ Tussaud faced gruesome horror when she was forced to prepare casts of the severed heads of the victims of guillotine. She knew many of them as visitors to her Uncle’s place. She had to make casts of members of royal family, including Princess de Lamballe, Queen Marie Antoinette, and King Louis XVI.
On the orders of National Assembly, Tussaud made death mask of Jean-Paul Marat after Charlotte Corday stabbed him to death in his bath. Later, when Charlotte Corday was executed, Tussaud was asked to mold her face as well. She also made the cast of lawyer-statesman Robespierre, whom she had met at her Uncle’s home.
When Curtius died in September 1794, Tussaud inherited all his wax figures along with his two museums. In 1795, she married François Tussaud, a civil engineer from Mâcon. Their first born was a daughter, but she died soon after birth. Thereafter, she gave birth to two sons, Joseph (1798) and François (1800). However, she had an unhappy marriage.
Tussaud’s wax modeling business was affected by the ‘French Revolution.’ When the ‘Treaty of Amiens’ was signed between France and Britain in 1802, she went to London with her wax figures, and took her elder son, Joseph, along.
Tussaud went to London on an invitation from German illusionist and pioneer of Phantasmagoria shows, Paul Philidor. Along with his show, she presented her exhibition in the lower floor of Lyceum Theater. However, she wasn’t happy with the outcome, so traveled to Edinburgh with her show in 1803.
By 1803, the Napoleonic wars started, thus she couldn’t return home. Tussaud continued travelling across England, Scotland, and Ireland with her wax figures exhibition. She loaded her wax work in rail carriages and went around over 75 cities and other smaller places. People were fascinated by her life-like figures and the history behind them. The tableaux of revolution made the terrible reality almost alive for them with a model of a guillotine or Marat stabbed in his bath or the execution of the King and the Queen. She traveled for 33 years, before setting up a permanent museum.
Though estranged from her husband, Tussaud sent him money from the profits she earned. But he wasted the money, and her second son, François, had to sell some of the remaining wax-work. In 1822, he joined her and helped by making wooden limbs for the figures as he was a trained carpenter. She never returned to France, nor did she meet her husband. In 1835, she opened ‘Madame Tussaud & Sons,’ a permanent museum for her collection at Baker Street, London. She herself managed the collection counter even during her 80s.
In 1837, Tussaud was allowed to replicate Queen Victoria in her coronation gown, which became a centerpiece at the museum. The execution scenes were put in a ‘Separate Room,’ which was labeled by the media as the ‘Chamber of Horrors’ (1846).
In 1838, Tussaud dictated her memoirs to a friend, Francis Hervé. However, some details were not verified.
Madam Tussaud died in her sleep on April 16, 1850, at the age of 88. Her sons and grandsons continued the wax-work exhibitions. In 1884, the museum was shifted to a bigger place at Marylebone Road. In 1925, it was destroyed by fire, but rebuilt. During the WWII bombing, 350 head molds were damaged but major figures were saved.
Madam Tussaud museum has now 24 branches around the world.