Behind the glitz and glam of modern-day waxworks of the likes of Donald Trump or Michael Jackson, lies the blood-soaked history of the French Revolution. In fact, the renowned Madam Tussaud franchise has generated a lucrative venture built on the back of beheadings.
Born as Marie Grosholtz in 1761, the future Madam Tussaud started out as the apprentice of Philippe Curtius, a Swiss wax modeler who ended up opening the Salon de Cire in Paris. Before the advent of television and photography, wax portraits provided incredibly life-like depictions which became a magnetic form of entertainment, providing political commentary on current events.
Under Curtius, Grosholtz became an expert at creating realistic portraits, incorporating human hair, teeth, mannequin bodies and often a dash of fake blood for gory effect. Throughout the 1780s she rubbed shoulders with royalty and was even employed as a tutor to Madame Élisabeth, the youngest sister of Louis XVI .
As the political tide turned, these connections led to her arrest and her execution was only prevented when her supporters convinced the National Convention, who governed France after the downfall of the monarchy, that she could be employed to create the death masks of the victims of the revolution.
On the left: Madam Tussaud’s waxwork death mask of Marie Antoinette’s head after her execution. ( Public domain ) On the right: Waxwork representation of Marie Antoinette at Madam Tussauds. (Mary Harrsch / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
“Tussaud’s wax figures were central to the Revolutionary world, both as portraits and as lifelike representations of their subjects,” explained Journal18. To understand why means delving into the history of the French Revolution and the part her wax portraits played in it.
At the onset, Curtius’ wax portraits of Jacques Necker and the duc d’Orléans were paraded around Paris, inciting the Royal Guard to spill the first blood of the revolution. Over the course of the Reign of Terror , Grosholtz ended up making death masks of revolutionaries and royalists, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette , her student Madame Élisabeth, and even Jean-Paul Marat, just hours after he was stabbed in the bath in 1793.
Legend has it that some heads were brought to her directly after their execution, while others she procured by visiting the cemetery at night. She would then make plaster casts of the heads and use these to make her famed waxworks of the movers and shakers of the revolution. These would then go on display at the Salon, where intellectuals would discuss the latest developments.
When her mentor died in 1794, she married a François Tussaud (hence the name), and moved to the United Kingdom in 1802 to escape the political situation and her unhappy marriage. After travelling the country with her touring exhibition of death masks and revolutionary relics for 33 years, Madam Tussaud finally settled down in London in 1835 and opened Madam Tussauds, capitalizing on the gory sensationalism of the part she played in the French Revolution .
Top image: Wax likeness of Madame Tussaud with her guillotine victims of the French Revolution in Paris, on display at the Royal London Wax Museum in British Colombia. Source: Herb Neufeld / CC BY 2.0
By Cecilia Bogaard