Magazine article History Today

Death of Madame Tussaud

Magazine article History Today

Death of Madame Tussaud

Article excerpt

April 16th, 1850

Marie Tussaud was eighty-nine and one of the nineteenth century's most successful career women when she died at her London home in Baker Street. Surviving a dangerous and singularly gruesome past, she had made herself a household name in her adopted country and Madame Tussaud's has remained one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions to this day. The gruesomeness began even before Madame Tussaud was born in Strasburg late in 1761. She never knew her father, a German soldier named Grosholtz, whose face had been hideously mutilated in the wars and whose lower jaw had been shot away and replaced by a silver plate. This nightmare figure died two months before Marie was born. Her young widowed mother, Anne Made, brought the child up at Berne in Switzerland, where she went to be housekeeper to a doctor named Philippe Curtius, who had a talent for wax modelling and ran a museum of his waxwork heads and busts.

It was from this `uncle' that Marie learned her art as a child and after he had moved to Pads, where he scored a fashionable success, she and her mother joined him and she became his assistant. As a result, she met many of the leading French aristocrats and intellectuals of the day and she modelled both Voltaire and Rousseau from life. In the 1780s she was employed to teach Madame Elizabeth, Louis XVI's sister, and met the King and many of the royal family. Curtius later developed Jacobin sympathies and Marie met Robespierre and other revolutionaries in her uncle's circle.

As the Terror took its toll, Marie was forced to make casts of the heads of victims of the guillotine, many of whom had been her uncle's friends and dinner guests. In one episode, the leaders of the mob that hacked the Princess de Lamballe to pieces stood over Marie while she took a cast of the severed head, its auburn hair horribly smeared with blood. Marie had known the princess and liked her. She made a mould of the head of Louis XVI himself after his execution. When Marat was stabbed in his bath by Charlotte Corday, the National Assembly instructed Marie to make his death mask and sketch the scene exactly for the painter David. …

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