Model Citizen; Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Are Familiar to Millions of People, but Who Was She? A New Documentary Reveals the Story of the Woman Who Rose to Glory in the French Revolution

By Wiltshire, Jo | The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

Model Citizen; Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Are Familiar to Millions of People, but Who Was She? A New Documentary Reveals the Story of the Woman Who Rose to Glory in the French Revolution


Wiltshire, Jo, The Mail on Sunday (London, England)


Byline: JO WILTSHIRE

On a fateful day in Paris in July, 1789, an angry mob battered down the door of a young woman's house, thrust a decapitated human head at her and demanded that she make a mask of it in wax. The woman was wax artist Marie Grosholtz and the hideous mask she made that day was to be borne aloft as one of the first gruesome trophies of the French Revolution.

This woman could, in fact, have disappeared into obscurity but she did not. A new documentary charts her rise to become creator of the most famous waxworks museum in the world. Madame Tussaud, on Sky's Biography Channel, describes how the young housekeeper's daughter founded a tourist attraction that, by the end of this year, will have had more than 12 million visitors to its branches in London, New York, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Amsterdam.

But few know this woman's colourful history and that her success was inextricably bound up in the violent excesses of 18th-century France.

Tussaud was born Marie Grosholtz in Strasbourg in December 1761. She had an unconventional childhood. Her father, a soldier in the Franco-Prussian war, died before she was born.

Her mother, a housekeeper, took Marie to Berne in Switzerland where she found work in the house of an eccentric German physician, Dr Philippe Curtius. Her employer became a mentor and father figure to the young girl, sparking rumours that he really was her father.

Like many physicians of the time, Curtius made anatomical models in wax.

He was fascinated by the malleable material, and eventually found that he could make money by using it to create and sell models of famous faces.

Wax portraiture was all the rage among the aristocracy at the time.

Curtius moved to Paris, centre of the European art world, to establish himself as a wax artist. Marie and her mother stayed in Switzerland, joining him four years later when he had made his name. Marie was six years old.

They moved into Curtius's studio flat in the infamous Palais Royal, the former residence of Cardinal Richelieu. In its shadow were gambling dens, cabarets, shows and seedy backstreets where prostitutes plied their trade.

The swelling ranks of the poor thronged the streets. Chamber pots were frequently emptied on to passageways below and open sewers added to the stench.

Marie encountered a great mixture of people while living there. Curtius invited a stream of eccentrics, revolutionaries and celebrities into his home to admire his relics and curiosities.

The girl learned how to behave around such people and how to observe them discreetly. She showed a talent for shaping clay so Curtius made her his apprentice. He taught her how to mould clay and wax, mix pigments and memorise human anatomy.

By the age of 17 she had mastered the skills that would one day save her life and modelled the writer and philosopher Francois Voltaire and American statesman Benjamin Franklin. (Both figures are still owned by Madame Tussaud's in London.) By that time, in 1778, Curtius's waxworks exhibition, the Salon de Cire (Wax Salon) included King Louis XVI among its patrons. When the king's sister, Madame Elizabeth, visited it, she was so taken with Marie that she installed her in the Palace of Versailles as her art tutor.

Marie was soon at home in the palace, the most opulent in all Europe, and she spent her days embroidering, drawing and modelling wax figures and swapping court gossip. In the royal court, decadence ruled. Fifteen miles away in Paris, two-thirds of the population could not afford to buy bread.

Discontent was bubbling, and Curtius was concerned. He had become obsessed with politics, entertaining some of the most radical men in Paris, and he feared revolution. He summoned Marie back to Paris in the summer of 1789, when she was 28. He was right. On July 12, 1789, the King dismissed a popular minister and threatened to dissolve the National Assembly. …

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Model Citizen; Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Are Familiar to Millions of People, but Who Was She? A New Documentary Reveals the Story of the Woman Who Rose to Glory in the French Revolution
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