Madame Marie Tussaud was a French artist known for her extremely lifelike wax replicas. Although she died over 170 years ago, her name remains part of modern conversation due to the Madame Tussauds wax museums, which originated from her first museum in London and now showcase wax renderings all over the world of some of the best-known people in history.
Many are familiar with Tussaud’s work, but fewer know the story behind it. For example, did you know she came dangerously close to being executed by guillotine during the French Revolution? Continue reading to discover the life and legacy of this endlessly-fascinating artist.
Anna Maria Tussaud (née Grosholtz) was born to a widowed mother on December 1st, 1761, in Strasbourg, France. When Tussaud was six, her mother got a job as a housekeeper to a doctor named Philip Curtius, so she and her mother relocated to Bern, Switzerland to move into his home.
Curtius is the person who introduced Tussaud to the concept of wax figures. At first, he used them to demonstrate anatomy for his medical practice, but then began using them to create art full-time. Tussaud developed a close bond with Curtius, whom she referred to as her uncle, and when Curtius moved to Paris to open his wax portraiture firm, Tussaud and her mother followed him there soon after.
Curtius instructed Tussaud in wax modeling, and she soon began working for him as an artist. In 1777, Tussaud created her first wax figure: a portrait of the French philosopher Voltaire. Between 1780 and the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, Tussaud created some of her most famous wax portraits, including those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin. During this time, Tussaud also worked as a tutor at Versailles to Louis XVI's sister, Madame Élisabeth of France.
The French Revolution broke out just as Tussaud's art and position at Versailles bolstered her into Parisian high society. Tussaud was sent to the guillotine under accusations of being a royal sympathizer—they even shaved her head in preparation for its removal!—but she was released thanks to French essayist and revolutionary Collot d'Herbois' support for the Curtius household. After her release, she was commissioned to do the horrific work of creating death masks and full-body casts of the guillotine's victims. This included famous victims like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but also many of Tussaud's friends and acquaintances.
Curtius passed away in 1794, and upon his death, he bequeathed his entire collection of wax statues to Tussaud. The following year, she married an engineer named François Tussaud, and the couple had three children. Only their two sons survived infancy. In 1802, Tussaud took the children—Joseph and François—and her extensive collection of wax models to England. She never saw her husband again.
After 33 years of touring Britain, Tussaud established her home and first permanent museum on Baker Street in London. Tussaud worked there for eight years, writing memoirs and even creating a wax figure of herself before she passed away in her sleep in 1850 at age 88.
The Tussaud family passed the museum down for a few generations before it was acquired by a succession of large corporations. Madame Tussauds (now spelled without an apostrophe) has locations in major cities worldwide. It is a highly popular tourist attraction, with people lining up to stand in the presence of their favorite historical figures, celebrities, film and television characters, and even infamous murderers.
The oldest figure in the museum collection is that of Madame du Barry, a mistress of King Louis XV of France who was executed by guillotine in 1793. Her likeness was crafted by Curtius centuries ago, in 1765. It's housed at the original London location. Some of the most-visited historical figures in the museums include Queen Elizabeth II, Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Barack Obama, and Winston Churchill.
If a figure is particularly popular, the wax artists make copies of it for viewing at multiple locations. However, there is still a decent amount of variation between the different museum locations.
Because of this, the "best" Madame Tussauds location is up for debate—and we'll leave it up for you to decide for yourself after you've had the chance to visit!