Curious People : The Beginnings of Marie Tussaud

Being a lover of all things curious I am firm believer that the curious extends to all forms of life, death, and beyond.  But what if the curious life of someone truly began in a pile of death?  What if what everyone thought was curious in turn revealed itself to be even more so as the story progressed?  What if someones life started out as ordinary but they then ended it as one of the most curious figures in history?  No one’s story exemplifies this as much as Marie Tussaud.

Voltaire

Voltaire

Marie was born only after her father had died in the seven years war.  Her mother was a housekeeper to a respectable Dr. Curtius in France.  Curiously enough this doctor also had another talent.  One that would eventually make him famous.  Wax sculpting.  Marie at the tender age of 6 learned well and soon became his apprentice.  Her first shot at sculpting was a portrait of then famous writer Voltaire.  After the good doctor (of whom Marie considered an uncle) found wax artistry to be more profitable he soon opened up his own gallery in Paris.  Among all the visitors to this gallery the royals would be the ones that had a permanent effect of the young Marie.

Marat Wax Figure

Marie was then invited to be art tutor to King Louis XVI sister, Elisabeth and she lived at the Palace of Versailles for nine years!  It is at this time where Marie’s life takes a turn for the curious.

For those of you familiar with King Louis XVI you also might remember what is soon to come in our world’s curious history.  It was now at this time that the French Revolution is about to come into full effect.  Marie was arrested by Libertines and taken to the Bastille for being a royalist supporter.  She even shared a cell with the future Empress Josephine (Napoleon’s wife). Her head was even shaven, a custom before being taken to the guillotine, before she was pardoned by her good friend and mentor Dr. Curtius.  After her pardon, however, she was forced to do not only one of the more curious acts in history, but one of the most morbid.

She was employed to make death masks of famous victims and martyrs of the revolution for either display or revery.  The first were of course the most obvious: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.  Sadly, most of the time Marie had to dig in the pile of fresh corpses herself to find the famous heads which she then had to shape in wax…many of them her friends from court!

Some other notable historical figures include:

  • Marat
  • Jean-Baptiste Carrier (the man responsible for the Drowning at Nantes)
  • Jacques Herbert (leader of the pro-revolution publication Le Pere Duchesne)
  • Madame Elisabeth (her pupil)
  • Princess Lamballe (she wore the Hope Diamond you know!)
  • and Robespierre: Marat a revolutionary martyr and Robespierre a corrupted libertine.

With this very macabre collection of heads Dr. Curtius’ wax parlor was a sensational hit showing heads of all the famous dignitaries which libertines, like the good doctor, fought against.

After the death of the doctor, Marie inherited everything including the wax parlor and those famous heads.  She later married François Tussaud, a very dysfunctional marriage which gave her two sons.  When the Napoleonic regime began to effect the economy of France, Marie moved with her eldest son to

Robespierre

England.  Her other son joined her after.  She would never see France or her husband again.

Ben Franklin

She then traveled about England and Ireland displaying her works of death masks and wax sculptures (including faces such as Benjamin

Franklin) until 1835 where she settled on a permanent place for the museum.  Baker Street in London (I’m not too sure about you all but I find that rather fascinating on it’s own!) was the perfect setup and Marie sculpted until about 8 years before she died.  In this time she wrote about her life in memoirs and books.

Today, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world with sites in Hong Kong to Las Vegas still displaying the most famous…or infamous faces in history!

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One thought on “Curious People : The Beginnings of Marie Tussaud

  1. Wow, I didn’t know any of this. I DO, however, have a distinct memory of being taken to a wax museum as a kid and having the beejesus scared out of me when I turned a corner and was faced with a chaotic battle scene from the American Revolution. Colonists and Redcoats lay twisted and bloody pretty much everywhere, and one poor man lay in the midst of them all, eyes open in shock, his stomach a bloody hole from a bayonet. That pretty much ended my interest in wax figures, then!

    It’s positively gruesome to imagine Marie grappling with bloody body parts to create lasting effigies for posterity. That she managed to get through it and somehow continue with the craft as a profession thereafter is equally commendable and bizarre. Life … one hell of a trip!

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