5 Surprising Facts About Madame Tussaud

Madame Tussaud, CC/Wikipedia

Editor’s Note:

Edward Carey is a novelist, visual artist, and playwright. His acclaimed YA series, the Iremonger Trilogy, was a fan favorite, with citations for Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, NPR, and Kirkus Reviews. Carey is also the author of two adult novels, Observatory Mansions and Alva & Irva. Born in England, he now teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, where he lives with his wife, the author Elizabeth McCracken, and their family.

Marie Grosholtz, the future Madame Tussaud, was born in a small village in Alsace and was trained by a master sculptor of wax anatomy. She was taken to Paris where she modeled Voltaire and Franklin, lived for a while in Versailles, but was back in the French capital in time to witness first hand the worst of the French Revolution. Marie’s story is the tale of an incredible survivor who happened to know some of the greatest and most despicable people of her era. She was a tiny woman with an enormous passion for her art – her little hands touched incredible history.

1. She was short, with a large nose and chin and looked exactly like Louis XVI’s sister.

Whether it was because of the coincidence or not, the diminutive orphan Marie Tussaud was employed as a sculpture teacher to Princess Elisabeth and lived with her in Versailles. They looked uncannily alike one another, though Elisabeth’s eyes were blue and Marie’s were brown. Considering how much Marie’s artistic life was about duplication, this seems an astonishing fact!

2. She modeled Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from life … and from death.

Whilst living at Versailles she was able to cast the king and queen in person, and carefully oiled their faces, putting straws up their noses so they could breathe before she began to cover their faces with plaster. A short time later, Marie was ordered by the Revolutionary Convention to cast the severed head of the king immediately after he was executed. She waited in a nearby church, heard the roar of the crowd as the blade struck and gathered her utensils about her (no longer needing the straws) as the bloody bundle was delivered. It was a similar story for the queen.

3. She cast the body of Jean Paul Marat just after he was murdered.

Marie Tussaud was ordered to cast the recently stabbed Marat very soon after the young woman Charlotte Corday thrust a knife into his chest. It was a very hot summer and Marat suffered from a skin complaint and needed to sit in a slipper bath to sooth his pains. Corday, pretending to supply him information on enemies of the state – Doctor Marat called for the death by guillotine of many thousands of people and termed himself ‘The Rage of the People” – used the moment to kill him. The weather was so hot the body quickly began to putrefy and Marie had to cast the gruesome corpse to preserve it so that Jacques Louis David could paint a portrait of the ‘martyr’. David was Robespierre’s chief propagandist, his painting of Marat shows a beautiful Christ-like figure at peace. Marie’s model shows a pock-marked sallow-skinned man in agony.

4. She never should have survived the French Revolution.

Marie was Swiss and to be Swiss was dangerous during the French revolution – the Swiss Guards defending the monarchy had shot and killed Parisians and soon Swiss were executed because of their nationality. On top of this she had modeled now vilified figures – not just the king and queen, but also Lafayette, Mayor Bailly and many others. She was imprisoned during Robespierre’s Terror, where she shared a cell with, among others, Napoleon’s future empress Josephine. She would have been guillotined but, fortunately for her, Robespierre’s reign came to a swift and bloody end. Marie was released so that she could cast the dictator’s guillotined head.

5. She was never photographed.

After the Revolution had ended, and after she had cast Napoleon, she crated up all the famous and infamous people of France and brought them over to London. There, for the first time, the British could witness the key players in the French Revolution both in color and three dimensions. It proved an enormously successful exhibition which, over the years, Marie kept adding to. The Duke of Wellington himself used to visit the wax figure she made of Napoleon on his deathbed and after Wellington died she made a cast of him standing before his old adversary. She lived to be eighty-nine and died – it almost seems deliberate – just before she could be photographed. Her medium, after all, was wax.

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