Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tussaud, Marie
TUSSAUD, MARIE, Madame Tussaud (1760–1850), founder of the waxwork exhibition known by her name, born at Berne in 1760, was the posthumous daughter of Joseph Gresholtz, a soldier who had served on the staff of General Wurmser in the seven years' war, by his wife Marie, the widow of a Swiss pastor named Walther. In 1766 she was adopted by her maternal uncle, Johann Wilhelm Christoph Kurtz or Creutz (he subsequently latinised his name into Curtius), under whose auspices she was taken to Paris and taught wax modelling, an art in which she became proficient. Curtius, a German Swiss (though during the revolution from prudential motives he gave himself out to be an Alsatian), migrated to Paris in 1770, and ten years later started a ‘Cabinet de Cire’ in the Palais Royal. The business was extended in 1783 by the creation of a ‘Caverne des grands voleurs’ (the nucleus of the ‘Chamber of Horrors’) in the Boulevard du Temple, in a house formerly occupied by Foulon. Curtius seems to have been a man of taste and conviviality; a mania for modelling in wax was fashionable in Paris, and the ‘cero-plastic studio’ of M. Curtius in the ‘Palais,’ owing largely no doubt to its central position, became for a time a popular rendezvous for Parisian notabilities. There as a child Marie Tussaud was spoken to by Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Diderot, Condorcet, and other famous men, and she was even sent for to Versailles to give lessons in flower-modelling to Madame Elisabeth, Louis XVI's sister. On 12 July 1789 a crowd of well-dressed persons obtained from the exhibition in the Palais Royal the busts of Necker and Philippe d'Orléans, and carried the effigies through the city dressed in crape. Two days later Curtius proved his patriotism by taking part in the ‘storming’ of the Bastille. At the close of the year, as one of the ‘vainqueurs de la Bastille,’ he was presented by the municipality with an inscribed musket (still preserved at Madame Tussaud's). Three brothers and two uncles of Marie Tussaud were in the Swiss guard, and all perished bravely in defending the Tuileries on 10 Aug. 1792. The safety of Marie and her uncle was ensured by the powerful protection of Collot d'Herbois, from whom Curtius is said to have received some employment under the committee of public safety. He was certainly called upon to model the lifeless heads of a number of victims of the Terror, and of this repulsive work his niece would appear to have had more than her fair share. Marie is said to have been imprisoned for a short time under the Terror, and to have had as a fellow-captive Joséphine de Beauharnais. Her uncle (after 9 Thermidor, 28 July 1794) came under suspicion as a partisan of the organisers of the Terror, and met his death under strong suspicion of poison.
In the meantime Marie had married M. Tussaud, the son of a well-to-do wine grower from Mâcon, and for six years with varying fortune they seem to have carried on the Cabinet de Cire under the name of Curtius. About 1800 she separated from her husband, and in 1802 she got a passport from Fouché and transferred her cero-plastic museum to England. At the outset she planted herself at the Lyceum in the Strand, and her exhibition soon eclipsed the notorious old waxwork of Mrs. Salmon, under whose name four rooms of tableaux in the style of Mrs. Jarley were shown near St. Dunstan's, Fleet Street, from early in the eighteenth century down to 1812 (cf. Spectator, No. 28; Harl. MS. 5931; Brit. Mus. Cat.) Subsequently Madame Tussaud removed her ‘Museum’ to Blackheath, and later her figures were displayed in all the large towns of the United Kingdom. Many of them were submerged on one occasion in the Irish Channel, and in the Bristol riots of October 1831 her show was within an ace of being burned to the ground. One of her first catalogues, dated Bristol 1823, is headed ‘Biographical and Descriptive Sketches of the whole-length composition Figures and other works of Art forming the Unrivalled Exhibition of Mme. Tussaud (niece to the celebrated Courcis of Paris), and artist to Her late Royal Highness Mme. Elizabeth, sister to Louis XVIII’ (Brit. Mus.; an edition of 1827 is described in Notes and Queries, 7th ser. xii.). Among the figures stated to have been taken from life are George III (1809), Napoleon (1815), Josephine (1796), Louis XVIII (1814), Voltaire (March 1778), Robespierre, ‘taken immediately after his execution by order of the General Assembly,’ Marat, Carrier, Fouquier Tinville, and Hébert. In 1833 the exhibition found a settled home in Baker Street, London. Madame Tussaud's remarkable collection of relics, already including the bloodstained shirt in which Henry IV was assassinated (purchased by Curtius at the Mazarin sale) and the knife and lunette of one of the early guillotines, was greatly enhanced in value in 1842 by the purchase of Napoleon's travelling carriage, built at Brussels for the Moscow campaign in 1812, and captured at Jemappes after the battle of Waterloo (‘The Military Carriage of Napoleon,’ 1843). Marie Tussaud retained her faculties to the last, and distinguished visitors to the exhibition, from the Duke of Wellington downwards, were entertained by her recollections. When she was over eighty she divided all she possessed between her two sons, Joseph and François (grandfather of John Theodore Tussaud, the present modeller to the exhibition). She died at Baker Street on 16 April 1850, and her remains were placed in the vaults of the Roman catholic chapel in the Fulham Road. A wax model of the old lady is shown in the Marylebone Road, whither the exhibition (now the property of a company) was removed from Baker Street in 1884 (see Times, 14 July 1884).
[The Memoirs of Madame Tussaud, ed. F. Heryé, London, 1838, 8vo (with lithographic portrait of Marie v. Gresholtz in 1778), of which an abridgment appeared in 1878, contains a little information, but its statements must be received with the greatest caution, as it is evidently a réchauffé from Mme. de Campan and similar sources, adapted to suit English prejudices, and bearing little relation to the personal experiences of Madame Tussaud. The original work is becoming scarce. In the Répert. des Connaissances Usuelles, Suppl., Paris, 1868, ii. 477, Madame Tussaud is said to be the mother of Curtius; similar inaccuracies abound. See also Gent. Mag. 1850, ii. 98; Annual Register, 1850; London Reader, 13 Sept. 1865; Timbs's Curiosities of London, pp. 350, 819; Chambers's Book of Days, i. 517; Walford's Old and New London, iv. 419, 420; Darlington's London and Environs, 1898, p. 394; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, iii. 412; Leisure Hour, 1862, p. 182; Chambers's Journal, 27 July 1878; Le Breton's Essai Hist. sur la Sculpture en Cire, Rouen, 1894, p. 61; Intermédiaire des Chercheurs et des Curieux, vol. x. passim; Larousse's Dictionnaire, s.v. ‘Cabinet de Cire;’ Babeau's Paris en 1789, p. 143; Lefeuve's Paris rue par rue, 1875, iii. 425; Dict. de la Conversation, t. vii.; Le Chroniqueur désœuvré ou l'espion du Boulevard du Temple, 1782; Mme. Tussaud's Exhibition Catalogue (with an able introduction by George Augustus Sala), 1897.]