Musings on Madame Tussaud

The lady in question, as sculpted posthumously by her great grandson John Theodore Tussaud exactly one century ago

A nod of the head today to the pathbreaking Madame Tussaud (Anna Maria Grosholtz, 1761-1850).

The Tussaud empire has exploded over the past few decades, with galleries in major cities on four continents, so I’d be a little shocked if you didn’t at least know that she had something to do with wax museums. What you may not know is that Madame Tussaud is essentially the key figure in the establishment of that interesting pop cultural niche. She was raised largely in Switzerland, where her mother was the housekeeper of a physican named Philippe Curtius (1737-1794) who took up sculpting in wax to facilitate his studies in anatomy. Young Marie became his pupil, apprentice, and eventually successor. Curtius was a bit of a Renaissance man; his studies of the human body evolved into portaiture, which led naturally to such things as commissions and exhibitions. He moved to Paris in 1765 and opened a gallery in 1770. His novel new art form became the toast of Paris. In 1782 he opened a second branch devoted to likenesses of notorious criminals (a prototypical version of Tussaud’s later famous Chamber of Horrors. Not surprising in the town that was to give us Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol a century later!)

Meanwhile, Marie had learned the craft herself, creating likenesses of such then contemporary celebrities as Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and key members of the Royal Family, the nobility and the Revolution. In 1794 Curtius died, willing his entire estate to her. The following year she married a civil engineer named François Tussaud, whose name became immortal through very little exertion of his own.

In 1802, Madame Tussaud fled her turbulent nation to exhibit her wax works in a travelling show in the U.K., teamed with the shadowy Paul de Philipsthal, whom historians think is the same man who had earlier performed under the handles Paul Filidort and Charles Phyllidoor, sometimes spelled Phylidor, Phylidoor, or Philidor — differences that should scarely matter to any but the most anal of archivists. His nationalty is unknown, although most think he was from the Low Countries, and it’s said that he claimed to be French while in Germany, and German while in France. He performed magic (mediocrely, apparently) in the manner of Pinetti and presented phantasmagoria, magic lantern shows, exhibitions of automata, magnetism, seances, and such like, and, much like Cagliostro, another influence, was generally regarded as a genuine wizard or a charlatan depending whom you spoke to. Madame Tussaud’s startling, lifelike, uncanny wax figures were a good match with Philipsthal’s shows.

Tussaud toured Britain for over three decades, then, in 1835 she opened her first permanent gallery, in Baker Street, London, at which point, according to her wax self-portrait, she looked like this:

Tussaud was 89 when she passed away in 1850, after which her descendants kept the place going. Many, many imitators sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In New York, the Eden Musée opened in 1884, where Sylvester Poli got his start. Most major tourist destinations have had wax museums on her model, I’ve visited the Musée Conti in New Orleans, several in Salem Massachusetts, and of course who could forget the famous Hollywood Wax Museum?

And as we have established, Madame Tussaud’s has thrived beyond its founder’s wildest dreams down to the present day. I visited the London one in the early 1990s, and have been to the Times Square one several times since it opened. When I attended the London one, it still exhibited historical figures and featured a Chamber of Horrors. The Times Square one is a pretty doleful cheesefest of contemporary celebrities, which is far less appealing to me personally, but hey you’ve got to make rent somehow.