- "Mme Tussaud's Peculiar Skill. The extraordinary Marie Tussaud is able to fashion life-like figures out of mere wax! You would swear her artworks were about to breathe - although many of her models have breathed their last."
- ―The Journal de Paris on Tussaud, 1789.[src]
Born in Strasbourg after the death of her father, Tussaud grew up with her mother, with whom she worked as a housekeeper for Dr. Philippe Curtius. Curtius was a Swiss physician and anatomist skilled in modelling body parts from wax. Tussaud became his pupil and learned how to sculpt, moving with him to Paris.
In 1776, their exhibition of portraits attracted large crowds who were impressed at the realism of the figures. A year later, Tussaud made her first wax figures, depicting Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She also made a figure of Benjamin Franklin, who served as the American ambassador to France at the time. Employed by Louis XVI to teach drawing and modelling to the king's sister, Tussaud moved to Versailles and established relations with the royal court. She also received the attention of the commoner Jean Lessard, only to spurn him.
The French Revolution
- "I'm adept at making wax figures and death masks. I promised the Assembly I would make masks of famous victims of the guillotine. It's grisly, but it was the only way to get out of prison!"
- ―Tussaud explaining her occupation, 1794.[src]
After the French Revolution broke out, the monarchy fell and Tussaud's ties with the royal court put her in a dangerous position. Arrested for her royalist sympathies, she was imprisoned in the same cell as Joséphine de Beauharnais. Just as Tussaud's hair was cut in preparation for her execution, an order came for her release. In return for her freedom, she had to sculpt wax figures and death masks of the heads of famous Frenchmen such as Jean-Paul Marat, as well as those who had fallen to the guillotine, such as Marie Antoinette.
However, the guillotined heads of Jacques Pierre Brissot, Olympe de Gouges and Jacques Hébert were stolen by various people. Tussaud therefore had the Assassin Arno Dorian recover them. The sculpted heads proved popular with revolutionary crowds, who paraded them through the streets of Paris.
In the meantime, Lessard had become a sans-culottes leader and wanted Tussaud dead after she had escaped the guillotine. He had his men take over her shop and capture her assistants while he searched for Tussaud herself at one of her exhibitions. To her luck, Tussaud had stayed away from both places. Contacting Arno once more, she had him ensure the safety of her assistants and kill Lessard.
After Maximilien de Robespierre's Reign of Terror ended in July 1794, Tussaud sculpted a figure of the executed revolutionary's head. Later that year, Curtius died, leaving his collecting of heads with her. Tussaud left France for London in 1802 to present her new collection, which had been much discussed in the city for two decades. Staying there for the remainder of her life, she established her famous exhibition, Madame Tussauds. In 1842, she painted a self-portrait. Eight years later, she died in her sleep, aged 88.