Exhibiting death at Madame Tussaud’s

Madame Tussaud’s biographers differ about many of the details of her life. Her “uncle” may have been her father; her connections to Versailles may have been exagerrated; and, of course, she may have labored under less onerous conditions to make the wax heads of the guilllotined than her later reports suggest. It is clear, however, that she hated the perpetrators of the Revolution—those she blamed for the beheadings.

Jean Paul Marat, stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, July 13, 1793. A wax model made immediately after his death.

According to her grandson, John Theodore Tussaud, in The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s, when the Revolutionary leader, Marat, was killed in his bathtub, Marie Tussaud was taken immediately to the scene of the crime and made to model his head (take a cast of his face).


He was still warm, and his bleedy body and the cadaverous aspect of his almost diabolical features presented a picture replete with horror, and Madame Tussaud performed her task under the influence of the most painful emotions.

The tableau that was presented in Paris of Marat in his bathtub is similar to the one that’s the subject of the famous painting by Jacque Louis David. The artist had been a close friend of the dead man. Where Tussaud saw “diabolical features,” David saw the features of a man he loved and admired. The representation of the murder of each is in large part the result of their relationship to the man and the French Revolution. David’s painting was lauded as the great historical painting it is. Tussaud’s depiction, on the other hand, was all about the death of a body—its abruptness, its gruesomeness.

Death of Marat by Jacques Louis David

Of course, David was an artist and Madame Tussaud was a waxworker. Apparently, Curtius’s museum wasn’t the only wax museum that featured the murder of Marat by Charlotte Corday. Some thinkers of the time worried that the attraction to violent and tragic scenes was unhealthy, that it would not lead to a society of people who could empathize with one another, but one that was brutalized and disconnected.

Although Tussaud claims to have provided the model for David’s painting, (very likely the reverse was true), the two images represent entirely different viewing experiences. In David’s painting the powerful immediacy of the scene was used to transcend the limits of death, to bring Marat back ‘tout entier….’  The waxworks tableau to be found at Curtius’s Salon, by contrast, sought to make Marat’s assassination palpable for the viewer, not to transcend but rather to capture death.

Palpable wounds were, by contrast, what Tussaud specialized in. The attraction of her waxworks depended on a kind of forensic gaze. David deploys a familiar aesthetics of martyrdom where the violated body is intended to move the viewer to the contemplation of immaterial values. Madame Tussaud’s Adjoining Room [later the Chamber of Horrors] instead concentrated on bringing death itself close, in all its abject details. Marie-Helene Huet notes, “the perversion inherent in Madame Tussaud’s peculiar art is that this art imitates death and that the product of this imitation of death is an imitation of life…In the Chamber of the Dead, the illusion of life never brings the dead back to life. On the contrary, one could say of Madame Tussaud that she brings the dead back to death.

A Proximate Violence: Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors by Lela Graybill

The wax worker tried to copy his or her subject as nearly as possible, (whether that subject was alive or dead). The artist does more than that—art never intends to just imitate. Madame Tussaud’s has always been dedicated to getting as close to what is immediately and physically real as possible. In the beginning many of  Tussaud’s and Curtius’s figures were actually constructed from wax molds made by taking a cast the subject’s face. “From life” is very close to the real person!

Curtius and his protegé had two impulses in the creation of their wax museums: to entertain and to witness to history.

A few years after her arrival in Great Britain, Marie Tussaud searched for, found and bought parts of the guillotine. Later, she heard about and bought the carriage Napoleon rode in when he went to conquer Russia, and when he turned around and was defeated at Waterloo. John Theodore Tussaud, describes the vehicle in great detail, taking two chapters to marvel at the carriage and its contents and the great man’s past closeness to them. For many years, the carriage was displayed (along with its waxen driver) and visitors were allowed to sit inside and touch the things that had once been Napoleon’s. When some of them began taking bits of the vehicle away for mementos, a red ribbon was strung around it and visitors were no longer allowed to touch it.

Napoleon's carriage at Tussaud's

It’s amusing to read that in Curtius’s museum in Paris, rich visitors were allowed to wander around an exhibit of the royal family at supper, touching the models, while the less well-off stood in a roped-off area in the rear where they could pass the time trying to guess which of the figures below was real.
Today, if I read the situation right, visitors of every income level are allowed to fraternize with waxen celebrities. (I doubt that many of them are interested in Napoleon’s carriage, which I’m certain is  still roped off!) They come to stand next to them, to pretend that the silent figures who look so very alive but who never move, are not only the real thing, but friends, intimates even. They have their pictures taken with celebrity actors and dictators. It’s not exactly fifteen minutes of fame, but it feels close.

More next time.

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

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