Monday, June 3, 2013

A Legacy in Wax

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran is a fictionalized account of the life of Marie Grozholtz Tussaud. Marie learned the art of wax modeling from her uncle, Philippe Curtius, who learned to create body parts in wax when he was a physician. Their Salon de Cire was filled with life-sized figures of popular people, dressed in authentic clothing and arranged in realistic settings.

At the height of its popularity, lines formed early in the morning in front of the salon and continued into the night until the exhibits closed. At first people flocked in to see Marie Antoinette’s latest fashions and marvel over the heroes of the American Revolution. Over time, they came for the latest news and to see tableaus featuring the leaders du jour: Maximilian Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, and the Duc d’Orl√©ans.

Marie straddled two diverging worlds as long as she could. She sculpted the royal family numerous times, tutored the king’s sister, Princesse √Člisabeth, and was a guest at the Court of Versailles. At the same time, the Salon de Cire became a gathering place for those who talked of revolution, and Marie could not avoid being drawn into the spiraling horror they set in motion. To save her family and herself she agreed to make death masks of guillotine victims, who were sometimes people she had known and loved.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
(Photo courtesy of Iman1138)

Madame Tussaud is a gripping account of a tumultuous time in history through one person’s eyes. As grim as much of it was, I enjoyed looking up images of the characters – the painting “Death of Marat” is overly romanticized – and words I was not familiar with (the popular headgear of the revolution was a red Phrygian cap, and true patriots wore a tricolored cockade). I also gained an appreciation for Marie, the woman who endured so much grief yet went on to create a museum that still exists, almost three hundred years later.

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