Everything you should know about Madame Tussaud’s friendship with her first sculpture, her buddy Voltaire

You could fill a book talking about Marie Tussaud and her incredible career, but the famous wax artist broke into the portrait business with one very interesting subject: Voltaire himself.

Their relationship prompts a few questions, and we’ll try to answer them.

The basics

Q: How do Madame Tussaud and Voltaire connect?

To start: Tussaud was born (as Anna Grosholtz) in 1761 and died in 1850; Voltaire was born in 1694 and died in 1778. The chronology explains how the two lives overlapped.

When she was a child, Tussaud worked for wax sculptor Dr. Philippe Curtius, who taught her the trade and took her to Paris, where the pair quickly found work with the upper class. Tussaud made her first wax portrait of Voltaire in 1777, the year before the famous philosopher’s death.

Q: Was this sort of thing normal?

It seems hard to believe, but wax sculptures were a booming industry (perhaps there’s a comparison to today’s digital facial scans or, of course, the celebrities in Tussauds museums around the world). That led Marie Tussaud to a long career after Voltaire: she sculpted philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau around the same time, and after the French revolution she made death masks of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre.

Q: So did she make the death mask for Voltaire?

The University of Glasgow has Voltaire’s death mask.

However, it’s unlikely Tussaud made it. Rousseau’s death mask was made by Jean-Antoine Houdon, and it’s most likely Tussaud’s death mask career didn’t begin until the chaos of the French revolution. That assumption is confirmed by Tussaud’s grandson in his memoir.

The relationship

Q: What was it like to hang out with Voltaire as a kid?

According to Madame Tussaud, Voltaire was pretty nice!

We’re able to draw from her memoir for information about the famously prickly philosopher. Apparently, when she was eight or nine, Voltaire used to “pat her on the cheek and tell her what a pretty dark-eyed girl she was.”

Q: How else did she and Voltaire interact?

We’re all familiar with the game about what three historical people you’d like to have dinner with. Marie Tussaud won.

As a child, she listened to epic dinner debates between Rousseau and Voltaire. The third famous name at the table? Benjamin Franklin, who liked to listen and smile as the two philosophers fought it out.

The sculpture

Q: So what happened to the sculpture? Can we see it?

The picture at the top of this page comes from the Madame Tussauds museum in Britain, but it’s not the original. To be clear, it’s uncertain if Tussaud’s portrait of Voltaire lasted at all—her grandson’s memoir casts doubt on it being anything more than a practice sculpture.

Few of her originals survive due to a 1925 fire at the museum (filled with melting wax figures) and bombing during World War II. That’s not to say all of Tussaud’s work is lost, however: her death mask of Robespierre was used to reconstruct the famous politician’s face centuries later. In addition, some of the waxworks in her museum were made from the original molds.

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Who would you most want to dine with: Voltaire, Rousseau, or Franklin?