Tussaud’s career assumed a decidedly more morbid character than her guardian’s, however. Whereas Curtius had made a name for himself largely modeling live figures—a process that required him to insert straws in his subject’s nose so they could breathe as he plastered their face—the most sought-after visages of Tussaud’s day were those that had most recently fallen beneath the blade of the guillotine. As it turned out, the plastering process worked just as well, if not better, for modeling the recently deceased. As Pamela Pilbeam, professor and author of the 2003 book Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks, points out, the straws “were not needed [for] someone who had died.”
Though Tussaud would forever claim she was forced by the National Assembly to model the beheaded busts of Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, Marie Antoinette, and Louis XVI as a brutal chronicle of the Revolution, her motivation was likely financial. There are credible rumors that Tussaud may even have had an under-the-table arrangement with the public executioner Charles-Henri Sanson, who—for a small fee—would provide Tussaud with the severed heads of the most newsworthy victims to quickly model before their burial.
Nonetheless, as the Revolution careened into the Reign of Terror, Tussaud found herself increasingly unable to compete with the daily gore and depravity of Parisian life. “The theatre of the guillotine destroyed her business,” Pilbeam told Artsy. “It was free and real.” On the Champs-Elysées, toy guillotines were hawked as souvenirs; women sported gold and silver renderings of the deadly contraption as pins, brooches, combs, and earrings. Such was the fervor of the moment that one restaurant with a view of the city’s flagship guillotine printed the names of each day’s victims on their menus.
So in 1802, Tussaud—40 years old, with funds running low—set out for the United Kingdom. The country’s voracious appetite for tales of the Revolution (and later Napoleon) would provide her livelihood forever after. Tussaud’s husband, a profligate debtor and gambling addict, assumed full control of the Boulevard du Temple waxworks. The business floundered, then failed. Tussaud never returned to France again.