During the French Revolution, Marie Tussaud enjoyed a lucrative, if slightly grisly, business in serving the country’s insatiable demand for the death masks of those who had died on the guillotine. King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Reign of Terror figurehead Maximilien Robespierre all became her models.
As a royal sympathiser, Tussaud had rubbed shoulders with the elite of France before the revolution. This meant she had to become at ease with working on the heads of former friends. She had even known the king himself as she served as art tutor to his sister. Being commissioned to create these masks was seen by revolutionaries as symbolic of Tussaud’s commitment to the new republic.
She was already well known before the death mask money started rolling in. While learning the skill from Swiss modeller Philippe Curtius as a teenager, Tussaud had moved to Paris and began making wax portraits of high-society personalities. Her very first model, in 1777, was of the famed philosopher Voltaire, made a year before his death. It has not survived, unfortunately, but not many of her originals are left at all, especially after a fire at her London museum in 1925.