December 7, 2011 - Happy Birthday, Madame Tussaud

Born on this day in France in 1761, Marie Gresholtz learned to make wax models from a doctor who made models as he studied anatomy. Dr. Curtius began to make wax portraits, and he set up an exhibition in Paris in 1765; Tussaud moved to Paris to be his assistant. 

Two wax heads Curtius had made were carried by French Revolutionaries in a protest march two days before protestors attacked the infamous prison known as the Bastille. During the bloody French Revolution, Tussaud was arrested and imprisoned. Her head was shaved to prepare her for execution by guillotine, but a well-known actor who was also a revolutionary vouched for her and her family, and Tussaud was released. Then—get this!— she was hired by the revolutionaries to make death masks of those who weren't so lucky! Since the revolutionaries were executing France's former royalty and nobles, the wax portraits Tussaud made were of the rich and powerful – or, rather, people who HAD BEEN rich and powerful.

In 1802, Tussaud went to London, where she tried to make a living by exhibiting her collection of wax heads. Eventually she created a permanent exhibit in London. At the entrance of the museum is a self-portrait of Tussaud herself, and several other sculptures done by Tussaud herself still survive in the original Madame Tussaud's museum.

More than 200 years later, there are Madame Tussaud's museums all over the place, including one only 30 miles away from my house!
A waxen Bruce Lee in the
Hong Kong Madame Tussaud's
Lady Gaga - in wax

What is wax?

The word wax refers to a group of chemical compounds that are plastic (something that you can push and pull in order to form various shapes) at temperatures higher than room temperature, but not that hot. Wax generally melts at 45 degrees C (113 degrees F). They are organic compounds, and some are naturally made by animals and plants—think of the beeswax created by bees in order to create honeycombs, or the waxy coating inside our ears.

Because wax cannot dissolve in water, it resists water-based paints and dyes, and therefore it can be used in a variety of art activities. Here are some fun ideas using wax:

  • Crayons are waxy! Try out the projects suggested on the Crayola website, especially the “Crayon Resist” idea (scroll down).
  • Another version of crayon resist is found at Incredible Art-dot-org.
  • Here are some easy directions for batik. 
  • Encaustic art works with melting wax to create landscapes. A low-cost version of this sort of art can be achieved with an ordinary iron, waxed paper, and broken crayons, or other ordinary household materials
  • Make wax candles! Here you will find a lot of information.

Also on this Date:

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