The French Revolution almost took her life but Marie Grosholtz was given one chance to prove her allegiance to the Revolution. She was released from the tiny prison cell she shared with her mother and put to work making death masks of the aristocracy that had been beheaded in front of her.
Marie watched as her King and Queen were beheaded, the rulers that she loved and once worked for. Each head was removed from the basket and held aloft for the crowd to whoop and jeer at. The heads were bundled roughly in dirty rags and tossed to Marie to take back to her workshop. She caught both heads but dropped the Queen. Her Majesty’s head rolled across the Guillotine floor, catching on the nose as it did. The crowd cheered and roared as the head came to rest on one cheek, half open lids covering dull eyes. Marie snatched up the head, wrapped it once more and rushed off with both heads in her basket.
Back at her workshop, Marie removed the heads from her basket and placed them gently, side by side, on her bench. She unwrapped each in turn, showing the royal pair more respect than they had received in life for some time. She took the King’s head and washed it with light strokes of a soft cloth, until all traces of blood and matter were gone. Had it not been for the shaven head and puffy lidded eyes, he could have been sleeping. Then she turned to the Queen and did the same, pinching the cheeks once she had finished to give at least an illusion of good health.
Placing the husband and wife beside each other in death as they would have been in life, she gave a deep curtsey in front of them.
Over the next few days Marie worked for many hours to reproduce the most faithful likenesses that she could. She swore to their Highnesses that she would produce her finest work and restore them to their living glory in their death. Unlike many death masks, Marie did not simply make plaster casts of the heads, but made wax meads from the casts. She decorated the wax with delicate colours and flowing hair then mounted each head on a base for stability.
Proud of her work she displayed it for all Paris to see and Marie was greeted with delight. So easily they could have said she was still loyal to the monarchy and condemned her to beheading as well. But she became their darling and her work was more and more in demand.
Before long Marie would be found hunting through the debris of the Guillotine victims for each day, hunting out the most famous and the most prestigious heads, from which to make her famous wax copies.