The Gore and Ecstasy of the 19th Century Wax Woman

Illustration for article titled The Gore and Ecstasy of the 19th Century Wax Woman

While sculpture and the study of anatomy have always worked in tandem, models of the human—specifically female—form took a specific turn during the 1800s, when anatomical wax sculptures of women’s bodies became a source of public curiosity and entertainment. A model of this kind was called an “anatomical Venus.”


“For most of the 19th century, at least one anatomical Venus was on display at any given moment,” writes Gaby Wood of the Telegraph. She continues:

Presented as marvels, puzzles and objects for popular education, these models came apart to reveal the layers beneath the skin. A word sometimes used to describe them was “Florentine,” not just because the most intricate example had been made in Florence, but also because there was something exotic and erotic about them. This totally naked woman could be undressed still further: right down to her arteries and intestines.

One possessor of three widely circulated female wax models (called the Sleeping Beauties) was a woman named Marie Gresholtz, who had grown up teaching wax art to French royalty and, as the monarchy violently fell out of popularity, would later produce wax models of the aristocracy’s decapitated heads. In 1802, Gresholtz fled to London, where she became known by her more popular moniker: Madame Tussaud.

Upon her arrival in England, Wood states, “Madame Tussaud now found herself directing a strange theatre of female objectification and male fantasy.”

Wax model of Kendall Jenner on display at Madame Tussauds in London, England, 2016. Image via Getty.
Wax model of Kendall Jenner on display at Madame Tussauds in London, England, 2016. Image via Getty.

While the models served an educational purpose (the model featured up top, created by Italian sculpture Clemente Susini, remains on display at science museum in Bologna), they were also often posed in expressions of ecstasy—a parted mouth, clenched fingers and curled toes, eyes half closed. But with these sexy wax broads, you could also remove their skin and play with their organs. Hot?


Of this kind of wax model (supposedly built to educate the medical community and the public about the human body), Wood—promoting Morbid Anatomy Museum founder Joanna Ebenstein’s upcoming book The Anatomical Venus—wonders:

Why would one bother to decorate it with ribbons and pearl necklaces? If the organs are made of wax, why should the hair and eyelashes be real? Why engineer it so that the fake woman can cry or bleed?


Let’s all read Ebenstein’s book to find out. (Suspected answer: Men are pervs.)

Image via Wikipedia Commons.

Managing Editor, Jezebel



I guess the Victorians were seriously obsessed with death, or maybe this is vintage snuff porn? I read a couple of Baudelaire poems about how sexy a decapitated woman was and fucking carved out orifices on a woman who was “too happy” (unless my French is off but that’s essentially the gist of what I read).