If history was a piece of fruit, perhaps there was one slice that was the sweetest, the most sublime.
The 18th century was a time when a person did not only measure his or her success in terms of wealth, beauty or possessions. For if one was not clever, these other things became meek and useless: and the person in question became the victim of a jaded, cruel – albeit entertaining – society.
Catherine-Rosalie Duthé was a convent student, a courtesan, a companion to royalty and a dancer – moving like a puppet made of satin – at the Paris Opera Ballet. The 3rd Earl of Egremont gave her a gilded coach, before he moved on to other mistresses and other gifts. Her friend Jean-Frederic Perregaux commissioned a portrait of her and is said to have contemplated her image on his death-bed. With her skin tinted rose and arsenic, and her blonde hair raising like a dusted cloud behind her, she was a much requested subject for such portraits. She appeared many times in Fragonard’s silvery garden parties and Prud’hon’s dark forests.
Frothy and immoderate, childish and infamous, she destroyed the reputations of Parisian noblemen and “broke in” 15-year old French princes. She offended the aristocracy by riding in the royal carriage, an honor set aside for the rich and blue bloods of the king’s family – not for a plump horizontale, a languid queen of her trade. It was then that she became the subject of a popular tune, “La Duthé a dû téter”, (“La Duthé must have suckled royally.”)
But for all her popularity, Mlle. Duthé was not a clever girl. Her answers were not quick. She paused unbearably before speaking – her silences were a labyrinth of vacuity and confusion. She did not possess the twisting logic and humor of a wit. She was stupid. In 1775 she inspired a satire, Les Curiosites de la Foire (“Curiosities of the Fair”): that “kept Paris laughing for weeks”.
But it was her foolishness, not her intellect, that kept such a subtle capital amused. A courtesan was not expected to be a nocturnal creature. She did not entertain solely in the dark, living beneah the sheets, soft and patient. She was expected to be diverting in the daytime as well, when, Geisha-like, she would embrace all of a hostess’ virtues. A pretty girl who lacked intelligence might earn a king’s bed, but she earned society’s mockery, as well.
Catherine-Rosalie Duthé was blonde. And she was dumb.
Historians of society and culture have long analyzed the origin of the “dumb blonde” stereotype and all have agreed that its first representative was Catherine-Rosalie. Women before her time were expected to be ignorant…but the demanding 18th century expected a little more from a lady.
Mlle. Duthé died in 1830, never realizing her dubious fame. She was saved from knowing the path of ignominy she had paved for her pale sisters.