She sits alone in her box at the theater, ethereal and adrift in a sea of petticoats and lace. The thick silk shawl glistens on her shoulders – the dark bonnet encircles her dainty head like a black sun.Her features are delicate and sublimely feminine; sculpted by a hand with a graceful touch and a knowledge of the complexities of a woman’s face. The unknown master provided her with straight brows, depthless eyes shielded by thick lashes, a delicate nose and a petite mouth that promised secrets and seduction. It is a marvel of purity; a composition of softness and shadow – of clear line and subtle expression.
She had a name: Marie Duplessis. She also had an occupation – an ancient one, geisha-like in its myriad duties, the iconic duty of the demimonde. She was a courtesan – one of the most infamous of the early 19th century: a time well-known for its chic and scandal.
There is nothing in her appearance to indicate her profession. She is beautiful, dressed in the fullness of the current style. The one thing that sets her apart is her serenity in the middle of the blatant scrutiny of her fellow theater-goers.
This water-color must have been drawn from the life. And it expresses precisely the public life of the courtesan: the ladies are whispering and fluttering; averting their eyes from the notorious lady seated, alone and tranquil, beneath them. The gentlemen, wielding their looking glasses, observe her keenly and unabashedly – searching for flaws in the perfect face, in the glowing skin.
This painting can probably be dated to the mid-1840’s. It was the time of d’Aurevilly’s The Anatomy of Dandyism, the culture of Beau Brummel, of polishing boots with champagne. Men and women both featured pinched waists – curls and ringlets grew with abandon, reined in by Rowland’s Macassar Oil and the extract of ylang ylang flowers.
Here, Marie would be in her early twenties – a gentle time, when youth was the initial primer, and adulthood only an impending watercolor; the accumulation of years was still an unformed composition. And yet she would never see this maturity – she died in 1847 at 23 years of age. Tuberculosis was the offender that desecrated the dainty sinner. Tuberculosis was a disease which could give its victims a type of febrile beauty: sunken cheeks blushed with fever, dull eyes were bright with death, and the skin became as pale and nacreous as pearl. But how many times did the most desirable woman in Paris cough into her handkerchiefs – stippling them with the blood from ravaged lungs?
Marie was painted at the height of her infamy, surrounded by admiration, fascination, envy and revulsion, even as she sat alone and tranquil, at the theater – the still center of a cyclone of attention. She was the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas fils’ La Dame aux camélias, which in turn inspired Verdi to write La traviata: irresistible stories of love, scandal, regret, and the dying beauty who caused it all.
But rather than her triumphant image, it is the written word that lives on: the story of the lady who ruled the seductive Parisian underworld; the mistress who wore the symbolic white flower close to her translucent breast.