Tag Archives: courtesan

The Flower Girl

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.MarieDuplessisHer 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.

Marie-DuplessisShe 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.


Beauty And Scandal

She stands, elongated and slender, before a sky that combines a soft storm with a lurid light. Leaning forward gently, she resembles a glistening tree that bends in a mild and fragile breeze.  Everything about her is lengthy:  limbs that ripple under lace and silk, a neck that extends from sloping shoulders in a white, dizzying curve, powdered hair that is curled and piled – swept away from a sad, thoughtful forehead.

One arm is extended to grasp a length of taffeta – gold and melting – the other arm is bent, pressing the fabric to a pale, chaste breast.  Gilded rosettes bloom and descend down the edges of her overskirt, they huddle in an embroidered bower at her elbows.  Her shoes are tiny and painful, their dainty heels made for the refined tapping on polished, elegant floors:  the elegant language of comings and goings.

Thomas Gainsborough painted this portrait in 1778, when his subject was 20 years old.  A portrait with a dark and thunderous background circulating around a still, luminous center, it is a portrayal of a quiet beauty wrapped in arsenic-colored skin and metallic cloth.


She has all the outward modesty and grace of a girl who has spent her childhood in a convent. Serene and aristocratic, she seems to be made for quietude.  Snowy skin, discreet roses strewn across her cheekbones, dark and poignant brows that overshadow languorous eyes…she is Mrs. Grace Elliott Dalrymple.

Nicknamed ‘Dally The Tall’ with typical 18th century familiarity – the equivalent to a boisterous slap on the rump – she was one of the most renown courtesans of late 18th century London.  Dally ruled with her fellow ‘impures’ over a city teeming with disease and debauchery.  The demimonde of England’s greatest city was a nest of snakes – horrible and beautiful – and they rose above the writhing half-world like indulgent, immoral goddesses.

Four years before this portrait was painted Dally was a young adulteress, running away from a marriage she entered into as a pale, 13 year-old bride.  Four years after this portrait was painted Dally was the mistress of the lush and improvident Prince of Wales (later George IV).  The daughter she bore soon after the beginning of this affair could have been fathered by any one of an assortment of men who were her ‘benefactors’ at the time.   The child was baptized Georgina Frederica Augusta Elliott Daughter of His Royal Highness George Prince of Wales & Grace Elliott – but whether out of audacity or accuracy no one ever knew.

Her adventures took her to Paris a few years before the storming of the Bastille; and no patrician loveliness could save her from a population that was threatened and therefore dangerous.  British, a known royalist, former lover of the Duke of Orleans (the Prince had introduced her to him), she was imprisoned in late 1793, shortly after the Reign of Terror had begun.  When she was released in October of 1794, Robespierre was dead , many of her noble friends were dead…but Dally was alive and free.

As with all women of beauty and scandal, rumors surrounded them like clouds of powder and blush, creating graceful, perfumed enigmas.  Rumor, for instance, had it that Dally was the mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte:  two warriors in their own chosen fields.  But what is surely known is that Grace Elliott Dalrymple, aka ‘Dally The Tall’, died in 1823.  She was sixty-five years old.

Gainsborough had no idea of the tumultuous life Dally still had before her once she stepped out his studio.   But perhaps through his earthy, intuitive genius he sensed her stormy future when he decided to paint her, a floating light, before a distant – yet impending – tempest.

Pretty Stupid

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. 

A Blank Canvas

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.

Beneath The Bridge

For centuries the staid populations walked across the bridge: their daytime footsteps leaving the heelprints of a sober life. Living under an innocuous sky, they cast chaste shadows that mingled on the causeway in a thoughtful dance. Their bodies and clothes co-exist comfortably within unpolished fabrics – their dour, contented shells.

By nightfall they are home, locked behind their doors of care. They think about tomorrow, and the daily bridge – but they don’t think about the lively darkness, and the spirits that live beneath the bridge.

Not-So-Plain-Jane Avril

Every day, the sun departs in a burst of shamelessness – riding to its home under the horizon on twilight clouds of bronze and scarlet. And when the blue air deepens and becomes rich with secrets and scandal, a flurry of life begins within the veiled half-world beneath the bridge.

The night thrives on stars – its skin is tattooed with sparks of light. When the demimonde opens its feral eyes, the evening pulsates with its forbidden brilliance. Polished necks and arms shine like breathing alabaster – the gleam of cheekbone, the curve of mouth, fingers that extend into language:  all are tipped with light, creating an abstract of a forbidden life. The denizens of this world, cloaked in shadow and immorality, prowl and seduce through a jungle of dalliance.

Waiting in the Shadows

While the lugubrious societies live a frowning life above, a different class lies waiting. Women, immaculate and cruel, their ribs tightened into a cat’s cradle of whalebone; “nuns” – pretty little brides attending to their husbands of the evening – men, emotionless but eager…all wait to be set free, to enjoy their dark disgrace.

Trying for a Tryst

At midnight supper, the table will be crowded with assignations and thick with perfume and whispers. Empty bottles, torn flowers, shattered diamonds and scented notes litter the cloth in a countryside of delicate evil. Exquisite shadows share words that shine with passion and foolishness: a twisted, languid grammar.

Ladies Who Offer Ad-Vice

When the twilight rainbow of indigo, lavender and silver begins to recede – when the honorable sunlight returns – the extravagant ones return to their shadowy beds. Their profligate clothes and arsenic skin melt into the ground, nourishing the evil flowers. They wait once more for the night: to bloom under the bridge – to drink in a marvelous, thrilling vice.


Paris trembles under many lights.  Looking down on the city, it meanders like a circle of galaxies.

During the Second Empire, in the mid-19th century, Paris was a delightful gamine, overdressed with crinolines and diamond sandals.  She was a shocking, immoral child – but always held back with the soft ribbons of etiquette, always wearing an extravaganza of couture.

Paris was also an epicurean state, with a history of exotic tastes, extravagant meals and wasteful, profligate menus.  There is one story of a dinner that was served during this time:

Waiters stood tall and handsome as they shouldered a lengthy, silver platter.  It was covered, and heavy.  They were en route from the kitchen to the dinner table, only this time the kitchen wasn't below stairs, but upstairs, in milady's boudoir.

Beneath the silver cover, the feast reclined in the edible darkness.  She thought luxuriously of the corsets, taffetas, crinolines and sandals left behind in her 'kitchen'.  But the black pearls – product of an oyster's imagination and passion – still rested around her neck, floating atop a milky sea.

Bouquets of lilies and violets tickled her shoulders and knees – staining her skin with a layer of perfume.  Petals curled in her hair, and she tapped their glossy colors with her fingers, feeling their tints run through her hands.  Her veins were now a delicate cartography of blue, lavender, bronze and mint.

It was well known throughout the city that the finest chef in the country was on this lady's staff.  But for this one night only, she would be the one presenting the most delicious flesh in the Empire.

"What!  That girl leaning forward?  Oh, that is a distinguished member of the demi-monde.  She is but just arrived from Paris, where her beauty, her wit, and her profligacy were the theme of every tongue.  I have met her there frequently, so, if you want an introduction I will give it to you – her name is Cora Pearl."

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Kitty, Repent!

She was born Catherine Maria Fisher.  But her admirers braided her impudence, audacity and charm together into a nickname that was toasted throughout mid-18th century London.  They called her Kitty.

Her eyes were dark spirits; quiet temptations.  Her flesh was pale and alluring.  Its whiteness was a distant snowfall; only in her face did the frost melt.  She was a fever of wit and insolence – working class rudeness tempered by a whimsical heart.

She was sought after by men, and followed by women.  When she visited Vauxhall Gardens – a green labyrinth of arbors, walks and subdued waterfalls – hundreds watched:  in shock, in wonder, in envy.  Her style was copied by every rung of female society, from laundress to society hostess.

Sir Joshua Reynolds made her into Cleopatra, as she might appear in an emperor's dream, dissolving her pearl earring in a goblet of wine. 

Nathaniel Hone sketched her in a rush of color, her profile a lazy curve. 

He painted her with a kitten at her elbow, fishing in a goldfish bowl, in a fit of pretty symbolism.  Kitty's life is in that bowl too: in its reflection is a crowd of people looking through her window. 

She was a celebrity without pretense.  She was greedy, shameless, immoral and altogether charming.  She was a courtesan.

This meant that she was not a ragged bargain walking the streets; nor was she a pampered product sitting at the window of the 'abbeys' in St. James or Covent Garden.  As one of the most successful and sought-after ladies of 1760's London, she enjoyed the luxury of choice.

In 1763 she was introduced to Casanova…who exercised his own choice:

"…for, though charming, she could only speak English, and I liked to have all my senses, including that of hearing, gratified."

His decision would not have angered Kitty.  It would have appealed to her rollicking humor – foolish man!  There would always be someone else to buy her diamonds of the most sparkling water, sequin-frosted dresses and gilded carriages for services rendered.

She 'was mistress of a most uncommon share of spirits'.  She enjoyed the favorite sport of her generation:  gossip.  And more than once her name ran through those useless conversations like a scarf caught in the breeze.  She had once eaten a banknote worth fifty pounds between two pieces of buttered bread, and "The other day they ran into each other in the park and Lady Coventry asked Kitty the name of the dressmaker who had made her dress.  Kitty Fisher answered she had better ask Lord Coventry as he had given her the dress as a gift."  

Kitty knew the value of advertising.  In 1759, to better announce her arrival in the capital city, she staged a riding faux pas, affectionately remembered as "The Merry Accident". 

Hyde Park was a gala place, attracting society's finest:  ladies decorated like baroque meringues and gentlemen with waistcoats embroidered with gardens, oceans and aviaries.   It was the fashionable theater to display one's horsemanship; to show off a new carriage:  a swift curricle, or a closed phaeton where a white and rose face could peer through a window against the crimson upholstery, like a burning cameo.

During that social hour, Kitty chose her moment and – though an accomplished horsewoman – fell off her horse.  As a result, her young and shapely legs were exposed before an admiring and curious audience.  A witness observed:  "…finding the danger over, she with a prity childishness stopped the torrent of tears and burst into a fit of Laughing."  But another declared:  "Why, 'tis enough to debauch half the women in London."

Her name was shouted down dank alleyways, and whispered in ballrooms that melted in pastel lights.  Songs and poems were written about her.  One, which has since found its way into kindergarten classes, begins:  "Lucy Locket lost her pocket/Kitty Fisher found it/But ne'er a penny was there in't/Except the binding round it."  Riddled with innuendo, it was originally the story of a barmaid who had discarded one of her lovers (her pocket).  Kitty then took up with this unwanted and worthless scrap (with ne'er a penny').

But she ended her career with a good deal of pennies.  In 1766 she married an M.P., John Norris.  She used her fortune to help the local poor, including someone very local indeed: Norris himself.

Kitty enjoyed her respectable haven for only four months.  She died, some say from the white lead-based cosmetics she used; from the gangrenous earth beneath the snow.  She was buried, on her request, in her wedding dress.

"Kitty, repent, a settlement procure,
Retire, and keep the bailiffs from the door.
Put up with wrinkles, and pray paint no more."

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The Cyprian’s Ball

I don't know how "Cyprian" traveled from a reference to a 4th century Bishop of Carthage to a term for a high-water courtesan, but what a long strange trip it must have been.

In the early 19th century, these ladies were named Cypria, Dulcinea, Cytherea and Paphian goddesses by the moneyed noblemen and dissolute second sons who pursued them.  Perhaps they did so sincerely – some men can't see beyond the dark eyes nd pale silks which are actually their deadliest enemies – perhaps not:  a woman living on her looks, on her body, on her own, always seemed a fit subject for mockery.

The members of this 'sisterhood' could be invited to public events, to the opera (many of them had their own boxes), to maqueredes, to the theater – where everyone went to be seen, where every respectable rogue would want a stylish, immoral decoration on his arm.  But society's doors – and entertainments – were closed to them.  Although they were probably draining the heirs of their inheritence, courtesans were not allowed into society's great houses.

These circumstances led to an event in 1818 that has been called 'The Cyprian's Ball', held in London's Argyll Rooms.  Hosted by the most daring and celebrated members of the demi-monde, they invited their hot-house collections of admirers and protectors – old and new – to an evening of unrestrained entertainment in an aristocratic setting.

Members of the peerage, the court and the military attended, and were able to do so without embarrassment.  Besides, there would be past amours to greet, current ones to keep in line and future ones to inspect and duly note.  Rather like  fact-finding tour.

The rooms were decorated with taste and expense, for a courtesan had a sharp and cynical appreciation of what the visible expression of style and the obvious use of money could attain.  That evening the Rooms featured statuary, blushing pastel walls, trompe l'oeil pilasters, and a ceiling with elaborate plaster carvings, which caught the candlelight and cast shadows which grew longer as the hours grew shorter.

Ladies dresses were made of the sheerest and most expensive silks, gauzes and muslins.  Gold thread and glass beads reflected light and made a delicate creation even more ethereal:  a chance product of reflection and movement.  Empire waists, tiny puffed sleeves which had no intention of keeping their hold on shoulders and decollete necklines – saying and displaying much – were all in evidence.  As was the descreet dampening of the fabric to make sure it would accentuate every expensive curve.

There was of course, waltzing (it had only a few years since it was stolen from the peasants' fields and festivals):

The brightest lights of the underworld – the demi-monde, where rogues and royalty attended by dusk, vanishing by dawn – lent their fire to the Ball:

The five Montague sisters, known as the 'Stars of Erin'; a girl known only as Josephine – still a child, yet already having gone through four lovers whose names were only known by a tantalizing row of asterisks; the 'Queen of the Amazons' – dark and dashing; the experienced Nelly Mansell, called 'Old Pomona'  (Goddess of Fruit Trees) becausse of the 'richness of her first fruits'; Ellen Richardson:  "Venus Callipyga" (in Greek:  Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks); Dolly Drinkwater, who would drink nothing stronger than French Brandy; The Tartar Sultana; The Mocking Bird; The Red and Black Swans; The Blue Eyed Lima; and the notorious Harriette Wilson (in the picture above, shown at the right, wearing a pink dress):  sharp-tempered, sharp-witted and with, as she boasted, 'a devil in my body', along with her sisters Fanny, Amy and Sophia.

These and many others danced, gossiped (a favorite Regency pasttime), preened, posed, were intoxicating and perhaps became a little intoxicated as well. A light supper and champagne was served at dawn, as the cold sunlight was reaching into the corners where the candles had begun to smoke and waver.

By the time the day had boldly broken, these 'Fair Impures', galaxies of fascination visible only by night, had departed – their newly acquired planets in possession, rotating obediently around them.

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Lady Disdain


What my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?

Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signoir Benedick?"

This exchange is from my favorite Shakespeare play, 'Much Ado About Nothing'.  When sarcasm and insults are elevated to such lofty heights, well, there is much to enjoy and much to learn.

These lines come to me when I look at this postcard.  Caroline Otero was one of the 'Grande Horizontals' of late 19th century France.  Oh, OK, she was a dancer too, but she got the funds to clothe herself in jewels (sometimes that was all) from, shall we say, closer work.

I love this card.  Otero was not a beauty.  Her nose was a little long, her eyes – though dark and magnificant – were a bit too close together  But even though she was not a great beauty, or a sophisticated intellect…the photo exudes pride and attitude.  I won't attempt to define a 'diva' – that would take weeks – but this is how one looks.  Knowing that you will attract attention as soon as you walk into a room, even without any of these assets, knowing that the party starts only when you arrive; that's a diva. 

Demanding, commanding, feared, revered – her profile says that much. 

All this from a woman who also said:  "Any man is a gentleman who can afford an account at Cartier."  Quite.


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