THE courtesans of 19th century Paris were celebrities of the day, mixing with artists, writers and the very wealthy. Author Catherine Hewitt explores the turbulent history of the city of love
Paris is like an ocean”, Honoré de Balzac wrote. “You can try to fathom it but you will never know its real depth.” The same might be said of one of the city’s most enigmatic exports, the courtesan. The Musée d’Orsay’s new exhibition, Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910, looks at the figure of the courtesan and the paradox of high-class glamour and forbidden passions she represents.
The courtesan’s profession is one of the oldest known to man, but she reached her apogee in mid-19th-century Paris, when pleasure had become society’s guiding principle, money was there to be made and femininity was celebrated. But just what set the courtesan apart from the common prostitute, and why does she continue to hold our interest?
The case of Valtesse de la Bigne, one of 19th-century Paris’s most ambitious and successful courtesans, can shed light on this question. And there are few better ways to understand a courtesan like Valtesse – and perhaps come closer to understanding Paris itself – than by following her footsteps through the city she conquered.
By the 1870s, Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne was widely held to be one of Paris’s prettiest society darlings. Her thick red hair, pale complexion and enormous blue eyes gave her an unconventional, Pre-Raphaelite appearance that left the Parisian public spellbound. But Valtesse was also disarmingly clever.
She was well-read, an accomplished painter, pianist and novelist, and the author of political pamphlets. Her sharp wit and cool demeanour were legendary. Why not begin your Parisian sojourn with a visit to the birthplace of one of the greats she rebuffed, Alexandre Dumas fils, at 1, Place Boieldieu? When Dumas asked to see her bedroom, Valtesse refused, declaring that he could not possibly afford it.
Valtesse was painted by Édouard Manet, whose Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe never fail to reward a visit to the Musée d’Orsay’s permanent collection.
But Valtesse loved literature as much as she did art. She wrote a novel and inspired the author Émile Zola, who immortalised her in his scandalous fiction Nana (1880), when he used her throne-like bed as the model for the ornate piece of furniture commissioned by his anti-heroine. Valtesse was discerning in the company she kept. She mentored – and had an affair with – the infamous courtesan Liane de Pougy. If you’re feeling extravagant, try dinner at the classy Pré Catalan in the 16th arrondissement, one of Liane’s favourite restaurants. Besides Liane, Valtesse was also rumoured to be having affairs with Napoleon III and the future Edward VII.
But her most remarkable feature was also her darkest secret. She was no Comtesse, but a glorious self-creation. Born Louise Delabigne, she was raised on one of the most squalid backstreets of Paris’s 10th arrondissement.
These days, the cramped, dingy workers’ dwellings have been transformed into a bustling warren of colourful Asian shops permeated with the scent of spice; but the narrow streets retain an echo of Louise’s footsteps, and Camille Corot’s atelier where, as a child, she spent many happy afternoons watching the painter work, can still be seen at 56, rue Faubourg Poissonière.
The woman who became one of the richest, most powerful ladies in Paris began her career as a humble dress-shop assistant. Such a meteoric rise to celebrity was the fruit of dogged determination and an innate understanding of the power of the media and the complex hierarchy that defined Paris’s sex industry.
The lowest status in the sex trade was that of the common prostitute. If a woman had not sunk to this level, she automatically joined the demi-monde, the shady “half world”, a place hovering between destitution and respectability. Enjoy a citron pressé in the shade of the leafy terrace at La Closerie des Lilas on the Boulevard du Montparnasse if you want to see where many girls started out; the café was a favourite with Ernest Hemingway, and a popular dance venue with demi-mondaines out to nab a rich benefactor.
The highest echelon in the demi-monde to which a girl could aspire was the title of courtesan, sometimes known as les grandes horizontales.The ten or so leading courtesans, referred to as la garde, were the women who commanded Paris. The courtesan was worlds apart from the common prostitute, and the difference came down to two factors: the degree of choice a girl had, and her level of earnings. A courtesan could choose her lovers, and the material benefits could be outstanding. Courtesans lived in palatial hotels, like the decadent mansion on the Avenue des Champs-Elysées formerly occupied by the fiery courtesan La Païva.
A wise courtesan was sure to be seen at opening nights at the theatre or the glittering Opéra Garnier. Try a performance at the Théâtre des Variétés if you want to walk a few steps in a courtesan’s shoes; it is the theatre in which Zola set the début of his fictional Nana, where composer Jacques Offenbach (one of Valtesse’s lovers) had operettas staged and where Valtesse too based the opening scene of her novel Isola (1876).
This was an era when la Parisienne was revered across the world as the ultimate fashion icon and an unofficial ambassador for France. ‘She is the glory, the renown and the raison d’être of Paris’, wrote one 19th-century journalist. Paris’s courtesans seemed the very embodiment of that figure.
These women appeared to have everything, including independence, a career and their own income. This at a time when “good girls” were expected to restrict their ambitions to becoming obedient wives and doting mothers.
Louise Delabigne refused to accept the fate assigned to her by the constraints of class and gender, rejected her humble origins and reinvented herself as “Valtesse”, a contraction of the French “Votre Altesse”, or “Your Highness”. Valtesse modified her banal family name to the more aristocratic de la Bigne and attended scrupulously to her appearance, adopting blue as her personal colour theme and the violet as her trademark flower.
Then she made sure she was spotted at all Paris’s most fashionable gatherings and she befriended journalists so that her name was constantly in the papers. In a few years, she amassed a small fortune, boasted three mansions, fabulous carriages, and an art collection that made her the envy of connoisseurs across Europe.
Above all, Valtesse exuded self-confidence and pride in her career. “I am a courtesan and how I do enjoy my work,” she declared.
As the 20th century approached, fashion became more affordable and it grew increasingly difficult to tell women of ill repute from well-bred ladies. Le Bon Marché, founded in 1852 and the oldest department store in Paris, stands as testimony to the growing consumer culture that enabled 19th-century demi-mondaines to blend in seamlessly alongside high-society ladies. As one 19th-century English visitor put it: “Vice is seldom clad in rags in Paris.’”
That element of uncertainty and intrigue is hghlighted by the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition. Like the stark contrast between the glamour we see and the sexual acts we don’t in the case of the courtesan, that sense of enigma, is part of what made – and makes – these women and the city they ruled so endlessly fascinating.
• The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret by Catherine Hewitt is published by Icon Books, £20 hardback. Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910, is at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris until 17 January, www.musee-orsay.fr