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Every year, the Parisian elite received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the Salpêtrière Hospital

Last year’s February post Mi-Carême: An Explosion of Joy in the Midst of Gloom described the joyous feasts of Mid-Lent during the month of February. Let’s recall that the Mi-Carême celebrations cut in half the forty days of strict and tedious Lent rules of penance, fasting, and prayers. This brief rest from enforced virtue was filled with public and private costume parties. Feverish preparations for the events helped to fill time with pleasant activity in the first part of the Lent, while happy memories did the same service during the second half.

If you received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the La Salpêtrière Hospital, you would feel flattered. Indeed, only the crème de la crème were thus honored. The celebrated Doctor Charcot, the head of the Neurological Clinic, would not allow a mere rabble to spoil the event. After all, meeting the female patients—there were no men hospitalized in this institution—demanded a certain seriousness and responsible behavior. With the mentally unstable patients, unpredictable accidents could happen. This or that inmate could behave oddly or succumb to a spectacular crisis of hysteria. Invitations were rarely refused for that very reason.

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Nurses stand at the ready among the costumed patients as they mingle with the visitors

The hospital provided a funding of 500 francs for costumes, and the patients got themselves busy with sewing and fitting weeks before the event. On the night in question, the Ball des Folles began at 8:00 PM to be closed at midnight. Finger food was served, but strictly no alcohol. The Tout Paris, as the Parisian elite was known, came to see the patients dance and make merry under the vigilance of the nurses. This curious event was repeated year after year until the early 20th century.

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Some of Dr. Charcot’s star performers

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Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Since Dr. Charcot’s lectures were opened to public every Wednesday, some of his patients enjoyed a celebrity status for their demonstrations of madness. The women usually came from dire poverty or harsh abuse, and many were grateful for the safe home they found at the hospital. One of the former inmates, Jane Avril, recalls in her memoir that her stay at La Salpêtrière was a complete bliss compared to her life at home. Jane became a celebrated dancer. You can read her story in another post here.

Related post:

Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria

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While Sunday in the Anglo-Saxon world–in London and in New York–meant only godly thoughts and strict rest with church, prayers, and roast beef for entertainment, Parisians were out for serious fun. Sunday, especially a summer Sunday, meant a trip beyond the city limits. For many, the goal was their favorite guinguette (‘gang-ette), an establishment with music and dance on the outskirts of Paris where wine and food were significantly cheaper than in the capital.

One of the Parisian favorite guinguettes was the Moulin de la Galette, a medieval windmill standing on the Montmartre hill and offering a magnificent view of the city. Before electricity made them obsolete, there were some three hundred windmills in Paris, of which only four remain today.

Pierre-August Renoir’s famous painting Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876) depicts the jovial and comfortable atmosphere that reigned on the outdoor dance floor:

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What better way to perceive the mood in this ball than testimonials! Thanks to the press, it is still possible to read them again. Extract from the Intransigeant of May 28, 1882:

Last Sunday I was at the ball. At the Moulin de la Galette ball. I went there – with two friends, the big big X… the devil’s innkeeper, and the big little B… librettist and dominotier, a bearded, illuminated, pot-bellied like a monk of Rabelais; the other bald like an egg and yellowed like old ivory.

I adore this bastringue, with its large rectangular hall, with a polished floor, all shining – its orchestra with bellowing trombones, squealing flutes – its youthful couples whirling in the waltz, hopping in the polka, swaying in the quadrille; it’s tables where other lovers consume, hand squeezing the hand with tenderness, the classic salad bowl of sweet wine or absinthes to which the bland addition of barley gives a sickly, chlorotic tint, a pale greenness or a greenish whiteness – the color of drowned faces …

The enduring popularity of this guinguette is best illustrated with a photo from 1938

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Other popular guinguettes dotted the banks of the rivers Seine and Marne, where Parisians went to enjoy water sports. Again, Renoir is here to show us what it was like. We see the company digesting lunch, but there is a dance floor somewhere and musicians waiting to strike a quadrille.

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Pierre-August Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881)

The popularity of guinguettes, which took a dive in the second half of the twentieth century, is now on the rise again.

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Related posts:

Absinthe: The Rise and Fall of the Green Fairy

Parisians in 1842: The Working Class

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A target to hordes of tourists, the Moulin Rouge is one of the most emblematic monuments of Paris. Before becoming a mythical place, the cabaret was a den of debauchery – a symbol of the Belle Époque madness.

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The establishment opens in October 1889 with the owners labelling it a temple of music and dance. It’s founders, Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler (already patrons of the Olympia), know well what appeals to the Parisian public and do not skimp on the means. They invest in extravagant decoration, a gigantic dance floor, and fantastic shows inspired by the circus world. Everything is ready to entice the All Paris to come and have fun in this small Montmartre corner. There is even a huge elephant, recovered from the Universal Exhibition of 1889.

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The famous elephant of Moulin Rouge was used as an opium den

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If the cabaret is at this point the temple of entertainment, it is also thanks to the success of the French cancan. This famous dance with raised petticoats will delight the Parisians and turn the Moulin Rouge into a sanctuary for festivities and debauchery. Foreign travelers flock in for an unforgettable experience, and the fame of the French cancan spreads worldwide.

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This 1894 drawing suggests that shady deals were concluded at the entrance to the Moulin Rouge

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The Moulin Rouge is celebrated in many works of art, particularly in those of the painter Toulouse-Lautrec, who was a fixture there. His most famous poster (below) pictures two of the early Moulin Rouge stars: La Goulue and her dance partner Valentin-the-Boneless (in silhouette). The sad stories of la Goulue and of the dancer Mad Jane, are well-worth reading in Louise and Jeanne: The Antipodes of Moulin Rouge, an earlier post here.

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Today, the Moulin Rouge has lost nothing of its grandeur except for the moral casualness of its beginnings. It remains a magical place of the cabaret world.

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Related posts:

Louise and Jeanne: The Antipodes of Moulin Rouge

Mark Twain and the Cancan

The Opera of Paris: We Procure Our Ballerinas to Wealthy Men

 

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The fascination with tattoo images swept the Victorian world when Samuel O’Reilly created the tattoo machine in 1891. A torture that could last weeks could be done faster and with less pain. The appetite for tattoos, seen as exotic through their association with the sea travel, was very present in the world of popular entertainment and among the circus people.  Even women without particular talent or beauty could make a living in the show business through displaying their tattooed bodies. However, they were marked for life as persons of low morals and little faith.

In the past, the western civilization associated corporal marking with crime. This reputation was due to the practice of tattooing in prisons. Made with makeshift means, the tattoos had to be hidden because they were forbidden by the church. For the prisoners, it was a way to claim their personality despite the gray reality of confinement. This bad reputation was strengthened by the marking of prostitutes who were inspired by the criminals they frequented. In the world of low-class crime, tattoos displayed the membership of a gang. A discreet mark near the eyes identified at the first sight the Parisian Apache.

It was not until the 1970s that tattooing became popular with the arrival of the hippie movement. Little by little, this practice became more widespread as sports and music stars began publicly wearing tattoos.

Related post:

The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

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If you lived during what the French call the Belle Epoque (1871-1914) in any literate country, you would have stumbled upon Sarah Bernhardt. There was no way of avoiding her name in print. She would shock you with her latest extravagancy or sell you a product of some sort.  People around the world would pay good money to watch Sarah die in French. She was very good at it. Never mind that you did not understand a word she was saying for there was plenty to look at for the price and you could tell with pride that you have seen the Greatest Tragedy Queen Ever.

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Just to show you the international weight of Sarah’s personality, here she is as an old lady in the US: urging America to enter World War One

What Bernhardt, also known as The Divine Sarah, meant to her own country is demonstrated in this video which shows that the French Republic staged a funeral worthy of a queen:

A sighting of Sarah Bernhardt in all her glory was a memorable event:

“…Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about, there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume — and there was but one — was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Everyone, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt…”

Excerpt from the memoir of the American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux

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Quand Même, the motto of Sarah Bernhardt, can be translated in different ways but, in this case, it means Nevertheless. There may be difficulties on the path of life. Nevertheless, they will be overcome.

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One of the reasons for Sarah’s early success was that she was different in appearance.  While the beauty canon favored women of substance, she was thin. Where fashion dictated sculptured hairdos, Sarah’s hair was an uncontrollable puff of frizzy hair. Her Jewish nose was a little too prominent and her complexion a little too white. This difference, instead of being a burden, made her stand apart and therefore be noticed. Her thespian talent, along with her flamboyant personality, both on and off the stage, did the rest. In fact, there was no difference between the theater and the off-stage for wherever she was, Sarah never ceased to perform.

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Seduction was  Sarah’s main weapon on the road to fame. Seduction of the theatre critics, seduction of the theatre-goers, seduction of the press. And if the press reacted in a contrary way, that was good too. She was the first one to understand that bad publicity was better than none.

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After having opened her own theatre, Sarah hired a Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha for advertising. His posters are successfully sold to this day.

A true Renaissance woman, Sarah had a second source of income: painting and sculpture. She was an excellent sculptor, to the point of making Rodin jealous. “She has the audacity to show this filth,” he was heard saying at one of her shows.  Really, Monsieur Rodin? Let’s scroll down to see what the venerable Master considered filthy:

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The Death of Ophelia by Sarah Bernhardt

Like the queen she was, Sarah had her court. Every change of place meant the shifting of a great many objects, animals, and people. In her Paris apartment, she kept a small zoo, which accompanied her on her travels. The live alligator Ali Baba and a coffin featured among her luggage.

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Sarah in her coffin. A publicity stunt, no doubt about it, the photo made the round of the world. Sarah kept the coffin in her bedroom and claimed she slept in it.  She died for real some forty years after this picture was taken.

Sarah was a woman of prodigious energy. As the manager of a theatre of which she was the principal attraction, she had little time for rest. She would see the author of a new play at two in the morning because that was the only time she could find in her busy schedule. Trips abroad meant careful planning and exercise in logistics. While everything was done to make travel as comfortable as possible—a special train containing a luxury wagon for Sarah alone was the standard—the conditions in the place were often primitive. She would play in circus tents, suffer cold in unheated dressing rooms, go hungry when food was not readily available, and she would forge ahead quand même. Her support staff might suffer from exhaustion but Sarah would take it all in a stride with one lung, one kidney and, toward the end of her life, with only one leg.

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Sarah during one of her overseas travels

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In the American West, cowboys greet Sarah (on the right, in the dark coat) on her arrival. Later, during the performance, they would manifest their enthusiasm with aiming shots at the ceiling

Sarah lived long enough to appear in the early movies. She hated to see herself on the screen: stripped of her voice, of her three-dimensional personality, and her interaction with the public, she was nothing more than an unappetizing shadow of her true self. By that time, she already suffered from excruciating pain in her leg. Furniture had to be strategically placed on the scene so that there would always be a point of support where she could take the weight off her aching leg. As her agony grew beyond endurance, she opted for amputation.

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Being without a leg at the age of seventy did not slow Sarah down. She purchased a portable chair and off she went to war.  Since the Franco-Prussian War, forty years earlier, Sarah harbored a hatred for the Germans. The French troops needed to be cheered up with a good tragedy play.

Sarah died of uremia after an agony that was partly caught on film. She left behind an unfinished movie she was making during her last illness. Ever the hard worker, she took only three days off work to die. She was seventy-eight.

I purposefully left out Sarah’s rich private life which would need a separate post. To understand her drive for success, it is necessary to say that she was the neglected child of a Dutch courtesan. Her father could have been any of the rich and famous men her mother had serviced, among them Rossini, Dumas the Elder, or the Emperor’s half-brother, the Duke de Morny. It was to the latter that the mother turned for advice concerning the future of her awkward teenage offspring. It was he who suggested the stage.  And it was there, on the stage, that Sarah found the love, the adoration, she missed in her childhood.

In my opinion, the truly successful women of that age had this in common: they were mostly illegitimate, without the father’s authority figure. They had a wide range of freedom and their talent was not stifled by the bourgeois set of morals.

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And now some free advertising: The model in the picture Sarah is painting is the protagonist of the novel Fame and Infamy by the author of this post. More on the sidebar.

Related post:

The Franco-Prussian War is described in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

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The Moulin Rouge. Polychrome photo, 1914

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With nearly 600,000 visitors every year, Moulin Rouge is in the top ten must-see items on the tourist’s list. Located at the bottom of a hill in the Montmartre neighborhood—then a semi-rural setting favored by artists—Moulin Rouge opened its doors in 1889 to offer champagne-filled parties during which remarkable dancers and singers performed. Very soon, the establishment became world-famous for a scandalous dance called the can-can. No one has described the can-can in better words than Mark Twain here.

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With enough champagne bottles emptied, spectators found themselves willing participants on the dance floor that was installed to admire the performers up close. The great painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, immortalized these scenes of night-time delirium in some of his famous works. It is mainly thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, that the two most colorful Moulin Rouge dancers remain in our consciousness.

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Moulin Rouge’s top star La Goulue with the silhouette of her dance partner Valentin the Boneless

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No less popular is this Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster featuring Jane Avril

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The two women had only one thing in common: they both excelled on the dance floor. La Goulue, low-born and vulgar, was the prototype of the working-class girl found in the dancing halls. Louise Weber—her real name— was born in 1868 and passed to posterity as La Goulue for her greedy behavior: she liked to empty the guests’ glasses that stood within her reach.   The other dancers did not fare any better as to the choice of their nom d’artiste. There was the Cheese Kid, the Sewer Grid, or Nini the Paws-in-the-Air. This joyful band was not impressed with royalty. “Hey, Wales,” La Goulue addressed the heir to the British throne, “the champagne is in your name so is it you who pays or is your Mama [Queen Victoria] inviting us?”

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La Goulue’s sensual, provocative body corresponded to the taste of the time that appreciated generous femininity.


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La Goulue entering the Moulin-Rouge. 1892. Lautrec painted her with a smirk on her face that is difficult to interpret: is it the arrogance of a diva or simple tiredness?


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Toulouse-Lautrec remained La Goulue’s friend well after her triumphs. In this picture, they sit side by side with La Môme Fromage (the Cheese Kid) opposite

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Soon, La Goulue ceased to please and turned to her painter-friend for help. Now self-employed, she would sell her renown in the fairgrounds.  To recall her prestigious past, Lautrec painted two large panels exposed on the front of her fairground hut.  A few years later, when in debt, she had to sell these panels and they were cut into smaller canvasses by a greedy merchant.  In 1929, they were bought and restored by the Louvre and can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay.

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La Goulue’s fairground hut with panels painted by Toulouse-Lautrec

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The next adventure began in 1900 when La Goulue married. With her husband, a magician in trade, she learned to tame wild beasts.  Unfortunately, they were both assaulted during the show.

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By that time, La Gouloue’s life was on a sharp downward slide. Her husband was shot in 1914, the victim of a German bullet in the WW1. Her son, who she claimed was fathered by a prince, died at 27.

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La Goulue with her son Simon

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She lived miserably in a caravan, where she gathered ailing circus animals, and she returned to the Moulin Rouge for financial support. She was allowed to sell peanuts and cigarettes on the sidewalk. Now and then, she’d get drunk and shout: “I’m La Goulue! Can’t you see it? I was the greatest star here!”

The newspapers announced La Goulue’s death in 1929.

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Jane Avril by Edgar Chahine


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Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Born near Paris, but seemingly coming from another planet, was Jane Avril, the other celebrated Moulin Rouge star. Strange and mysterious, she did not need the raw sensuality of La Goulue to seduce her audience. She’d come and go as she pleased –no salaried employment for her—and simply danced with every nerve in her body. Except for that, she had nothing in common with the other dancers. They did not understand her and they did not like her. For them, she was Mad Jane. But Mad Jane did not care. She found her friends and lovers in intellectual circles.  She could marry if she wanted to for there were willing takers but she loved her freedom.

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Toulouse-Lautrec: Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, a lonely, mysterious figure

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Her story of an enfant-martyre explains a lot. Born Jeanne Beaudon, in 1868, to a Second Empire courtesan, and fathered by an Italian aristocrat to whom she was an embarrassment, she was first brought up by her maternal grandparents. Her life took a turn for the worse when her sadistic mother decided that Jane should live with her in Paris. She was nine when she entered hell. Today, Jane’s mother would be identified as a dangerous psychopath but the science in Jane’s childhood did not yet reach that stage. Nor did the social services function as they do today. The children, then, were the property of their parents. Several people knew that Jane was beaten at least twice a day for invented offenses, but none reported the abuse to the police. It was just not done. The constant stress had to show somewhere and Jane developed a chorea minor, then referred to as Saint Vitus Dance. It is a nervous disorder characterized by rapid, involuntary jerking movements. At fourteen, she ran away from home. Finally, she found herself in a madhouse and happy as a lark. One can fully appreciate the degree of her suffering when a child finds the madhouse a step above her home.

In her biography, Jane relates that during a musical entertainment at the hospital, she suddenly got up and began to dance. In front of her audience’s eyes, she changed from a timid, shivering nonentity into a graceful nymph. Her condition improved and, soon, she was released to her mother’s care. She ran away—for good— at sixteen to live with a student. She gave all of herself to this first love, only to find herself betrayed. This was too heavy a load for her fragile constitution. Immediately after the discovery, she ran toward the Seine to jump from a bridge. A prostitute talked her out of the idea. Jane spent that night in a brothel. The next day the inmates went to a public ball, taking their new protégé with them.

avrilThe public ball was Jane’s second awakening. From then on, her life became divided into two: a day job to keep her from hunger and a night life to keep away her demons. Her talent led to prestigious theatrical engagements when an exceptional dance number was needed and, for a time, she was the ambassador of French can-can in London and in Madrid. Her poise, grace, and intelligence made her a welcome guest at dinner parties. A friend of novelists, dramatists, artists, philosophers, and scientists, she also captured the heart of Toulouse-Lautrec who saw in her a sister soul. He too was a victim of physical suffering. He, too, had an unusual childhood. They remained friends until the painter’s premature death.

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Such was Jane Avril’s status in the world of entertainment that her presence in the audience recommended any show (poster by Toulouse-Lautrec)

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In her forties, Jane finally settled down to sixteen years of quiet married life. She died in 1943 at the age of seventy-five.

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Backstage at the Opera by Jean Béraud

The title of this post is not an exaggeration, although the Opera directors would have preferred a more subtle one or, ideally, a complete silence on the subject. The majestic opera house used to be an exclusive lupanard and the Béraud’s painting above needs no further explanation.  On the subject of ballerinas, there is the internationally popular Edgar Degas with his paintings of hard-working, hard-driven little dancers, and there is our say-it-as-it-is Jean Béraud (more of him here), who bluntly covers the other end of the story. The true story of the Degas’s dancers.

In our day, such enablement of sex commerce in a prestigious cultural institution would be unthinkable.  Welcome to the 19th century for a taste of life without women’s rights and women’s education, where a career choice outside marriage was limited mainly to servitude or prostitution. In a world made by men for the men, the Opera direction facilitated the meetings between wealthy men and the ballerinas by providing the former with access to the backstage and, above all, to the dance foyer, where they could observe the dancers at a close range and, eventually, make a choice.  The access was available for a substantial subscription fee.

In the 19th century, the ballet was more than the high-brow entertainment that makes today’s real men yawn. It was the height of erotic experience.  In an age, when an accidental glimpse of a female ankle could send a man’s heart into overdrive, the spectacle of exposed legs and nude arms in a variety of alluring positions would beat the Stanley Cup in attendance. (Also, and this may be somewhat important, there were no sports matches to watch.) A man’s prestige mattered as well. To maintain a Paris Opera ballerina, or at least to be seen dining with one, meant that you have arrived socially and economically.

 

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The Dance Class by Edgar Degas, 1874

Now back to Edgar Degas and his suffering little dancers. Since the profession was morally disreputable, the recruits came from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. A pretty daughter with a dancing talent was a God-sent gift to a struggling family.  It was on the frail shoulders of this 12- to 13-year-old that the future of the family rested – it was her duty to provide them with a better life. Dancing alone would not bring the riches, the riches would come from the admirers; the girls knew that from the very beginning.

For the dancer, the road to success inevitably comes through men.  First, there is the ballet master with his close touch while straightening a waist, repositioning a leg, or stretching an arm. The girl surrenders to the inescapable in order not to compromise her professional ascent. Then come other men, who all, one way or another, hold her career in their hands: the librettist, who gives her a role – or not – in the next ballet and the director who renews – or not – her contract. If she really wants to break out of the anonymity of the dance corps, she must quickly seduce a wealthy protector, who would pay for advanced dance classes.

 

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A daughter’s virtue was a subject to negotiation

To maintain a pretense of respectability, the direction allowed chaperones to be present at all times. These women, whether they were a mother, an aunt, or an older cousin, were the driving force behind each dancer and the unavoidable intermediaries between the girl and men.  Other lessons were needed and provided:  how to be desirable was taught with the same importance as the pas de danse. Théophile Gautier notes the results of this licentious education:  “The young ballerina is at once corrupt as an old diplomat and as naïve as a good savage. At the age of thirteen, she could teach a courtesan.”

The “mothers” then negotiate their daughter’s charm and they can be quite tyrannical. Is the interested party old and ugly? Too bad, he’s got money so the daughter better be nice to him. Prices are agreed upon and, if a long-term liaison is in the making, a contract is signed at the notary’s office. A skillful mother can make herself included in the monthly allowance.

Those, who are not urged by their mothers to give themselves to a man do so on their own will. Without the protection of a wealthy man and, if possible, a titled one, they have no access to professional recognition. It’s a man’s world and, in this profession, the masculine element holds the power. The only weapons in the ballerina’s arsenal are seduction and cunning.

 

Related posts:

Jean Béraud: The Most Parisian of the Paris Painters

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 6: Entertainment

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On fine Sunday afternoons, the outskirts of Paris offered cheaper refreshments and popular bals as this one painted by Renoir

On fine Sunday afternoons, the outskirts of Paris offered cheaper refreshments and popular balls like this one painted by Auguste Renoir

 

In his Innocents Abroad Mark Twain divided travelling Americans into the Pilgrims and the Sinners. The Sinners enjoyed all the world had to offer in terms of amusement while the Pilgrims experienced a serious culture shock on several levels. For rock-solid Puritans such as the man who requested that the trans-oceanic steamship engines be stopped to observe the Sabbath, the sight of a  fun-filled Sunday boulevard was a direct path to Hell.  (Not to speak of –horror of horrors!—the nude statues in public places and more ‘nudities’ in the Louvre.)

The following text was written by James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888). This American newspaper editor and art critic visited Paris in the early 1850’s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles  (1852). On the subject of Sunday he stands in the middle.

On this day Paris disgorges its population upon the Boulevards, the Champs Elysees, Bois du Boulogne, public gardens, and museums. The throng is interminable, but a more orderly, happier looking and better dressed crowd is nowhere to be seen. The working faubourgs send their population outside the barrier. In fine weather the Champs Elysees present the appearance of a fair. Every species of jugglery, Punch and Judy, concerts and dog shows, booths, games, and mountebank tricks are in full blast, and each becomes the centre of a curious circle. The roll of carriages and pleasure vehicles is incessant. Paris dines ” en ville,” or in other words, as pleasure is a part of a Frenchman’s creed and he is fond of good eating, he dines on that day with his family or friends at a restaurant, takes his coffee and brandy in the open air or on the sidewalk in front, and passes the evening at some theatre or ball. However remiss he may be at mass, this part of his religion is never neglected. The government encourage this mode of its observance by selecting it for grand reviews, races, launches, and whatever can add to the already seemingly superabundant sources of amusement. The grand waters at St. Cloud and Versailles play on Sunday, and the throng of people on the excursion trains of the railways is immense. Sunday is taken literally in the sense of a day of rest from ordinary work; consequently a day of liberty from otherwise the necessary labours of the remaining six might derange.

A Frenchman is as conscientious in defending his manner of keeping the Sabbath as an American would be in condemning it, though there are some, even Catholics, who agree with the latter. Education makes the difference. As the highest authority has declared Sunday was made for man, the surest way to test the relative merits of the two systems is by the effects on national character. The balance of physical happiness, and the enjoyment of the senses in works of art, would seem to be in favor of France ; but in the acquisition of religious instruction and the strengthening of moral principles, the graver course of the United States stands out in strong relief. The former renders the individual more joyous because less thoughtful — the latter more thoughtful and less joyous. The first, like their own champagne, sparkles, exhilarates and is gone ; the last, a solid aliment for the soul, nourishes strength for the hour of trial. A happy combination of the two would temper the one and adorn the other.

Related post:

Americans in Paris and the Kissing Protocol

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It’s the 1890’s. You are in Paris, and you are in the mood for some entertainment. Nothing too heavy on the intellectual side—although that, too, can be provided—nor do you want to explore the seedy part of the city. You are simply looking for a clean fun with an edge.

 
If you don’t mind noisy entertainment, you can stop at the Hippodrome to see The Live Projectile, Miss Zazel de Farini, blasted out of a cannon:

spectacle projectile vivant
Amateurs of the bizarre, go to the Folies Bergère, where Captain Constentenus, tattooed at the order of Yakoob Beg, the Chief of the Tartars, will show you his body decorated with 2 million needle jabs and 325 animal figures:

 

spectacle tattooed man
Equally strange, but more graceful are Rosa-Josepha, the phenomenal Siamese twins at the Théâtre  de la Gaîté:

spectacle siamese
For even more grace, with the added bonus of fantasy, and an eyeful of exposed female legs head for the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin to see the Snow Ballet in the show The Voyage to the Moon:

spectacle ballet de la neige

Should you find the ballet too tame, there is an additional excitement when the dance is performed in a lion cage like here at the Olympia Théâtre:

spectacle danse avec lions

 

The sight of the most ferocious beasts sharing a single cage will titillate you at the Paris Zoo:

spectacle cage des betes feroces

For a taste of faraway cultures, see the exotic Tuareg tribe from the sands of Sahara at the Vélodrome d’Hiver:

spectacle tuaregs

The Théâtre des Variétés, on the other hand, will take you back in history in a sumptuous play with a cast of druids and pretty heroines riding live horses:spectacle theatre des varietes

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Mark Twain and the Cancan

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The origin of can-can, the wild whirl of petticoats and kicking legs, can be traced back to the 1830’s. The dance was born in the public balls and guinguettes where the working class men and women discharged their energy in a rough display of seduction on the dancing floor. The can-can was later choreographed for the stage and became the chorus dance we now associate with the Belle Epoque Paris. To the 19th century public, the dance was scandalous to the extreme, hence the word cancan (scandal). Mark Twain, visiting Paris in the 1860’s, left us the following account:

 One night we went to the celebrated Jardin Mabille, but only stayed a little while. We wanted to see some of this kind of Paris life, however, and therefore the next night we went to a similar place of entertainment in a great garden in the suburb of Asnières. We went to the railroad depot toward evening, and Ferguson got tickets for a second-class carriage. Such a perfect jam of people I have not often seen – but there was no noise, no disorder, no rowdyism. Some of the women and young girls that entered the train we knew to be of the demimonde, but others we were not at all sure about.

The girls in our carriage behaved themselves modestly and becomingly all the way out, except that they smoked. When we arrived at the garden in Asnières, we paid a franc or two of admission an entered the place which had flower beds in it, and grass plots, and long, curving rows of ornamental shrubbery, with here and there a secluded bower convenient for eating ice cream in. We moved along the sinuous gravel walks, with the great concourse of girls and young men, and suddenly a domed and filigreed white temple, starred over and over and over again with brilliant gas jets, burst upon us like a fallen sun. Nearby was a large, handsome house with its ample front illuminated in the same way, and above its roof floated the Star-Spangled Banner of America.

“Well,” I said. “How is this?” It nearly took my breath away.

Ferguson said an American–a New Yorker–kept the place, and was carrying on quite a stirring opposition to the Jardin Mabille.

Crowds composed of both sexes and nearly all ages were frisking about the garden or sitting in the open air in front of the flagstaff and the temple, drinking wine or coffee or smoking. The dancing had not begun yet. Ferguson said there was to be an exhibition. The famous Blondin was going to perform on a tightrope in another part of the garden. We went thither. Here the light was dim, and the masses of people were pretty closely packed together. […]

The dance had begun, and we adjourned to the temple. Within it was a drinking saloon, and all around it was a broad circular platform for the dancers. I backed up against the wall of the temple and waited. Twenty sets formed, the music struck up and then–I placed my hands before my face for very shame. But I looked through my fingers. They were dancing the renowned “cancan”. A handsome girl in the set before me tripped forward lightly to meet the opposite gentleman, tripped back again grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them pretty high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more activity and exposure about it than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, she advanced gaily to the center and launched a vicious kick full at her vis-à-vis that must have infallibly removed his nose if he had been seven feet high. It was a mercy he was only six.

That is the cancan. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. There is no word of exaggeration in this. Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of that statement. There were a good many such people present. I suppose French morality is not of that straightlaced description which is shocked at trifles.

I moved aside and took a general view of the cancan. Shouts, laughter, furious music, a bewildering chaos of darting and intermingling forms, stormy jerking and snatching of gay dresses, bobbing heads, flying arms, lightning flashes of white-stockinged calves and dainty slippers in the air, and then a grand final rush, riot, a terrific hubbub, and a wild stampede! Heavens! Nothing like it has been seen on earth since trembling Tam O’Shanter saw the devil and the witches at their orgies that stormy night in “Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.”

                                                               Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

 

The following video staged by schoolgirls shows the widest range of cancan choreography. The inclusion of six-to-ten years old dancers is curious, to say the least. Do the parents and teachers think the provocative dance is appropriate for under-age performers?

 

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