Posts Tagged ‘courtesan’


Giovanni Boldini: Signora Diaz-Albertini


Which woman would not wish to be highly desirable? Anyone able to make that dream reality would be well-rewarded. Giovanni Boldini, with his magic brush, made a lucrative career out of injecting voluptuousness into his sitters’ portraits. Everything in his paintings exuded sensuality: not only the woman herself but also her outfit. Jewels gleamed against bare flesh, satins glistened while embracing curves, slick silks slithered, exposing a shoulder, fluffy furs invited a caress.


boldini photo

The Italian painter Giovanni Boldini (born in 1842) settled in Paris in 1872. He died there, a very wealthy man, in 1931

Boldini’s racy paintings touched the extreme limit of convention. His work was the talk of high society dinners. In the last years of the Belle Époque, at the height of his fame, the demand was so high that he chose his sitters. To have a portrait painted by Boldini was a defining sign of eligibility. It was known that the artist did not deign to honor a portrait commission below one million francs – except for a privileged relationship with the model. (For comparison, the wage of a maid was one franc a day.)


As the Belle Époque sped toward the end of the century, the hefty beauties of the Second Empire gave way to slim, ethereal beings. Not every fashionable woman was able to fit that image. It took the clever brush of a painter to stretch bodies lengthwise and refine features. Boldini was the master of flattery.  


alice regnault

From chubby to lascivious: Alice Regnault, a popular actress, became a red hot item thanks to Boldini’s art



Madame Wertheimer (1902): One of the daring décolletage portraits that made Boldini’s fortune


Before Boldini’s time, a high-ranking courtesan’s ambition—when she had a portrait painted—was to look like a grande dame. Now fashionable titled women wanted to look like courtesans. Below are the portraits of two women, coincidentally both named Marthe, who were vastly apart on the social scale. One is a wealthy prostitute, the other a Romanian princess. Which is which?




Princess Marthe Bibesco and Marthe de(*) Florian


Boldini’s portrait of Marthe de Florian was recently discovered in her Parisian apartment that had been locked away for seventy years. The story was published in an earlier post here: How the Courtesans Lived – A Time Capsule

(*) Celebrated courtesans often appended the aristocratic particle de to their chosen names.


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Could You Be a Salonnière?

Bois de Boulogne: The Rendezvous of Wealth and Opulence


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A Belle Epoque courtesan of the first magnitude, Marthe de Florian (1864-1939) has been well forgotten since her “sentimental retirement”. But the reopening of her apartment, seven decades after her death, recalled her to our good memory by the brilliance of her treasures.


Monsieur Olivier Choppin Janvry is not close to forgetting the spring day of  2010 when he was mandated by a provincial notary to open a Parisian apartment which had remained hermetically sealed since the beginning of WW2. This real estate of fifteen hundred square feet located in the Pigalle neighborhood was a sanctuary frozen in time. Under a thin layer of dust, a whole world of high gallantry revived through the correspondence carefully classified and color-coded with silk ribbon ties according to the sender.


France during WW2

The owner of the place died in Trouville-sur-Mer on August 29, 1939, bequeathing the apartment to her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, then aged 20. During the German occupation,  Solange left Paris to join the Free Zone in the south of France and settled in the Ardèche. She never returned to the capital but, for the next seventy years, she scrupulously paid the quarterly dues on this Parisian apartment.

When she died in May 2010,  aged 91, the apartment revealed its Art Nouveau treasures, and especially a superb life-size portrait of its former owner clad in a evening gown of pale pink satin.




An expert identified the author of the portrait: Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). Painted in 1898, this masterpiece remained an unknown in the work of the famous portrait painter and later sold for more than two million euros. It was common knowledge that the artist did not deign to honor a portrait commission below one million francs – except for a privileged relationship with the model. The wealthy Italian buyer of the painting was offered as a bonus a package of correspondence enlightening the personality of the said model and the gallant history of the Third Republic.


Who was Marthe de Florian? From a midinette to a high-end courtesan, read her story here.

Update: Some details in this article are disputed here.

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The Noon Girl: La Midinette
The Gallery of Achievers: The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt


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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, complete silence on the subject. The majestic opera house used to be an exclusive lupanar 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 covered this sordid end of the story as opposed to the internationally popular Edgar Degas with his paintings of hard-working, hard-driven little 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 men, the Opera direction facilitated the meetings between wealthy patrons and the ballerinas by providing the former with access backstage 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 were a success socially and economically.



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 socioeconomic 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 will pay for advanced dance classes.



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 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 noted 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 charges’ 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 get herself included in the monthly allowance.

Those, who are not urged by their mothers to give themselves to a man do so of 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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Cocottes and cocodettes are the two faces of the moral decadence that characterized the exuberant Second Empire  (1852–70) period in France under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III. The two terms are often confused. In 19th century Paris, especially during the Second Empire, cocottes were high-ranking prostitutes; their rank was determined by the number of ruined men they left in their wake. They were mostly of low origin and socially unacceptable outside their circle. Even La Païva, the richest cocotte in France and wife of a Portuguese aristocrat, was turned out when she attempted to appear at Court.

Cocodettes, on the other hand, were well-born spirited women in the entourage of Empress Eugénie. Duchesses, countesses, and wives of foreign ambassadors aspired to be members of the club. However, as far as virtue was concerned, cocottes and cocodettes often stood on the same moral level. In fact, the imperial court was an upscale brothel where sex was exchanged for favors. Napoleon III, a notorious sex-addict, cruised the in-crowd for easy conquests. To an experienced courtier, a twirl of the emperor’s moustache was a sure sign that the object of his interest would soon find herself in a horizontal position. To be tumbled by the emperor was considered a badge of honor. During a ball given at the court, “Madame de X.,” recalled Baron Haussmann, “was loudly enthusiastic after what had just happened to her. I had to snatch her away for a waltz to prevent her from bragging about it to her husband.”

Cocottes and cocodettes – two faces of the moral decadence that characterized the exuberant Second Empire. It all came to an end in 1870 when France provoked a war with Prussia and suffered a defeat. The Third Republic, built on the Second Empire’s ruins, proclaimed the return to middle-class morality.

Franz Winterhalter: The Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, 1855

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Eugenie, the Tragic Empress

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