The Great Courtesans

November 24, 2009 at 11:24 pm (Uncategorized) (, , )

I’ve recently finished reading a fascinating book, Joanna Richardson’s The Courtesans, a history of the twelve greatest women of pleasure in the Demi-Monde. These women were a far cry away from the typical modern perception of prostitutes as victims. They used their sexual allure and their sharp wits to accumulate a vast amount of power and wealth, far greater than many of their ‘respectable’ contemporaries. Reading about these remarkable women, I could see clear parallels with the ‘femme fatale’ that the Decadents were so fond of. I enjoyed the book very much, and thought I’d make a quick note of the grande horizontales whom Richardson covers.

1. Blanche d’Antigny (1840-74)

Blanche (born Marie-Ernestine Antigny), is widely believed to have been the inspiration for Emile Zola’s infamous courtesan, Nana. She certainly met Nana’s physical description, burnt through money at the same rate, and died a similar death to the heroine at the young age of 33. A part-time actress, she could list a Russian prince, Maharajahs and French bankers amongst her conquests. She kept a magnificent set of rooms in Paris, draped with turquoise satin and populated by liveried footmen, where she threw extravagant parties for her friends. She is infamous for appearing in public draped in diamonds.


Blanche d'Antigny poses as the penitent Magdalene

Blanche posing as the penitent Magdalene


2. La Barucci (1837[?]-70/1)

La Barucci (Giulia Beneni) won favour through her Italian looks, her indefatigable determination to win the lover of her choice, and her charming, child-like spontaneity. She would proudly show off her jewellery cabinet to her visitor, the contents of which were said to be worth millions, and she kept her visiting cards in a china bowl by her fireplace – cards which bore the names of nearly every name in high society at the time. When meeting the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), she was told to behave with decorum. Upon being introduced, she promptly let her dress fall to the ground, without a word of warning. When she was reprimanded, she exclaimed, “What, did you not tell me to behave properly to His Royal Highness? I showed him the best I have, and it was free!”

3. Cora Pearl (1835-86)

Cora Pearl (Eliza Emma Crouch), an English emigrant, was infamous for being the most unfeeling of the great courtesans, only loving men for what they could give her. However, given that her initiation into sexual activity was in the form of a rape, one cannot help but sympathise with her desire to exact revenge on mankind, ruining them with her charms, then leaving them when she had got all she could. She quickly progressed through the European aristocracy, and had an affair with Prince Napoleon that lasted for many years. She used her vast accumulation of wealth to purchase luxurious apartments in the rue de Chaillot, fitted with a bath of rose marble, her initials inlaid in the bottom with gold. She was a keen sportswoman, and was said to bestow far more affection on her horses than her dejected lovers. She once appeared on the Paris stage wearing boots with buttons made from huge diamonds, the soles also incrusted with the precious stones. The Prince once sent her a van-load of rare orchids, and she threw a party where she danced the hornpipe, dressed as a sailor, over the valuable flowers. One lover sent her a box of marrons glaces, each one wrapped in a thousand franc note. Unfortunately for Cora, the life of luxury did not last. The fall of the Second Empire brought an end to her power, and she died in poverty.


photograph of Cora Pearl

Cora Pearl



4. Esther Guimond (d. 1876)

Esther Guimond was one of the courtesans who had the most influence on the Press and politics of her time. Once she had established herself with a selection of wealthy lovers, her apartments regularly entertained distinguished writers and politicians, who were won over by her sharp wit and amusing anecdotes. She managed to retain her influence even as age set in, and entertained influential men at her dinner parties well into her old age.

5. La Paiva (1819-84)

La Paiva clawed her way up from the Moscow ghetto to unbelievable wealth, first as a Marquise and then a Countess. She is also the most unpleasant of the courtesans discussed by Richardson, carelessly leaving a trail of men behind her as she used up their resources, and showing no regret at the death of her child.  She had an almost supernatural belief in the power of the human will to achieve certain ends, and it certainly seems to have worked for her. Her luxurious hotel on the Champs Elysees stands to this day as a testament of her obscene wealth. The staircase was made from real alabaster, and the salon had a magnificent ceiling, designed by Baudry, depicting day chasing away the night. She could only consider the value of something in the terms of how much it cost. She was also known to be cruel – she shot a horse which threw her, and was a hard mistress to her many servants, unforgiving of the slightest error. La Paiva ended her days at the castle of her last husband, Henckel von Donnersmarck, who was unfailingly devoted to her. There was a legend that Donnersmarck’s second wife, well-born and youthful, unlocked a room in the castle that her husband kept carefully closed up, finding the body of La Paiva, preserved in alcohol. An attractive legend, albeit one that seems to have wandered straight out of the pages of a Perrault fairytale.


Une Soiree Chez La Paiva - painting by adolphe montecelli

Adolphe Montecelli - Une Soiree Chez La Paiva



6. Mademoiselle Maximum (1842-94)

Mademoiselle Maximum (Leonide Leblanc) earned her nickname through her great hunger for luxury and excess. Naturally capricious, she abandoned her burgeoning career as an actress in order to go travelling, before returning to Paris and the stage. Her personal charms seem to have earned her forgiveness for her flightiness. She courted publicity, and also seems to have been a compulsive liar. She had many generous lovers, but was unable to hold onto any of them for long. She was similarly careless with her material wealth – as much as she loved her luxuries, she often speculated unwisely, and was eventually forced to live more modestly. In spite of this, she continued to be admired until her death.


Leonide Leblanc

Leonide Leblanc


7. Marguerite Bellanger (1840-86)

Marguerite was often criticised for her rustic, tomboyish manners, but it was this unaffected quality in her that attracted the attentions of Napoleon III, who became so infatuated with the courtesan that the Empress eventually had to intervene in order to avoid a public scandal.

8. Caroline Letessier (dates unknown)

Caroline was a woman who disappeared back into the obscurity from whence she came, after spending a few glittering years as one of the stars of la garde. She appeared at parties in elaborate gowns, strewn with jewels, and once danced so much that her dress was nearly torn to shreds. She claimed to ‘deal in Grand Dukes’, and defiantly appeared in public alongside ‘respectable’ women, not afraid to reply insolently to anyone who dared to disparage her.

9. Alice Ozy (1820-93)

Alice Ozy (Julie-Justine Pilloy) was renowned for her charm, wit and financial intelligence. She started  – as did many courtesans – in the theatre, where she stole the heart of the young Duc d’Aumale. It was an affair that was to establish her, although she did not return his loyalty, and moved on to a series of conquests, including Theophile Gautier, who seems to have been positively tormented by her. Her financial acumen meant that she could retire in wealth, but her old age seems to have been haunted by loneliness, and a regret for the days that had gone.


painting of Alice Ozy

Alice Ozy by Amaury Duval


10. Marie Duplessis (1824-47)

Marie Duplessis would win immortality as the inspiration for Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias. She was always fragile, and seemed to have known that she would not live long judging by how fiercely she lived in the small time allotted to her. She was passionate about the theatre, and hated to miss a performance of any new play. Her charm and sense of decorum meant that she was accepted into respectable society – a rare thing for a courtesan. She won the heart of Franz Liszt, who gave her piano lessons, and would remember her wistfully years later. When she died at the age of just twenty-three, her belongings were sold to fashionable ladies, clamouring for a souvenir of this charming courtesan.


Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis


11. Apollonie Sabatier (1822-89)

Madame Sabatier, often referred to as ‘La Presidente’ was the hostess of the most culturally rich salon in Paris, and is famously the inspiration for Charles Baudelaire’s ‘white Venus’ poems. A great patron of the arts, Apollonie seems to have been the most endearing and respected of the courtesans – evidence of her tender-heartedness can be found in her personal letters to Baudelaire. She won the admiration of Flaubert, Gautier and Jean-Baptiste Clesinger amongst many others.

12. Mogador (1824-1909)

Mogador (La Comtesse de Chabrillan) is a tragic figure amongst her more frivolous contemporaries, due to her desire to be a respectable woman. Winning fame for her ability to dance magnificently, she had entered prostitution through a belief that there was nothing else for her, and she would always regret it. She eventually married a respectable nobleman whom she loved very much, but his family refused to accept her. The couple were forced to leave for Australia in order to keep afloat financially, where Mogador initiated a successful career as a writer. However, she soon had to return to Paris for the sake of her health, and after just a few years together her husband died. She committed her life to giving lectures and to charitable causes, but she never gained the respectability she so dearly desired. She is something of a pathetic figure compared to her more ruthless, morally lax, contemporaries, suffering acutely because she hadn’t the heart (or lack thereof) to be a true courtesan.



Didn’t realise this would be quite such a long post – sorry about that!



  1. melmoth said,

    Bravo! A glorious potpourri of laissez-faire ladies- a lusty cornucopia of concubines. And it wasn’t just piano lessons Liszt was giving Marie Duplessis! 😉

    • Decadent Handbook said,

      Of course not! Liszt was ano of the most notorious swordsmen of his day – he was hardly going to pass up an opportunity like that 😉

      Also, nice alliteration with ‘cornucopia of concubines’. I’ll have to try to use that in a sentence some time this week.

  2. laure simon said,

    I’am a researcher working for french tv programs and i am looking for paintings about La Paiva. Could you inform me where i could find in a hi resolution format the painting “une soirée chez la Paiva” of Adolphe Montecelli (the museum or so)
    Thanks a lot,

    Laure Simon

  3. Outdoor Rugs · said,

    i take my kids for piano lessons because i want them to learn about playing the piano *

  4. Kids Pools said,

    it does not take too long to learn good piano playing if you have a good piano lesson -,`

  5. Balls, bad boys and blue-footed boobies | Limpid Lech's finds said,

    […] A 2009 review of The Courtesans: “I’ve recently finished reading a fascinating book, Joanna Richardson’s The Courtesans, a history…“ […]

  6. Maktaaq said,

    This book sounds good – I am currently reading Grandes Horizontales by Virginia Rounding, which is just about La Paiva, Sabatier, Duplessis and Cora Pearl. But there are allusions to Alice Ozy and now I am curious about her and the other ones. I’ll have to see if I can find this book at the library!

  7. Charles Frederick Worth « loomings2011 said,

    […] der Vampire gespielt wird) ist Kundin bei Worth. Und all die anderen Kurtisanen auch: Alice Ozy, Esther Guimond, La Paiva. Zola wusste schon, weshalb er Nana schrieb. Wahrscheinlich aus Respekt gegenüber […]

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