The rise of grisettes.
DEVERIA Achilles (1800 - 1857)
At the public ball.
GUYS Constantine (1802 - 1892)
Title: The rise of grisettes.
Author : DEVERIA Achilles (1800 - 1857)
Creation date : 1827
Dimensions: Height 23.6 - Width 31.1
Technique and other indications: Reproduction of a colored etching
Storage location: Carnavalet museum (Paris) website
Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bullozsite web
Picture reference: 07-534473
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - Bulloz
Title: At the public ball.
Author : GUYS Constantine (1802 - 1892)
Dimensions: Height 32 - Width 23
Technique and other indications: Brown and black ink
Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website
Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Thierry Le Mage
Picture reference: 02-008715 / RF41652
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Thierry Le Mage
Publication date: January 2016
Fleeting like a bird
In the context of the massive industrialization and urbanization that developed in France from the first half of the 19th centurye century, many young women began to work as workers in sewing workshops as laundresses, embroiderers, sewing machines, weavers, ironers, glove-makers or feather-dressers.
This laundry work is often a seasonal job, and therefore precarious. Women are frequently employed by the day and receive a monthly salary of 30 to 60 francs on average (between 120 and 230 euros today), an amount insufficient to meet household needs, housing, food or the charge of a family. After these exhausting weeks, only Sunday gives a little respite to these young women, who very much like to go dancing at the ball.
Achille Devéria, romantic illustrator who excelled in painting the fashions and customs of his time, and Constantin Guys, the "painter of modern life" according to Charles Baudelaire, reveal to us through their works their interest in grisettes, revealing to us the different stages of the life of these singular figures who populate the fine arts, literature, but also songs and newspapers of the XIXe century.
The charm of grisettes
The Good Kind, no 29: the rise of the grisettes is a colored lithograph by Achille Devéria published in 1827 in Observations on the fashions and customs of Paris, to serve as an explanation for the 115 caricatures published under the title Bon Genre, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, by Pierre de La Mésangère. We discover four young women, grisettes or textile workers, who dress and do their hair with a grace and gesture worthy of ballerinas. The interior is typical of a grisette: the vast mirror (the psyche), but also the accessories and costumes characteristic of these neat and coquettish young women (ribbons, shawls, pumps and hats). The little cat curled up in the arms of one of them can be taken as a sexual allusion.
In his brown-and-black ink drawing, Constantin Guys nervously brushes a grisette inviting a man to dance in a swirling ballroom atmosphere lit by the faint glow of a streetlamp. The slim and elegant woman appears to introduce herself to the man, pulling up her skirt, as if offering her services. In the background, a cloud of black top hats seems to await another slender young woman, who shoots out her left side like a speck of light in the dark night.
On the way to venal love
If the term grisette flourished in the XIXe century with the desire to determine the typologies and the salient physiologies of the society of the time, like The Human Comedy of Honoré de Balzac, this figure actually appeared in the 17th centurye century, especially in Jean de La Fontaine, who was interested in the ingenuous freshness of these young girls of modest status.
The term borrows first from zoology, the gray warbler being a small bird, suggesting the idea of movement and adventure, a light, energetic and elusive girl. Later it fits into the early XIXe industrial century and designates the color of the fabric of the dress worn by the workers, gray and not dirty.
Very quickly however, by association, the word designates, according to the definition found in all the dictionaries of the XIXe century, a woman of petty virtue or light manners, assimilated to a prostitute.
The balls where the grisettes are used to performing are indeed real meeting places combining all social categories, with a flirtatious atmosphere, a great opportunity to be noticed. "Real fields of maneuver" for gallant women, especially those who have mastered the art of seducing with their bodies, these places of relaxation can be a springboard in their career. A grisette can always hope to meet men of the world, rich or titled, who like to get out of their midst to have fun and have fun.
In an urban context, and in particular in Paris, the capital, then in full expansion, prostitution takes a meteoric rise. The grisette then corresponds to the new kind of girl maintained at that time, a reflection of the new consumption habits of which venal love is a part. This process developed throughout the XIXe century. As a new female type, the grisette, free, elegant and mischievous, a pioneer and modern figure, plays a major role in forging the myth of the Parisienne and in defining the Parisienne of today.
- popular imagery
- Balzac (Honoré de)
AUTHIER Catherine, Exceptional Women, Women of Influence: A History of 19th Century Courtesans, Paris, Armand Colin, 2015.
PREISS Nathalie, SCAMARONI Claire, She sews, she runs, the grisette!, cat. exp. (Paris, 2011-2012), Paris, Paris museums, 2011.
ROUNDING Virginia, The large horizontals: lives and legends of four 19th century courtesans, Monaco / Paris, Éditions du Rocher, coll. "Anatolia", 2005.
To cite this article
Catherine AUTHIER, "The day of a grisette"