The lives of 19th century women are known to us today mainly through their letters and writing, but also through the then new (black-and-white) portrait photography, and the vivid paintings, pastels and watercolours of impressionist artists. Many of the women drawn on paper or canvas inhabited only the artist’s imaginations, but other models were women of exceptional wealth, stage presence, timeless beauty, and effusive sexuality.
Émilie-Louise Delabigne (1848-1910), one of the most famous Parisian sex workers of her generation, was the model for a number of famous paintings, as well as the character “Nana Coupeau” of Émile Zola’s serial novels L’Assommoir (1877) and Nana (1880) chronicling the rise from of a street worker to high-class sex worker.
The real Delabigne is very different, and no less interesting than the fictional Nana. She faced many hardships from an early age, a child of poverty, and had a number of vocal detractors in later life, jealous of her favor, or envious of her success as an independent courtesan, actress, and muse. But what has proved timeless is her role as a model and inspiration to some of the greatest artists of her age. We introduce this remarkable woman through her images.
[Figure 1] In the oil canvas “Nana” painted by Édouard Manet in 1877, her gentleman admirer is just visible on the right watches as she dresses for an evening on the town, or perhaps they have just returned to her rooms. Unlike Zola’s novel which harshly judged the young woman for immorality while exploiting her story for book sales, Manet’s painting empowers his subject as she faces you the spectator. This painting, regarded as overly bold then, but as overly sentimental today, hangs in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany. What do you think?
[Figure 2] A pastel Delabigne, drawn by Manet in 1879, hangs in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Here we can see the daily style of an attractive and fashionable young woman of the time.
[Figure 3] If critics felt “Nana” too provocative, they were scandalized by the oil painting “Rolla” made by Henri Gervex (1852-1929) in 1878 showing the naked courtesan after sex. His model for this fictional sex-worker was the real-life Delabigne. Today the painting is a prized masterpiece in the collection of l’Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, France.
[Figure 4] The following year, in 1879, Gervex painted a full-length portrait of Mlle Valtesse de la Bigne in her fashionable streetwear, today at l’Musée d'Orsay in Paris. He also used Delabigne as model for the bride in The Civil Marriage painted in 1881.
Alongside men of wealth, Delabigne included men of talent among her patrons, admirers, and friends, including writers, composers, and especially painters. So many painters were among her acquaintances that one wit dubbed her L’union des peintres. Her passion for visual art extended to collecting their new masterpieces, and upon her death, she left her art estate to many of the museums of France, along with instructions on their display.
A handful of photographs of Delabigne have survived. Unlike the paintings of her, these studio portraits make her own statement of how she wishes to be seen through her choice of clothes, her posture, and to some extend, her facial expression.
[Figure 5] I have included what seems to me the prettiest of her published photographs. We can only guess about her glorious golden-red hair from the paintings, but her glamorous accessories come through in the print.
Time has clarified some things about this remarkable woman, and muddied others. There are still many negative stories that do not pass the smell test for me. She has been blamed for the financial excesses of her wealthy patrons, for inevitable and sometimes tragic family conflicts, for being but a novice actress and singer elevated by her uncritical admirers, and just about anything short of the Franco-Prussian War. One of the most foolishly unfair concerns the elegant Louis XIV styled state bed that she had commissioned for her boudoir in 1875 by the artisan Édouard Lièvre (1828-1886). Unfortunately, many contemporary small minds just cannot get past this ornate work and try to reduce Delabigne to “that woman with the fancy bed”.
[Figure 6] A beautiful and functional piece of workmanship, Delabigne bequeathed the bed to l'Musée des Arts Décoratifs where you must see it for yourself.
Survived by her daughter and grandchildren, a few days before her death Émilie-Louise distilled her life’s adventure as always living and loving in the moment : “One must love a little or a lot, following nature, but quickly, during an instant, as one loves a birdsong which speaks to one's soul and which one forgets with its last note, as one loves the crimson hues of the sun at the moment when it disappears below the horizon.”
If you have suggestions for visual portraits of other timeless beauties and muses, famous or forgotten, write to me at email@example.com