Marie-Madeleine Guimard was a celebrated French ballerina who dominated the Parisian stage for almost thirty years. She was born on 27 December 1743 and was the love child of Anne Bernard and a manufacturing cloth inspector named Fabien Guimard. She joined the Comédie-Française at the age of fifteen and made her debut at the Opéra on 9 May 1762 as Terpsichoré, the muse of dance.
It was hard work to be a dancer. This was because at the Opéra, “the discipline and organization … was at the time … like a regiment; the dancers form[ed] several classes, promotion [was] difficult; the work … very hard … and the salary … very small.” Despite all the challenges, Guimard excelled. She was said to be “much admired for her extraordinary grace in dancing and pantomime,” and she was described as “exquisitely graceful and fascinating.” In addition, Guimard’s dancing abilities were “characterised by Noverre as the poetry of motion, and in such ballets as ‘Les caprices de Galathée,’ composed expressly for her … she was generally allowed to be inimitable.”
While her dancing was said to be extraordinary, Guimard’s looks were not. One person described her as “plain, dark, thin, and pitted with smallpox.” Sophie Arnould, a witty French operatic soprano who was perhaps was jealous of Guimard’s abilities, called her “the spider.” Yet, for all Guimard’s disadvantages in looks — a lack of beauty in both face and figure — one admirer said of her “the three Graces were represented by herself alone.”
Guimard’s dancing abilities were thought so highly of the famous French neoclassical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, modeled her foot. For many years, a marble bust of her was also installed on a pedestal in the foyer at the Opéra. Even Marie Antoinette was fascinated by her. She summoned Guimard “to Trianon to give her opinion, in the presence of the assembled ladies in waiting, on the shape of a corsage, or the proper elevation of the pyramidalical adjustment of the hair.”
During Guimard’s dancing career, there were many interesting stories about her. One story occurred when she was under contract with an Italian dancer, choreographer and impresario named Giovanni Gallini. She was slated to appear at the Opera House in the Haymarket, and while rehearsing there. A witness to the catastrophe wrote:
“On the 17th of June 1784, I was, on my return from a visit, crossing the Park from Buckingham Gate to Stable Yard, St. James’s, when this most tremendous conflagration burst upon me; it seemed to make the long line of trees wave in an atmosphere of fire. … The fire had commenced in the flies and burst through the roof in a column of confirmed fierceness, that evinced its strength to have been irresistible, even when it was first perceived. In the theatre, about two o’clock, they had been rehearsing a ballet, and the first alarm was occasioned by the sparks of fire which fell upon the heads of the dancers. Mme. Ravelli was with difficulty saved by one of the firemen; Mme. Guimard lost a slipper, but escaped in safety.”
When not touring, Guimard lived at 9 rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin in the Hôtel Guimard. It was nicknamed the “Terpsichoré temple” in reference to Guimard’s debut role of Terpsichoré. Guimard’s Hôtel was described as a “model of luxury and good taste” and was immaculately furnished. The odor of orange flowers permeated it even in winter, and it was the spot where Guimard gave amusing supper parties. Supposedly, these luxurious parties were divided into three categories:
“On Tuesdays she received the most distinguished personages of the Court; on Thursdays, the élite of contemporary literature; and on Saturdays, a motley assemblage of wits, actresses, and miscellaneous viveurs.”
Whenever and wherever Guimard appeared, she made a splash. One such splash occurred at Longchamps and was recorded as follows:
Among all the equipages, the most admired was that of La Guimard, drawn by four superb horses, worthy of conducting the modern Terpsichore: nothing was wanting to render this triumphal car complete, neither the costliest trappings nor the most elaborate paintings … No wonder that with such fabulous resources at her command, she received with an indifference bordering on contempt a pension of fifteen hundred livres granted her by Louis XVI shortly after his accession to the throne. ‘I accept it,’ she said, ‘because it comes from the King; but it is barely sufficient to pay the candle-snuffer of my theatre!'”
Another facet of Guimard’s fascinating life was her numerous romantic liaisons. Her first lover was an actor named Léger. Léger was replaced by many other men including one well-known lover named Jean-Benjamin de la Borde. De la Borde was born into an aristocratic family on 5 September 1734. He served as a fermier générale (farm tax collector), a composer, and a valet-de-chambre ordinaire of Louis XV, a post that he lost when the King died. One person described de la Borde as “a man of the world … amiable and intelligent.” It was this amiable and intelligent man who Guimard had a daughter with in April of 1763.
From Guidmard’s house, suppers, and equipage, a person might think all she thought of was money. However, she was noted to be extremely charitable. One instance of her charitable nature occurred in the cold and bitter winter of 1768. At the time, whole families were perishing because of hunger. Concerned about the welfare of the starving poor, she left her hotel and began distributing large sums of money to her “indigent neighbours so as to insure them ample means of subsistence for an entire twelvemonth.” She accomplished this alone and with the utmost secrecy. This resulted in the police becoming involved, and it was only after their involvement that it was discovered it had been Guimard who had been so kind and generous.
Guimard acquired much of her money from her relationship with Charles de Rohan, Prince de Soubise. He was the Marshal of France and a great connoisseur of ballet dancers. Like other men, the Prince found himself irresistibly drawn to Guimard. One person wrote that the Prince “was her devoted slave, and would willingly have sacrificed his enormous fortune to gratify her slightest caprice.” Although Guimard and the Prince had a long affair and he might have been willing to do anything for Guimard, she apparently found love in the arms of a German prince. Her affair with the German Prince so upset the Prince de Soubise, he became consumed with jealousy, pursued the German Prince, wounded him, and killed three of his servants.
By the time Guimard and the Prince de Soubise’s affair ended, she was financially strapped. She sold her Hôtel Guimard in 1785 through a lottery. On 14 August 1789, she married Jean-Étienne Despréaux, a man five years younger than herself. He was a dancer, songwriter, and playwright. A year later she retired and Despréaux retired a year after she retired. Unfortunately, Guimard’s golden years were not so golden and when she died, her death passed largely unnoticed.
“[The] Revolution … deprived her of her pensions; she took small lodgings with her husband on the top of the Butte Montmartre, and wrote useless petitions to the Government to get her pension from the Opéra paid. The Empire [also] did not bring back her past opulence … She died in the Rue Ménars on the 4th of May, 1816.”
- Belgravia, Volume 25, 1875
- Berry, Mary, Extracts From the Journals and Correspondence of Miss Berry, Volume 2, 1866
- Clark, Linda L., Women and Achievement in Nineteenth-Century Europe, 2008
- Edwards, Henry Sutherland, Idols of the French Stage, 1889
- Temple Bar, Volume 52, 1878
- The Nation, Volume 56, 1893
- Williams, H. Noel, Later Queens of the French Stage, 1906