Rosalie Duthé was the First Dumb Blonde

Rosalie Duthé was the first dumb blonde
A Young Duthé by Lié Louis Salbreux-Perin. Public Domain.

Despite Rosalie Duthé being considered the first dumb blonde, she attracted the attention of some of the most distinguished men in Europe and France, including monarchs and future monarchs. This attraction also resulted in her becoming one of the most celebrated courtesans of her time. A nineteenth century writer noted that Duthé’s fame “equalled the renown of the Laises or Phrynes of ancient Greece, or that of the Imperias and Marozias of the Rome of the Middle Ages,”[1] and although a twenty-first century writer agreed, she described Duthé as

“[A] famously vacuous creature who had taken the polite conventions of feminine modesty to an extreme. She had developed a habit of long pregnant silences. Perhaps she had nothing to say, but her mystery and her secretive allure, combined with a number of other more tangible attributes, meant that she gathered appreciative customers from the highest social and political ranks.”[2]

Duke of Orléans. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Among Duthé’s appreciative customers was the womanizing Louis Philippe II, Duke of Chartres (later known as the Duke of Orleans and still later as Philippe Égalité). Duthé was supposedly the Duke’s first mistress, and he thought enough of her skills to present her to his 15-year-old son Philippe (later King Louis Philippe I), so that Philippe could “learn some facts of life.”[3] The experience must have been educational because Duthé was later seen riding in Philippe’s carriage on the Champs-Élysées. Normally only princes rode in such carriages, and so some young aristocrats took offense, composed a song, and set it to a popular tune using the lyrics “La Duthé a dû téter,” which roughly translates to “La Duthé must have suckled royally.”[4]

The Duke and his son were not the only men interested in Duthé. Among the rivals for her affection was the immensely wealthy George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont and Louis XVI’s younger brother, Count of Artois. Egremont was said to have been “ruined” by her, and the Count of Artois’s visits were allegedly so frequent a punning remark was soon on everyone’s lips: “ayant en une indigestion de gâteau de Savoye à Versailles, il était allé prendre du thé à Paris.”[5] The remark essentially met having indigestion because of a Savoy cake (a reference to Artois’s unpopular wife, Marie Thérèse of Savoy), he went to have tea in Paris (a pun on Duthé’s name as tea in French is du thé). Eventually, however, the Count transferred his affections from Duthé to a ballet dancer named Mademoiselle Michelot. 

Duthé was born in Versailles in 1748 to a retired artillery officer. She was christened Catherine-Rosalie Gerard Duthé and became a ballet dancer and star at the Paris Opéra. However, her long silent pauses on stage resulted in a one-act play being written that satirized this unflattering characteristic. The play was called Les Curiosities de la Foire (Curiosities of the Fair).

Besides her long pauses, Duthé loved pink and wore the color all the time in her personal life. In fact, people remarked that she wore no “other hue, even for her underlinen.”[6] People also described her as extremely or “surpassingly” beautiful. There were also comments about her figure, with one person declaring she had “the finest figure in the world.”[7] Inspector Louis Marais, who was head of Paris’s vice squad, also thought her fetching and once stated:

“She is one of the most beautiful women of Paris; tall, has a very good figure, splendid complexion, a most amiable face, and beautiful hair.”[8]

Étienne-François, Duke of Choiseul. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

She was so beautiful, she acquired many wealthy patrons and began to hold a salon that was attended by such men as the French philosopher Denis Diderot and the French poet Charles-Pierre Colardeau. On Saturdays, she always gave sumptuous dinners, and she was well-known for taking a drive in her carriage that was drawn by eight creamy white horses. It was even said that “her splendid mansion, and her carriages … were covered with gold.”[9]

Although Duthé may not have been perceived as bright, she was brave enough to enter into politics. To aid her, she sought the advice and influence of the Duke of Choiseul. Choiseul was Minister of Foreign Affairs and had been a strong supporter for the marriage between Marie Antoinette and the future Louis XVI. He was also a man who Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry, intensely disliked. Unfortunately, as Madame du Barry and her supporters were busy trying to undermine Choiseul, Duthé was hoping to get Choiseul’s help, and so nothing came of her political aspirations because Choiseul was dismissed and retired in 1770.

Drouais’s painting (top), Hoin’s painting (left), and Danloux’s painting (right). Public Domain.

Duthé was extremely popular with French men. In fact, her popularity resulted in her being the subject of many partial and full nude portraits. Among these nude portraits was one by Antoine Vestier. Vestier also painted a portrait (not a nude) of the Princesse de Lamballe that was stolen in a famous heist in the 1980s. Lié Louis Salbreux-Perin allegedly painted five portraits of Duthé, including a nude that was intended for the Count of Artois’s bathroom at his Bagatelle residence.

Nudes were not the only way that Duthé was memorialized. The famous sculpture Jean-Antoine Houdon made a bust of her. There were also many other artists who decided to capture her likeness. For instance, François-Hubert Drouais created several portraits. One is shown to the left and the other, a full-length portrait of her in 1768, is now owned by the English branch of the Rothschild family. Claude-Jean-Baptiste Hoin, known primarily for his portraits and landscapes, also painted her (or least it is presumed to be her), as did Henri-Pierre Danloux. Danloux was Duthé’s favorite painter and his painting of her in 1792 is titled Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthé.

Duthé by Vigée-Lebrun in 1776. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun, the woman so famous for painting Marie Antoinette with a rose, also presumably painted Duthé. One painting was done in 1789 and depicts Duthé resting a knee on a blue sofa as she holds a picture in her hands. Another is the one shown to the right (although it may be a copy of someone else’s work as Duthé supposedly never sat for Vigée-Lebrun). However, Lebrun did know her and Vigée-Lebrun wrote to the Russian Princess Kourakin about a time when Duthé spent millions and men were willing to pay her whatever she demanded.

“Vous ne sauriez avoir une idée, chère amie, de ce qu’étaient les femmes entretenues à l’époque dont je vous parle. Mademoiselle Duthé, par example, a mangé des millions.” (You have no idea, dear friend, what women were like at this time of which I speak. Mademoiselle Duthé, for example, ate millions.”)[10]

Portrait of Duthé holding a rose, 1779. Courtesy of British Museum.

When the French Revolution broke out, Duthé decided to emigrate to England. There she found new admirers including a man named Mr. Lee. However, Lee would not escort her anywhere and instead had his younger brother provide his arm and accompany her to promenades, the theatre, or public events. The Duke of Queensberry was also a friend to Duthé and once asked her about her conducted with the older and younger Lee brothers. She replied: “The younger Lee is ‘mon Lit de parade”; the elder ” ‘mon Lit de repos.'”[11]

When the Bourbon Restoration occurred, Duthé returned to France. She was no longer young, but had a considerable fortune and began to reside in the Rue Marboeuf, in the Champs Élysées. Her famous gilt carriage was again seen in public, “but instead of being admired, was much laughed at, as the style and shape were quite out of fashion.”[12] At her death on 25 September 1830,* her famous carriage was sold for theatrical performances, and she was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

*Some people report her death was 24 September 1830, and there are also various dates as to the year she died that include 1820, 1830, and 1831.

References:

  • [1] Gronow, Reese Howell, The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow, Volume 1, 1863, p. 289.
  • [2] Pitman, Joanna, On Blondes, 2008, p. 129.
  • [3] Guédé, Alain, Monsieur de Saint-George: virtuoso, swordsman, revolutionary, 2003. p. 72.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Hayward, Abraham, Varieties of History and Art, 1873 p. 151.
  • [6] Pink Much in Vogue, in Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 15 August 1912, p. 3.
  • [7] Gronow, Reese Howell, p. 290.
  • [8] Fragonard, Jean-Honore, Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, 1914, p. 30.
  • [9] Gronow, Reese Howell, p. 289.
  • [10] Vigée-Lebrun, Louis-Elisabeth, Souvenirs of Madame Vigée LeBrun, 1869, p. 19.
  • [11] Gronow, Reese Howell, p. 290.
  • [12] Ibid.

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