By Sarah McCleave
Marie Madeleine Guimard (1743-1816) began her professional career as a member of the corps de ballet at the Comédie Française in 1758; within four years she was appointed to the Paris Opéra as danseuse seule en double et figurant. Guimard’s début season for the Opéra saw her assume the role of Terpsichore in Colin de Blamont’s ballet héroïque Les Fêtes grecques et romaines; her rendition of the muse of the dance was subsequently immortalised in Jacques-Louis David’s charming portrait taken in the mid 1770s. In 1766 Guimard – celebrated for her unparalleled grace and refinement as a performer – was promoted to danseuse seule. By the late 1760s she had also become a Parisian celebrity who exerted a particularly strong fascination on her public and the press until she retired in 1789.1 Guimard was highly visible as a talented performer, as an indulged mistress of powerful and well positioned men, as a society hostess, and as a fashion plate –- but also as a philanthropist, patron of the arts and workplace activist. These identities stimulated distinct responses from artists and writers that promoted and prolonged her celebrity status.
Guimard created some of her most noteworthy roles in the 1770s and ’80s. As the young and innocent Nicette in Maximilien Gardel’s La Chercheuse d’Esprit (1778) she avoids an unappealing mercenary match intended by her mother, instead acquiring the youthful and sympathetic Alain as her fiancée. Guimard’s performance impressed Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm with her spirit, delicacy, and natural grace.2 In Gardel’s Le premier navigateur, ou Le pouvoir de l’amour (26 July 1785) Guimard assumed the role of shepherdess Mélide. Newly wed to her beloved shepherd Daphnis, Mélide is separated from him in a great storm, and finds herself on a deserted island. Guimard’s affecting performance of the shepherdess’s utter despair (Act III, sc. 1) is captured in the print featured here. The accompanying verse declares that the virtuous, spirited and generous character of the dancer is united with a grace even more lovely than her beauty.
Elle unit les vertus, l’esprit et la bonté
A la grace plus belle encor que la beauté
Guimard attached herself to men of power and influence; her associations arguably strengthened her position within the Paris Opéra, and demonstrably enabled her to live a life of artistic influence and luxury up until the French revolution. Her artistic liaisons included Hyacinthe, the ballet master of the Paris Opéra’s dance academy; the composer Jean-Benjamin de La Borde, first gentleman in waiting to the King; and the dancer-choreographer Jean Dauberval. Her wealthy supporters included Charles de Rohan, Prince of Soubise and Jarente, Bishop of Orléans. The former’s wealth enabled the dancer to commission a luxurious Hôtel (completed 1770) designed by the King’s architect Claude Nicholas Ledoux. Soubise’s largesse enabled Guimard to establish herself as a society hostess who held thrice-weekly dinners, each for one of three distinct groups: men of influence; the artistic community; and a ‘fast set’ who wanted to indulge in all the sensory pleasures in luxurious surroundings.
A caricature of Guimard as voluptuous hostess to ‘Le Concert à Trois’ would seem to be a comment on her well-funded lifestyle – which typically was supported by more than one lover at a time. The verses attached to the exemplar held by the Institute nationale de l’histoire de l’art (INHA) expand on the charms of each male serenader:
Remarquons ce concert à trois Quel accord! quelle intelligence! Le financier Mondor fier d’en dicter les loix La main sur la pochette en marquer la cadence. L’Officier robuste, au poulmon vigoureux Donne du cor avec beaucoup d’adresse Jeune encore, mais flatté par un succès heureux Le jauvenceau Damis, sur sa flûte s’exerce. Anon., ‘Le Concert à Trois.’ Paris: Martinet, n.d. Institute national d’histoire de l’art (INHA), https://bibliotheque-numerique.inha.fr/idurl/1/52364, accessed 24 January 2023.
For those familiar with Guimard’s exploits, the ‘financier’ would be Soubise, the ‘officier robuste’ would be the dancer Dauberval, and the musician likely LaBorde. Guimard’s biographer Edmond de Goncourt – drawing on the Mémoires secrets volume 19 – suggests as much. But he describes a version of the print where the musician (Laborde) is brandishing a conductor’s baton, whereas the INHA exemplar sports a flautist. And the horn player (Dauberval) would in another exemplar (inspected by Goncourt) be replaced with a cleric labelled as the abbé de Jarente.3
With the addition of these verses (not mentioned in Goncourt) we may have yet another version of this caricature. These can be read in reference to Guimard’s title-role in Gardel’s 1779 ballet Mirza, where she plays the daughter of a south-sea island’s Governor, going by the name of Mondor. (Mondor was played by Dauberval.) The French military – in which Mirza’s husband Lindor serves as an officer –
must quell an uprising of the native ‘savages’; the intercession of the wife of their chief (Mlle Heinel) saves Mirza, who in turn implores her father for clemency, thus saving the life of the ‘savages’’ chief. In the fourth act there is a festival that opens with cannon shot accompanied by military instruments, followed by a ‘Symphonie à grand Orchestre’. Mondor conducts a party of the French dignitaries to a banquet, in which a chorus celebrates the beauty and grace of Mirza, as well as her capacity to cultivate l’amitié.
And yet the names of the male figures in the caricature’s verses map even more closely onto a one-act comedy, Le Faux-Seing, ou l’Adroitte Soubrette, written by Agricol Lapierre-Châteauneuf and performed in Marseille, Avignon, and other locales in 1787. This publication of its text was announced in the Journal des théâtres for 28 January 1795. Lisette (the adroit soubrette) is trying to counsel the youthful and timid Damis in his suit of Lucile, who risks being affianced to the rich Mondor at the desire of her mother. Mondor dismisses the suit of his young rival in front of Lucile; the situation escalates until epées are nearly drawn and Lucile is obliged to separate the men. Damis cedes to Mondor. Lucile – who does not wish to marry Mondor under any circumstances – makes her mother promise not to force a choice of spouse on her. Lucile’s mother tells Mondor she will not oblige the marriage; he produces gold in the firm hope that financial inducement will grant his wishes.
The glasses worn by the Mondor character in the caricature are key to the next scene, in which due to the inadequacy of his lunettes he has Lisette write a letter to Lucile at his dictation, declaring his love and offering her his worldly goods. Lisette even signs the letter, putting the name of ‘Damis’ to it. Damis disavows the missive but is sufficiently emboldened to kiss Lucile’s hand. The piece ends with Mme Lisimon uniting the lovers and Mondor retiring in indignation. The critic reviewing the publication notes the similarity with this work’s Mondor and a character of the same name in Fausses Infidélitiés; Damis was likely inspired by le Timide, a comedy written by Paschali that was performed at the theatre of the Variétés (renamed the theatre of the Republique) six or seven years previous.4
Guimard was not directly connected with any of these works (apart from Mirza), but they add a context in which this caricature could have been understood by her contemporaries – who may have been tempted to compare her lovers with popular fictional characters. The penciled identification of ‘Mlle Guimard’ as the subject implies that at least one viewer readily associated the dancer with a situation where a voluptuous and well-off woman appears to be courted by three different men – each having different attributes to recommend them. Since 1789, Guimard had been married to the musician-dancer-writer
Jean-Étienne Despréaux, who may be represented by the ‘young still, flattered by a happy success’ flautist Damis in this print. Despréaux – some 15 years Guimard’s junior – would prove a congenial companion for her retirement years, notwithstanding that the couple would lose their court-established pensions and lived in very straightened circumstances during their final years together.
Although cast in ‘Le Concert à Trois’ as a good time girl relishing her life of luxury, Guimard was also known for her generous spirit and her capacity to use her good fortune to help others. March 1768 had seen a remarkable frost in Paris that brought attendant suffering with it. Guimard extracted 6000 francs from her lover Soubise (in lieu of an expected present of jewellery), added 2000 francs of her own money, and used these funds to distribute – in person – food and other necessities to the poor of her parish.3 This act of charity by a celebrated artiste from the Paris Opéra was the subject of a flattering caricature ‘Terpsicore charitable ou mademoiselle Guimard visitant les pauvres’ by an unknown contemporary. While we could dismiss this effort as a publicity stunt, Guimard’s actions at other junctures in her life display a genuine philanthropic spirit.
For example, she was a noted benefactor of artists. At the most direct level Guimard commissioned art work – such as the bust sculpture of herself by Gaetano Merchi (1747-1823) rendered in 1779. Her support of the young painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) extended to supporting his study abroad; this relationship remained of sufficient interest to become a featured illustration for the 1894 Christmas edition of L’Illustration.
Guimard – whose celebrity was largely extinguished by the turbulent events and the harsh values of the Revolution – again became a subject of reprinted images and magazine features from the mid nineteenth century. In a cultural milieu where the history of dance was a matter of interest, she regained some visibility due to her iconic status as the leading female dancer of her generation.
‘Marie Madeleine Guimard.’ 1840. Eugène Gervais after François Boucher. [Paris]: F. Chardon aîné. Source: BnF/Gallica. Accessed 24 January 2023.
‘Terpsichore charitable.’ 1780. A Paris, chez M. Delaporte, cour du Commerce, rue des Cordeliers. Source: BnF/Gallica. Accessed 13 Dec. 2022. No artists are identified, either on the print or in the catalogue record.
‘Mlle Guimard dan le ballet du Navigateur.’ . Jean-François Janinet after André Dutertre. [Paris]. Source: New York Public Library. Accessed 29 January 2023.
‘David chez la Guimard.’ 1894. L’Illustration Numéro de Noël, Décembre, p. 9.
- Ivor Guest suggests that “by 1768 she had become a celebrity in the Parisian social world”. See Ballet of the Enlightenment (London: Dance Books, 1996), p. 36.
- “Elle a mis dans le rôle de Nicette une gradation de nuances si fine, si juste, si piquante, que la poésie la plus ingénieuse ne saurait rendre les mêmes caractères avec plus d’esprit, de délicatesse et de verité.” Friedrich Melchoir, Baron Grimm in Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique adressée a un souverain d’Allemagne depuis 1753 jusqu’en 1769. (Paris, 1813), vol. 4, p. 199.
- Edmond de Goncourt, La Guimard (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, ), pp. 56-58; 260-261.
- ‘Théatres des départemens’, Journal des théâtres, 1795-01-28, pp. 324-330. Source: Gallica, accessed 15 Dec. 2022.
- This anecdote is related in Grimm, Correspondance littéraire, Vol. 5, pp. 549-551. Grimm assures his readers that the details of the story were verified with the police.
The next post will consider the dancer-choreographer Marie Sallé (1709-1756).