Here I talk to Nathalie Preiss, co-author of a book to accompany the exhibition, about the life of the grisette in Paris, and what we can learn about her through the exhibition.
Who was la grisette?
NP: We can trace the origins of the grisette back to the 17th century. She typically worked in the textile industry, making or selling clothes, and was named after the grey material she wore. The name stuck, even if by the 19th century she was wearing far more colourful clothes.
The myth of the grisette grew thanks to the many representations of her that could be found in all media forms, dating back to La Fontaine’s ‘Joconde, ou l’infidélité des femmes’ written in 1664. Although there were grisettes in all French cities, the ‘reine des grisettes’ was undoubtedly the Parisian model!
Did the grisette really exist, or was she just the creation of male artists?
NP: She most certainly did exist, and we have a lot of archive material on her working life and what she did in her free time, as well as on her social and living conditions. However, it is also true to say that her image was magnified in society through the work of authors such as Auguste Ricard, and above all, Paul de Kock.
What is more difficult though is to pin the grisette down to one particular identity. Throughout her lifespan, what typifies her is how she is constantly evolving. We find her in many different trades, at many different hierachical levels, right across Paris, during the day and of course in the evening too. She is often elusive and always in movement. Indeed, she was often compared to a bird by contemporary observers.
What role did the grisette play in 19th century Paris?
NP: In many ways she represented modernity in society. She was completely implicated in the transformation of the textile industry, which was moving from small-scale operations towards the ‘grands magasins’ that were born in the 19th century, and which are of course still with us today. She also played many roles in the cultural and social life of the city, for example at the bals and guingettes, as well as at the theatre which was growing in importance.
Was the grisette a ‘soumise’, or was she instead the first truly independant woman?
NP: We can perhaps say that she was in a submissive position in her work, but even here that depended on her post. There was a distinct hierachy amongst the grisettes, from the ‘trottin’ who was the youngest member of staff in a shop, up to the skilled couturier who worked independantly at her home – which of course was still a small room under the mansard roof!
The grisette was never wealthy, but she was someone who tended to look after the man she loved, rather than be someone who was looked after. In her relationships with men she could be both sentimental and practical. It was often said that she had two lovers – an ‘amant métallique’ generally a married member of the bourgeoisie who gave her money, and an ‘amant de coeur’, typically a penniless student, whom she financed.
In the 19th century, there was also much talk about la lorette. What differences were there between her and the grisette?
NP: They were not the same animal at all! The lorette was invented by a journalist, Nestor Roqueplan, in 1841, and referred to women who lived around the Notre Dame de Lorette district. She dressed differently from the grisette, and certainly avoided all forms of work. She was the classic ‘femme entretenue’, linked to one wealthy man only, and she rarely ventured outside of her immediate ‘quartier’.
The grisette could of course become a lorette, but it entailed such a radical change in appearance and lifestyle, that she would have nothing of the grisette left in her at all!
How is the exhibition at the Maison de Balzac organised, and why was it organised in this particular location? Are there any links between Balzac and the grisette?
NP: She was often featured in the works of Balzac, for example in ‘Une double Famille’, where the married Comte de Granville seeks solace in the arms of grisette, so the Maison de Balzac is an entirely appropriate location in which to situate the exhibition!
What we didn’t want to do with this exhibition is offer a thematic path, showing only representations of her working and social life. We were more interested in capturing the fleeting nature of the grisette, and how she was constantly changing.
For this reason, the first rooms look at all the conditions of the grisette - mostly showing where this hard-working person was employed - and her ‘constellation’, in other words the kinds of people who surrounded her, and the possible evolutions she could experience - both upwards and downwards in society!
We then show how it was possible to recognise a grisette, and try to list and show all of the principal profiles she had. A room called ‘Les plaisirs et les jours… et les nuits’ shows how she enjoyed herself when not working!
We are very fortunate because the grisette was featured in so many different media forms. For this reason, we have been able to create an exhibition that covers a very wide range of supports, including literature, caricature and painting - and of course the clothes she wore.
One of the most important ways she was described was in the songs of the time, and we felt it was essential to feature music in the exhibition. Working with Le Hall de la chanson (nb - you can listen to some extracts here), we have been able to faithfully recreate the exact original melodies of the songs, so visitors will hear exactly the same music and songs as the grisettes themselves listened to.
When did the grisette disappear?
NP: Throughout her existence people were always announcing her death only for her to reappear again in another slightly different form. The lorette took over some of her roles in the popular imagination, and later words such as cousette and midinette begun to become more popular, but overall we can say that the grisette never really died - she was simply transformed!
Until January 15th
Maison de Balzac
47, rue Raynouard 75016
Tuesday to Sunday, 10am - 6pm, except public holidays
Entrance: €3 - €6
Note: a very interesting catalogue to accompany the exhibition has been written by Nathalie Preiss, and is available both at the Maison de Balzac and in bookshops.