Tag Archives: Courtesan

Rosalie Duthé, Original Dumb Blonde

Rosalie Duthe by Drouais 1768Rosalie Duthé by Francois-Hubert Drouais, (1768)

When I was a towheaded girl, having to humor more than my fair share of dumb blonde jokes, I would have liked to know the name of Rosalie Duthé.  The scandalous lady who inspired gibes that would endure well past her 250th anniversary, marking their favor in bottle blondes like Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson, has been an unknown pain in my ass since I can remember.  As an experiment in my teenage years, I dyed my hair auburn and guess what happened?  Science.  Men generally acted politer and the endless spate of jokes withered in people’s heads.  Ultimately, maintaining a brownish hue when nature has bestowed you with fair hair is a futile and expensive endeavor.  I gave it up within six months and have since rejoined the ranks of women, dyed or otherwise, who (allegedly) have more fun.  In the eye of the beholder, the stereotype rings true.  For better or worse, in person or on dating sites, blondes get more attention.  In studies, they have been shown to be more aggressive and confident because they’re accustomed to special treatment.  They also make men less clever, and are thought of as more approachable.  Men, however, prefer marrying brunettes because they “take more care of their appearance, are great cooks and are better at house work.”  And apparently blondes are high maintenance seductresses: brunettes are also considered more experimental in bed.

Rosalie Duthé by Lie Louis Périn-Salbreux

Rosalie Duthé by Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux

Doubtless, Marilyn Monroe, the not so original breathy-voiced blonde, discovered the power of sunlit locks before all several studies diminished an iota of the blonde’s prowess.  But Rosalie Duthé is truly the original master of the birdbrained coquette.  Born in 1748, she became the mistress of an English financier after leaving convent school.  Her alleged chum while hanging out with nuns?  None other than the racy blonde, Madame Du Barry.  After her first conquest as mistress, Duthé danced at the Paris Opera Ballet, but it didn’t take her long to ensnare numerous protectors.  She was a favorite of well-heeled gentlemen, including Charles X of France, and played the muse of many a painter.  But not everything was rosy in Duthé charmed sphere.  She was satirized in the 1775 one-act play Les Curiosités de la Foire as a dimwit.  In On Blondes by Joanna Pitman, Duthe is likewise recalled as a robot, then described in a fair program:

“Machine: a very beautiful and extremely curious contrivance representing a handsome woman.  It performs all the actions of a living creature, eating, drinking, dancing, and singing as if it were endowed with a mind.  This mechanical woman can actually trip a foreigner to his shirt in a matter of seconds.  Its only difficulty is with speech.  Experts have already given up hope of curing this defect and admirers prefer to study the machine’s movements.”

Pitman goes on to say that Duthé was “arrogant, dyed blonde, and vain.”  Similar to the stereotype we enjoy today.  Whether Duthé deserved the harsh criticism or reaped jealous sneers on account of her reputation for sexual conquests, 18th century or 21st, some things never change.  It probably didn’t help Duthé that her image was widely reproduced, or that she relished posing for full nudes.  Regardless of her social accomplishments, a courtesan by trade rarely ascended beyond the designation of lowly whore when an insult was fitting, and there must have been countless opportunities to tear down the favorite of royalty and nobility.  What made her popular also made her an easy target–so easy she galvanized dumb blonde jokes in generations to come. Not without help, of course.  According to Revlon, blonde hair dye outsells other colors five to one, and there’s always another Rosalie Duthé willing to flip about her flaxen hair in order to gain male attention.   But Madame Duthé is distinguished by being the first trollop infamous for being a dumb blonde.

Rosalie Duthe by Henri Pierre Danloux 1792

Rosalie Duthé by Henri Pierre Danloux (1792)

Rosalie Duthe by Lie Louis Perin-Salbreux

 By Lie Louis Perin-Salbreux.  I’m guessing the eyebrows are drawn with charcoal and the hair is powdered, making her look barely blonde.

Rosalie Duthe by Jean Honore Fragonard

(A very young) Rosalie by Jean Honore Fragonard

Rosalie Duthe by Claude Jean Baptiste Houin

By Claude Jean Baptiste Houin

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The Magnificient Cheek of Harriette Wilson

Harriette Wilson liked to insult her suitors.  Early on in her career she discovered the fastest way to get a man on his knees was to show him how little he could succeed the first go around.  Courtesans, of course, were famous for this.

For a certain caliber of female, hardships birth wit, and to the gentleman trapped in a stratum of dull, mannered ladies, wit was an aphrodisiac.  So, it seems, was cheek.

Harriette’s method was ridiculously simple.  She laid siege to powerful men by writing queries like the one she “half in humour” dashed off to the Prince of Wales: “I am told that I am very beautiful, so perhaps you would like to see me. . .”  When his  reply was returned to her in the affirmative, she further wrote,

This sauciness inspired the ardor of many influential men during her reign, including the Duke of Wellington, the Marquess of Worcester, the Duke of Argyll, and Lord Melbourne’s son, the Honorable Frederick Lamb.  One can scarcely leave out her first lover, the Earl of Craven.

At the age of 15, Craven introduced her to the pursuits of pleasure, but she was no more enamored of him than of his cocoa trees from the West Indies.  By her own account, he would amuse her by drawing pictures of his “fellows” along with the dreaded trees, a practice Harriette called a “dead bore.”  It didn’t help that she despaired of his cotton night cap.  “Surely,”  [she] would say, “all men do not wear those shocking nightcaps; else all women’s illusions had been destroyed on the first night of their marriage.”

Harriette Wilson’s dismal opinion of marriage was borne from early experience: “. . .my dear mother’s marriage had proved to me so forcibly the miseries of two people of contrary opinions and character torturing each other to the end of their natural lives, that, before I was ten years old, I decided in my own mind to live free as air from any restraint but that of my own conscience.”

Although Harriette forbore blaming her parent’s marriage, and indeeded stressed that her dear mother did not influence her choice in profession, an unhappy home life seemed to affect the family at large.  Among her sisters, three of them turned Cyprian—Amy, Sophia, and Fanny.

The closest in age, Harriette and Amy spent their careers competing for affections with the latter sister stealing lovers from the former.  Harriette blamed Amy for instigating the strain between them, once stating, “Amy’s virtue was something like the nine lives of a cat.”  Amy later bore a son by the Duke of Argyll, Harriette’s third lover.

Fanny and Sophia are, by degrees, less interesting.  Fanny was described by a mutual acquaintance as “. . .the sweetest creature on earth.”  Harriette had nothing but affection for her, saying she was “. . . the most popular woman I ever met with.  The most ill-natured and spiteful of her sex could never find it in their hearts to abuse one who, in their absence, warmly fought all their battles . . .”  Settled for seven years after the death of her lover and the father of her three children, Fanny died young after a three week illness.

The youngest sister, Sophia, endowed the family with honor by marrying her protector, Lord Berwick, in 1812.  She, however, inspired much exasperation in Harriette before she retired into matrimonial bliss.  On one occasion, her sisters were in hysterics when the 14 year old Sophia “…went away with Lord Deerhurst [that prince of hypocrites], being innocent as an infant as to the nature of seduction and its consequence . . . Sophie was a child, and not a very clever one…”  The situation sounds strikingly similar to Lydia’s flight with Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice.

A connection between Jane Austen and Harriette’s first lover, Lord Craven, can be found here.

 S.W. Fores of Piccadilly printed a caricature by H. Heath in 1825 called “La Coterie Debauché”  

Harriette is writing while her cadre of lovers watch on.

Although a well-known courtesan in Regency times, we have Harriette’s memoirs to thank for her enduring legacy in ours.  The memoirs were published in 1825, a move she describes as a “desperate effort to live by my wits.”  This is a marked contrast from the manner in which she formerly earned her living.  The memoirs gained her a reputation far exceeding that of a demimondaine.  Rather than earning admiration for her enterprise in a sticky situation, she was scorned by her methods.

Harriette was nearing old age–in truth, her thirties–when her protectors decided she wasn’t worth the jangle in their pockets.  Denied the annuity promised by the Duke of Bedford upon her agreement to forsake his heir, the Marquess of Worcester, Harriette was left penniless.  Her beauty diminishing along with her funds, the woman who later wrote, “I will be the mere instrument of pleasure to no man.  He must make a friend and companion of me, or he will lose me,” dared blackmail the feckless gentlemen who had thrown her off.  The famous reply by the Duke of Wellington, “publish, and be damned,” arises from Harriette’s request for funds in exchange to leave his name out of her memoirs.

Regardless of who paid up, the suprisingly tasteful history of her love life earned her a small fortune.  Her publisher, John Stockdale, was forced to queue the crowds that stormed his shop upon the latest print installments.  This nail biting manuever served Harriette well.  The installments tested the nerves of her former lovers while they awaited the appearance of their names in the next issue.  How many cried off at the last minute, we can only imagine.  From the date of their publication, her memoirs increased in notoriety and exceeded Harriette’s hope of twenty editions. reaching thirty in its first year as well as the six volume French version.

Even today they are great reading.  Harriette may have resorted to blackmailing and thereby acquired a reputation for unreliability, but she has an intelligent wit.  She vilified some of her lovers, yes, but treated others with a fair pen.  And she did not always spare herself in the telling.

The eBook format for Harriette’s memoirs can be downloaded free here.

Various plates from a set of eight satirical illustrations to the memoirs of Harriette Wilson from The British Museum

Further Sources:

Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress Plate 6

After a long journey entailing bawds, degenerates, and harlots, Moll has found her inevitable.  She’s 23.  As of September 2, 1731, she’s also dead.  A plate atop her coffin records this, but we can be assured that outside the minds of harlots nothing will remain of her memory.  After all, she is in a room with the soon-to-be dead–women marked by syphilis or the hangman’s noose.

(click to enlarge)

One woman in the plate stares out, making eye contact with us.  Her name: Elizabeth Adams.  Her execution date: 1737.  Her crime: theft.  She sits in perfect composure as a clergyman worms his hand up her skirt.  Indeed, she is the only composed person in the room, her expression one of sardonic resolution.  She knows her fate and yet she doesn’t resist it.  The clergyman, meanwhile, is tingling with pleasure, his flute spilling suggestively upon his lap.  The other mourners are similarly pursuing their own ends.

Moving counterclockwise we see Moll’s child, chief mourner of the ceremony.  He leans against his mother’s casket, spinning a top in his fingers.  He may as well be alone in the room for all he is disengaged.  The wretched procuress directly to the right is moaning, her heel kicked up as if in pain–probably from facing another lost source of income.  The bottle of Nantz (or brandy) beside her bears a grim, theatrical face.  Is this in reference to the tragicomedy of the scene?

The undertaker pursues a harlot whose outstretched hand points toward Moll as he adjusts her glove.  Although it is difficult to see, she is plucking from his pocket the harlot’s most coveted accessory: a pocketwatch.  Despite the properly observed mourning customs–the white handkerchiefs, the sprigs of rosemary (once thought to prevent contagion)–nothing is as it should be.  Nobody acts as one would assume.  The funereal atmosphere is tempered by conceit.

 A moon shines behind a window and a reflection hovers in a mirror.  The harlot inspecting her face has good reason for vanity; a spot appears and with it, anxiety.  The “progress” continues.

Among the remaining mourners, we have four unidentified harlots in pairs.  The pair nearest Moll appear to grieve, most likely for their own fate, but amidst this grieving one harlot complains of her finger pain.  The two garbed in black are in full mourning.  As one sips her drink, the other wrings her hands.  But there is something about them that looks conspiratorial.  Perhaps they were foes of Moll and regard her death with both defeat and triumph.  It could be my flawed modern sensibility, but with their dark cloaks, they look a little like witches, their heads arched together.  A witches hat and twigs did appear in plate 3 and I can’t help but wonder why Hogarth would distinguish them from the other harlots by putting them all in black.  They are also fairly centered on the plate, in view between the two figures sympathetic to Moll, and by contrast I’m not entirely convinced they are, in fact, maudlin.

To the left we see Moll’s maid again, no longer protective but still disapproving.  She’s disgusted by the clergyman’s sinning, and appears to be clearing a plate and flute from Moll’s casket lid.  But really, is there a better use for Moll’s casket than a bar?  The youngest harlot thinks so.  Hogarth placed her as the sole truly touching figure in the plate.  She stands just to the left of Moll’s country hat, hung up for the last time.  As she lifts aside the lid, her fingers poised as if in surprise, her face is gentle.  She’s curious, perhaps having recently crossed over to the opposite side of innocent, and we can almost hear her thoughts: “Is this going to happen to me?”

The answer, of course, is yes.  It is unlikely Moll’s diseased corpse dissuades the young harlot.  Moll herself could not be dissuaded and neither will the thousands who continue after her.  The clergymen can’t save them.  The men who quench their needs upon them won’t.  And so we continue.

Missed previous A Harlot’s Progress Plates?

Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress Plate 5

We’ve come a long way with Moll so far and in Moll’s case, it shows.  Recently sprung from the gaol, she’s back to her dreary lodgings and considerably worse for wear.  Syphilis has come knocking at her door, or shall we say teeth, as the medicine’s side effect has made itself known by now.  Moll’s head is wrapped, her teeth presumably loosened beyond repair, and she looks to be moaning in pain.  Gone are the silks and jewels of the harlot.  Her entire body is now shrouded in cloth, no longer accessible, her desirability but a memory. 

Much to the chagrin of her maid, Moll’s doctors–one of them Dr. Jean Misaubin, a renowned French quack–are arguing about the proper way to proceed.  The options?  More mercury pills, maybe a little cupping, a little bloodletting?  Trouble is, Dr. Richard Rock, whose advertisement for anti-venereal pills lies on the floor (much like the pastoral letter of Plate 3), is as useless as the quack.  There’s no cure for Moll but death and I think we can all agree that’s not a very good one.  Treating syphilis with mercury pills was primary until the 20th century, although in truth it made the pox a more difficult condition as symptoms were heaped on top of symptoms.  Tooth loss, diminished sensory perception, and neurological damage were just some of the painful side effects.    

Moll’s overwhelming misfortunes aside, she does appear to have recouped a few protectors.  One is her maid—the same who turned devious when they were suffering in the gaol in Plate 4.  But the past is now resigned to the past.  Moll shares her maid’s condition, indeed Moll is in greater decline, and maybe this explains the maid’s renewed defense of her mistress.  The landlady, or bawd, is presently the one taking advantage of Moll, availing herself of the room’s untended possessions.  Notice in particular the shoes to the left of the bawd’s knee.  They appear to be the same pair that Moll’s maid donned in the gaol.  How’s that for full circle?   

Moll’s second protector is noticeably absent.  Remember the Jewish merchant from Plate 2?  A Passover biscuit, or honeycombed circle above the door multitasking as a fly-catcher, suggests that he’s been for a visit.  In her current state, it is doubtful Moll would have the funds to pay for her lodgings and/or her medical care.  Has her former protector taken pity on her then, perhaps thanking his lucky stars he got out from between her thighs when he did?

Plate 2 & Plate 5 Comparisons

Plate 2 and Plate 5 have similarities worth pointing out.  First, the table in the center of the plate is being knocked over, but this time not by Moll.  At this stage, her arrogance is gone.  In fact, she is barely conscious.  The table in Plate 5 much more resembles the table in Plate 3, the beginning of her demise. 

Children also appear in both plates, but their presence is remarkably contrasted.  At Moll’s height in Plate 2, the child is an exotic slave kept for the sole purpose of flaunting her wealth.  By Plate 5, the child—misbegotten by a prostitute and a patron—is anything but prestigious.  For one, he’s squatting on the floor like an urchin; two, he’s scratching his head and playing with the fire absent any supervision.  Is this suggestive of the “evils” that befall those who sin?  Do the sinners perpetuate societal problems in the most inevitable way—through their progeny? 

A harsh assessment, but one Hogarth is going for.  If you recall the details in Plate 4, the indebted card player had a daughter who possibly suffers from Down’s syndrome or another syndrome that affects cognitive functioning.  With his round face and absentminded expression, the little boy in Plate 5 may be similarly afflicted.  Given that mental disorders and even disease were once thought of as a punishment for sin, I think we can logically apply this here.  Moll’s prostitution has led to illness, but who is the true perpetrator of society’s ills?  Moll?  Her patrons?  The hypocrites who purchased Hogarth’s works just to prove their virtue?  

This is the best part about Hogarth.  He made his living by mocking society.  He doesn’t put much faith in the Church, the judicial system, or his time’s social police force, the Society for the Reformation of Manners.  Indeed, he suggests those who make highly public shows of decency and morality are the most immoral of us all and leaves us wondering: is this true?

Missed the previous plates?

Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress Plate 4

(click to enlarge full size)

Moll is fast coming to a grave end.  She’s been apprehended by Sir John Gonson, imprisoned for her profligate ways, and thrown in the hemp workhouse with the rest of “her kind” (presumably said with a sneer and a slimy smile).

Sneering, indeed, was the chief way Moll achieved her fame with the living, breathing public that consumed her.  The public loved her–and by her I mean every country girl turned whore by ill luck and toes up fate.  She was an object of derision, of pity and glances staying only so long as to see her rise and meteoric fall.  What was Moll but just another low woman treading the worn path of death?   One foot into the Bell Inn and her destiny was already shaped, be it through the usual killer, the pox, or by hanging once her fading looks forced her into thievery.

Either way, Moll’s one ladybird that ain’t gonna fly long.  She’s found her cage.  Bridewell.  On Fleet River.  It is better than the flogging room where before hemp and beetles women were beaten as a proper punishment:

In addition to the pillory and sign behind her reading “Better to work than to stand thus”, Moll’s got a lot to worry about.  The gaoler is singling her out, demanding she press on harder while his wife is greedily plucking at Moll’s neckerchief and winking at her husband.  Moll looks a trifle alarmed standing there in her floral pettitcoat, partly because she’s nervous it’s going to be ripped off her and partly because she’s wondering, “how the bloody hell did I get here?”

Although Bridewell was mainly a prison for women, the gentleman to her left gained his hemp duty due to cards.  They’re on the floor, shredded in half near the relaxed dog that seems to mind not the least the beating of hemp.  The woman and two girls to his left are likely his family, imprisoned alongside him until they’ve earned back his debt.  The larger of the two girls doesn’t look entirely fit for the workhouse, perhaps suffering from a physical condition or a mental illness, but neither she nor the pregnant woman further down can expect full reprieve.

Going round the room, Moll’s servant is relishing this moment, we might say with schadenfreude.  Instead of sympathizing with the her mistress’ plight, she’s grinning while adjusting Moll’s worn stocking on her thick legs.  While also sitting.  What earned her this privilege (or is Moll just the bigger fish?) and why is the  mobcapped woman beside her occupied with scraping Moll’s lace?

Aside from the unfortunate persons populating the room, another aspect of interest–which unfortuantely fails to show in the picture–is the rudimentary hangman drawing beneath the window.  The name “Gonson” is written nearby.  Gonson, if you remember, was the magistrate from the Society for the Reformation of Manners.  He hauled Moll in and if we are to infer anything by his cartoonish state, the prisoners, notably harlots, blame him for their current predicament.

A placard stating “The Wages of Idleness” (translation: how all the prisoners got here), takes another aim at Moll’s real sin.  For the first time since her arrival in plate 1, she’s wearing her work apron.  The hemp she’s forced to beat is just one of the various tasks in the workhouse, but it may have further signifance because hemp was used for the hangman’s noose.  Not only that, it’s tough, lacerating the neck when used to choke or hang someone.  Given that Moll’s outlet outside prositution is thievery as suggested in her association with James Dalton in plate 3, would she possibly have pounded the hemp that would one day end her life?  Circumstances lead her elsewhere but like everything Hogarth, there’s a little irony involved, isn’t there?

Missed the other plates?

Makeup: 18th Century Whores and Ladies

In 18th century England only one type of woman wore white powder and painted cheeks.  You guessed it, the courtesan or the actress, two demimonde professions which, by virtue of patrons and proclivities, tended to be nearly indistinguishable during the period. Courtesans rubbed elbows (and more!) with lords; actresses encouraged men’s capital admirations, gathering up diamonds the morning after.  Ah, the life.

But cleanliness is next to godliness, girls.  Unlike present day where we brown ourselves like baked chicken, cakey vampirish complexions were à la mode.   Staring around the late 17th century, women of a certain age would gussy up their necks, faces, and sometimes, hands with paint or a fine dusting of powder.  Few dared venture outside without a speck of makeup, be it rice powder or lead paint.  As is common knowledge, freckles were anathema, as were pox scars and blemishes, so pray tell: what was a proper, young lady to do?  Apply elderflower water, add a dash of desperate prayer, don’t forget sundry parasols and bonnets, and if all else fails, flaunt your patches (read To Patch or Not to Patch).

Compared to cosmetic blends, other means of achieving a wintry complexion proved downright vile.  Bloodletting, anyone?  What about fashionable consumption? Surely you wouldn’t object to that.  Women during the period went so far as to mimic one suffering from tuberculosis: white skin, glistening eyes, and waifish slenderness.  Lead paint was the cornerstone of this look, but truly, the usefulness of belladonna eye drops could not be underestimated.

Beauty is pain

If only someone had told the notorious Kitty Fisher that her ghostly visage would result in early retirement from earth, perhaps she would’ve steered clear of the stuff.  But . . . probably not.  She had a reputation to consider and besides, what was a little nerve tingling outside the bedroom?  Really, who cares that the French physician Deshais-Gendron believed in 1760 that pulmonary lung disease among high-born ladies was associated with frequent use of lead face paint and rouge.  A quack, I tell you!  A quack!

Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra dissolving the pearl, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1759 (Eight years before her death)

Aside from courtesans and actresses, the French fared the worst.  The noblest ladies wore powder and paint by the gobs, whereas the lowest of prostitutes tempt custumors with freshly scrubbed visages.  Curious, but the French and English always were contrary to one another.

Medical Opinion of the Period

Doctors consistently advised their patients to abstain from heavy cosmetics, relating their use to all sorts of unsavory symptoms including, but not limited to: acne, blackening of the skin, rotting teeth, loss of appetite, and the coup de grâce, total paralyis of the nerves.  In Selling Beauty: Cosmetics, Commerce, and French Society, 1750 to 1780, the author Morag Martin states:

“Disease and death were the inevitable followers of fading looks.  Once the skin was exposed and damaged, the chemical in cosmetics affected the functioning of the senses and even the internal organs.  Eighteenth century posthumoral theory postulated that any foreign element in contact with the body forced normally expelled fluids into key organs and blood vessels, destabalizing the body’s balance.”

I think we all can agree:  BAD.

Recipe for Lead Powder 

Several Thin Plates of Lead

A Big Pot of Vinegar

A Bed of Horse Manure

Water

Perfume and tinting agent

 

Steep the lead in the pot of vinegar, and rest it in a bed of manure for at least three weeks. When the lead finally softens to the point where it can pounded into a flaky white powder (chemical reaction between vinegar and lead causes lead to turn white), grind to a fine powder. Mix with water, and let dry in the sun. After the powder is dry, mix with the appropriate amount of perfume and tinting dye.

I can safely assumes that none of you intelligent beings will attempt this at home, if nothing else because of the horse manure.  Lead is also poisonous!!