Article published on November 5, 2015.
Told for the first time ever in English, the forgotten story of a remarkable woman who, though her roots were lowly, never stopped aiming high.
Valtesse de la Bigne was a celebrated nineteenth-century Parisian courtesan. She was painted by Manet and inspired Emile Zola, who immortalised her in his scandalous novel Nana. Her rumoured affairs with Napoleon III and the future Edward VII kept gossip columns full.
But her glamourous existence hid a dark secret: she was no Comtesse. She was born into abject poverty, raised on a squalid Paris backstreet; the lowest of the low. Yet she transformed herself into an enchantress who possessed a small fortune, three mansions, fabulous carriages, and art the envy of connoisseurs across Europe. A consummate show-woman, she ensured that her life – and even her death – remained shrouded in just enough mystery to keep her audience hungry for more.
Through incisive enquiry and astute observation, Catherine Hewitt traces the courtesan’s flight from squalor to splendour, her prose sparkling in the light of her luminous subject.
– The Biographer’s Club Prize
Q&A with author Catherine Hewitt
1. How did you come across Valtesse?
My first chance encounter with Valtesse occurred when I was researching Henri Gervex’s painting Le Mariage Civil (1881) in the final stages of my PhD. As I scanned the painting of a fashionably-attired crowd, I was startled when my eyes met those of a single figure looking back at me with self-assurance. I became fascinated by this woman, whom I discovered went by an unusual name. Research quickly confirmed that this courtesan was no ordinary nineteenth-century muse, but an astoundingly resilient woman with a skill for self-promotion. I became captivated by this strong-willed character, for whom the expectations and limitations to which the nineteenth-century female was usually subjected appeared to present no obstacle. I became gripped by Valtesse’s story and fascinated in the woman behind the myth which she had created around herself.
2. As a courtesan, what distinguished Valtesse from a prostitute?
A courtesan could command higher prices and she could choose her clients, but she had to become cultured, and have an innate understanding of the appropriate etiquette for every occasion.
3. What makes Valtesse different from other courtesans?
Unconventional appearance, disarmingly clever, a self-taught painter, pianist and novelist, the author of political pamphlets, sharp wit, connections with painters, did not end life in poverty.
4. How did Valtesse challenge popular ideas about women in the 19th century?
She rejected marriage for independence, freedom and her own income, she spoke her mind and art collecting gave her power usually reserved for men.
5. What was the key to her successful rise from squalor to splendour?
Determination, ambition, refusal to accept the fate assigned by her class and gender, embracing her role as a courtesan, understanding which public figures to make alliances with.
6. What was Valtesse’s role in the 19th-century art world?
Valtesse was very interested in paintings and art and as her public profile became more prominent, she inspired paintings, used her influence to promote artists and her wealth to empower herself as a collector.
About the author
Catherine Hewitt studied French Literature and Art History at Royal Holloway, University of London and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her proposal for The Mistress of Paris was awarded the runner-up’s prize in the 2012 Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Competition for the best proposal by an uncommissioned, first-time biographer. She lives in a village in Surrey.
The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt, published by Icon Books on 5 November 2015 at £20 (hbk)