Nymphs and Merveilleuses. The Frenchwoman of the century; fashions – manners – usages
by Octave Uzanne, 1886.
… the pleasures of the dance the survivors of the Terror.
According of to the author of the Souvenirs thermidoriens (1) the dancing reaction was sudden, impetuous, formidable, on the morrow of the deliverance. Scarcely were the scaffolds thrown down—the cesspool of the Barrière du Trône still exhaled the fetid odour of the blood shed there — when balls began to be organised in all points of the capital: the joyous tones of the clarionet, the violin, the tambourine, the flute, called together to the pleasures of the dance the survivors of the Terror, who flocked thither in crowds. Duval, in his Souvenirs, enumerates plentifully these different temples of Terpsichore:—” Here is first the magnificent garden of the Farmer-General Boutin, executed with all his colleagues, for having mixed water with the state tobacco, which the proprietors baptized with the Italian name of Tivoli.
This was the first which opened its gates to the public. Another ball was established in the Jardin Marbeuf, at the end of the avenue of the Champs-Élysées. Gay dances were the rule in these two places, and none dreamed that the ashes of those who had created these enchanting gardens, and been afterwards reaped by the revolutionary sickle, were yet hardly cold.”
The famous Prado.
Other balls were opened in succession: the ball at the Élysée National, once upon a time Bourbon, of which the negro Julien directed the orchestra with rare happiness, the Musard of his time; delicious boating excursions were here the rage; the Ball of the Jardin des Capucines, frequented by the milliners of the Rue Saint-Honoré and the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs; the Ranelagh of the Bois de Boulogne, abandoned at that time to the clerks of pettifogging lawyers and tradesmen; the Wauxhall, where the skilful feats of the juggler Wal made the grisettes of the Marais and the Ouartier du Temple flock together; all these balls were open on the quintidi and the décadi to the middle classes.
Frascati and the Pavilion de Hanovre were the rendezvous of the high classes of society. In the city there was the Bal de la Veillée, where marvellous caterwauling concerts were given. Some twenty cats, of which one saw the heads only, were disposed on the keys of a harpsichord: these keys were pointed blades, every one of which struck the tail of a cat who emitted a cry, every cry answered to a musical note, and the whole produced an admirable charivari. This Bal de la Veillée became afterwards the famous Prado, dear to students.
The Bal des zéphirs.
On the left bank of the Seine one met with the Ball of the Rue Théouville, formerly Dauphine; then opposite the north gate of the Church of Saint Sulpice, at the entrance of the Rue Servandoni, one saw, balancing itself gracefully in the air, softly moving to and fro, a transparent rose, bearing the inscription, Bal des zéphirs.
This ball, where the flute bore sway, had been established in the ancient cemetery of Saint Sulpice; this legend was still to be traced on the ground, Hic requiescant beatam spem expectantes.
The corybants of the Dance of Death.
The tumulary stones were not even removed from the interior of this place of pleasure; but the dancing youth cared little about profaning the ashes of the dead, and madness shone with all its lustre in that necropolis. Rue d’Assas, near the ancient convent of the Carmes Déchaux, in the very cemetery of the priory, was another carmagnole: the Bal des Tilleuls was opened there. The corybants of the Dance of Death came thither in crowds.
The origin of the famous Ball of the Victims
The dancing epidemic increased from day to day. After the decree, carried on the proposition of Boissy d’Anglas, which restored to the heirs of the condemned their confiscated property, joy returned to the camp of the disinherited, who passed thus suddenly in a few days from misery to opulence. These young people, astounded by the return of fortune, rushed into all the pleasures of their age; they founded an aristocratic ball for themselves alone, and decided to admit only those who could boast of a father, mother, a brother or sister, or uncle at the least, immolated on the Place de la Revolution, or at the Barrière du Trône. Such was the origin of the famous Ball of the Victims (Hôtel Richelieu), which possessed a ceremonial of its own, and introduced veritable innovations into the eccentricities of fashion.
On entering the ball, one saluted à la victime with a quick movement of the head, imitating that of the condemned at the moment when the executioner, poising him on the plank, passed his head into the fatal crescent. There was an enormous affectation of grace in this salute which every one studied at his best; some young heroes of quadrille introduced into it an elegance which caused them to be received by the feminine Areopagus with marked favour. Every cavalier invited and reconducted his partner with a salute à la victim; nay, to accentuate this infamous comedy, some of the most refined elegance bethought themselves of having their hair shaven on the nape of their, after the same fashion as that in which Samson served those who had been condemned by the revolutionary tribunal.
This ingenious invention caused transports of admiration in the camp of this extravagant youth. The ladies followed the fashion, and resolutely had their hair cut off at the roots. Such was the birth of the coiffure à la victim, which was to extend through all France and be called subsequently coiffure à la Titus, or à la Caracalla. To complete this heartrending buffoonery, the daughters of those who had suffered adopted the red shawl in remembrance of the shawl which the executioner had cast over the shoulders of and the ladies Sainte-Amarante before mounting the scaffold.
This Ball of the Victims, in consequence of its madnesses and its high society, became very soon an object of ambition for happy Paris; people went there to see the fashions of the day, for the young girls who came thither in the evening to dance the new waltzes, rivalled one another in their toilets and their graces …; little by little they quitted their mourning and boldly hoisted satin, velvet, and cashmeres of the warmest tones. It was at these insolent reunions that the first Lacedemonian tunics appeared, and the chlamydes with meandering colours, the fine calico shirt, the robes of gauze or of lawn, and the buskin with its charming interlacings of ribbons on the instep; all the fancies, Greek and Roman, which we shall hereafter describe, were Inaugurated, for the most part, by the descendants of the guillotined. A few amiable arch-shorn ladies carried their love of realism and horror so far as to fasten round their neck a small red collar, which imitated most ravishingly the section of the chopper. The Incredibles swore in their affected style, by their little word of honour striped, that it was divine, admirable, flowing with unheardofness.
In the intervals of the quadrilles, ices, punch, sherbets were swallowed down, partners’ hands were taken, and declarations of love were received; nay, if we may believe an eye-witness, the author of the Souvenirs thermidoriens, “they ended by agreeing among themselves that after all Robespierre was not so black as he was painted, and that the Revolution had its good side.“ (2)
Nothing was wanting to these madmen but to sing, in imitation of the beautiful Cabarus (Thérésa Cabarrus-Tallien 1773-1835, Madame “Notre-Dame-de-Thermidor”), the couplet of a satirical song then half-celebrated among the Directors:
Robespierre returns; how fain.
Would we to dance our dears be calling!
The Terror will be born again,
And we shall see the heads afalling!
But no! though hearts with longing yearn,
Robespierre will not return!
Beside the Ball of the Victims all Paris paid the piper; it was a general whirl; one capered by subscription at the Bal de Calypso, Faubourg Montmartre, at the Hôtel d’Aligre and the Hôtel Biron, at the Lycée of the Bibliophilists and Novelists, Rue de Verneuil; in the Rue de l’Échiquier at the florist Wenzell’s; in every street of the city. Good society came by preference to the Hotel Longueville, where the fair Madame Hamelin disdained not to show her nonchalant graces. “In these sumptuous saloons,” write MM. de Goncourt (The Goncourt brothers Edmond 1822–96 and Jules 1830–70, French naturalism writers. Novel Sister Philomilne), “the bow of Hulin commands, and a whole world undulates to prolonged accompaniments of bodies which syncopate two measures. Three hundred women, perfumed and floating in their déshabillés as Venus, allowing people to see all that is not shown, immodest:” fine leg, roguish foot, elegant bust, wandering hand, bosom of Armida, form of Callipyge, “in the arms of vigorous dancers turn, turn and turn again, knotted to their Adonises, who extend an unwearied thigh, marked out by supple nankeen. Under the cornices of gold a thousand mirrors repeat the smiles and interlacings, the swept garments moulding the body, the breasts of marble, and the mouths which, in the whirlwind of intoxication, open and blossom like roses.”
All these classes of society are galvanized by the dancing mania; there is twirling even in the miserable garrets of the Faubourgs; many bals champêtres were arranged in the caverns of restaurant-keepers, in the underground floors of tradesmen.
(1) Souvenirs thermidoriens. By Georges Duval, author of the Souvenirs de la Terreur. Paris: Victor Magen, 1844, torn. ii. chap. xiv. Duval, in the course of this chapter, gives about the balls of Paris during the Directory very curious details not to be found elsewhere. We have borrowed many characteristic notes from these descriptions, which are those of an eye-witness.
(2) Ripault, in Une journée de Paris, an V., also shows us an eyewitness, who is Polichinelle, at the Ball of the Victims: “I saw a fine young man, who said to me, ‘Ah ! Polichinelle … they have killed my father!— They have killed your father?’— and I took my handkerchief from my pocket—and he began to dance.”
Source: The Frenchwoman of the century; Fashions – Manners – Usages, by Octave Uzanne. Illustrations in water colours by Albert Lynch. Engraved in colours by Eugène Gaujean.
Louis XIV. , Louis XV. , Louis XVI., Baroque, Rococo, Directoire, French Revolution, Regency, Empire, Restoration or Romanticism fashion era. German Biedermeier.
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- Nymphs and Merveilleuses. By Octave Uzanne.
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