Courtesan, dancer and – reputedly – the first ‘dumb blonde’, Catherine-Rosalie Duthé was a true eighteenth-century celebrity.
She was born on the 23rd November 1748, in Versailles to Jean-François Gérard, an ‘officier’ or gentleman servant to the king at the royal palace, and his wife, Louise-Rosalie Caumont. At the registration of her birth four days later, Catherine-Rosalie’s father was absent – perhaps away in attendance upon Louis XV – and the official document was signed by her grandmother and Christophe Broilleux, her godfather.
After being educated at the convent of Saint Aure in Paris she was sent, aged 15, to live with an aunt, Madame Duval. It is claimed that Catherine-Rosalie’s aunt introduced her to two well-known courtesans and actresses, Marie and Géneviève Rinteau of Verrières, the beautiful daughters of a lemonade merchant who caught the eye of men such as Maurice, Count of Saxony. (In 1748, the same year as Catherine-Rosalie’s birth, Marie had given birth to an illegitimate daughter, Marie Aurore by the Count of Saxony.)
Marie and Géneviève took the young, pink-cheeked and fair-haired Catherine-Rosalie under their wing, and, at their home on the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, taught her the tricks of their trade. Under their tutelage, she learnt signing, comedy and gallantry. Probably very intelligent, the tag of being the ‘first dumb blonde’ was given as Catherine-Rosalie was lampooned in her day due to her habit of leaving long pregnant pauses before speaking. Soon, the young Mademoiselle Gérard was dancing at the Paris Opera and adopted the name by which she is remembered, Rosalie Duthé.
She had watched Marie and Géneviève profit from their various lovers and determined to follow in their path. Arthur Richard Dillon, Archbishop of Narbonne, the French born son of Count Dillon (an Irish Jacobite), was her first protector; Rosalie was just 17, he was 44.
Many men were then seduced by Rosalie’s youthful beauty and she even captivated the young Duke of Chartres (the future Philippe, Duke of Orléans, Philippe Égalité). With this royal approval, even more men hastened to pay court to Rosalie, and the more lovers she collected, the wealthier she became. Even Christian VII of Denmark, on a visit to Paris, fell for her charms.
With her new found money and fame, Rosalie was painted by many of the best artists in France. The Count of Artois, youngest brother to Louis XVI (and the future Charles X) saw her portrait and hastened to Paris to court the beauty (his wife, Marie Thérèse of Savoy, was pregnant with their first child at the time).
Every night he came to follow her in the alleys of the Palais-Royal, publicly displaying a passion that he should have hidden for the sake of his rank.
Showering Rosalie with jewels and money, Artois conquered her affections and the two enjoyed a six month affair, from July 1775 to February 1776. One story relates that during these months, Rosalie was turned out of the Champs Elysées by Queen Marie Antoinette when she appeared with her carriage and equipage more sumptuously decorated with rare and expensive flowers than that of the Queen. Marie Thérèse of Savoy could not compete with Rosalie in terms of beauty. Playing on her surname (thé means tea in French) critics unkindly remarked that:
The prince, having had an indigestion with the cake of Savoy, comes to take tea in Paris.
Artois commissioned Lié Louis Périn-Salbreux to paint Rosalie sitting naked on the end of her bath, a work of art which the count displayed in the bathroom at château de Bagatelle, his pleasure house in the Bois de Boulogne. Another portrait of Rosalie by Périn-Salbreux, possibly also painted for her royal lover, depicts her laying semi-naked on a bed, her hair loose and falling around her shoulders.
Criss-crossing the Channel, Rosalie entertained a succession of wealthy and influential men both in Paris and in London. Paris was her home though, and it was there that she invested her money is a series of fine mansions but, in 1786, she sailed once again for England, imported, as it were, by George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont whom she ruined financially.
During the summer of 1786, the 4th Earl of Cholmondeley and Madame Saint-Albin were to be found in Kingsgate at Margate. The earl had been the former lover of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, until that infamous courtesan left for Paris and the arms of the Duke of Orléans. Marie-Françoise Henriette, Madame Saint-Albin had supplanted Grace in the earl’s affections and they were taking the sea air in the same house he had spent a summer of pleasure in with Grace almost a decade earlier. The couple were joined there by Lord Coleraine, another disreputable rake accompanied by his new courtesan of choice, Marie-Françoise Henriette’s countrywoman and compatriot, Rosalie Duthé. The two Frenchwomen moved in England, as they had in France, in similar circles. Mrs Elliott was also Rosalie’s contemporary; they both shared a lover in the person of the Duke of Orléans so were rivals, if not friends.
Rosalie escaped the terrors of the French Revolution, remaining in safety in England although she was declared an émigré and her house which she had owned since 1775 on rue du Mont-Blanc (at the corner of rue Saint-Lazare, formerly the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin and where she had lived with Marie and Géneviève Rinteau) was forfeit and declared ‘national goods’ in her absence.
She returned to Paris briefly to try to reclaim her property, aided by her friend and banker Jean-Frédéric Perregaux who commissioned a portrait of Rosalie by Danloux which was painted in London during 1792.
Perregaux was the banker of choice for foreign travellers to Paris including Rosalie’s friend, Lord Cholmondeley and of known spies, as well as of courtesans like Rosalie. He lived on the same Parisian street, the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. It is said that when Perregaux died, in 1808, he did so while contemplating his portrait of Rosalie Duthé who had remained one of his greatest friends.
Rosalie remained in London until 1816, then returned to Paris. She continued to receive many visitors and lived peacefully although in her later years she was almost blind. She died 24th September 1830 aged 82 years and was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery underneath two cedar trees. Rosalie left no will but two of her cousins, Madame Malacrida, a widow living in the Rue Laffitte, and Marie-Angélique Malacrida profited from the sale of her furniture which made 9,000 francs.
Catherine-Rosalie’s father is named as Jean-Baptiste Gérard in many sources, but on the register of her birth, it is Jean-François.
The rue de la Chaussée d’Antin was renamed the rue de Mirabeau in 1793 in honour of the revolutionary leader Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau and then, when Mirabeau was proscribed in 1793, the rue du Mont-Blanc in 1793, but it reverted to its former name in 1815.
Marie Rinteau is the great-grandmother of the writer, George Sand.
Souvenirs de Mlle Duthé de l’Opéra (1748-1830), Louis-Michaud, 1909
Archives nationales, Paris
Registres paroissiaux et d’état civil, St Louis, Versailles
The Morning Post, 15th September, 1786
On Blondes by Joanne Pitman, 2004
Christmas Festivities: Tales, Sketches, and Characters with Beauties of the Modern Drama, in Four Specimens by John Poole, 1845