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Portrait of Carlotta Grisi as Giselle

The Diva: Carlotta Grisi

From now on this role is impossible for any other dancer and the name Carlotta has become inseparable from Giselle.

Théophile Gautier on Carlotta Grisi as Giselle

Carlotta Grisi was the first Giselle. But unlike Giselle and unlike the Rats she found a way to evade the traps set by men, Théophile Gautier included, that would have made her into a tragic heroine. Instead she found a way to make a life on her own terms, as an independent woman.

We have written elsewhere about Madame Bovary as an 'anti-Giselle'. Carlotta Grisi is also an 'anti-Giselle' but one of a much happier kind.

As to her features, they are not typically Italian, and correspond but little to the sombre hues suggested by the name Grisi [gris means grey in French], to which family she belongs. She has chestnut-coloured hair, fair rather than dark, tolerably regular features, and a natural complexion, so far as can be judged through her make-up; she is of medium height, slender, quite well-proportioned, her slimness is not unusual for a dancer; but the shape of her foot is a little too Italian, or, if you prefer the word, English.

The Romantic Ballet as Seen by Théophile Gautier compiled by Cyril Beaumont, pg 45
Les Sylphides n 1 Masson 18 btv1b52510586j 1
A French print of 1852 showing Carlotta Grisi (top right) in the pantheon of great ballerinas

The male establishment that ran the world of ballet liked to defined leading ballerinas by their looks and manners and in competition with each other. We can see it now for what it was, a sneaky and back-handed form of control.

Notice also the trivial and unpleasant 'negging' remarks about Grisi's feet at the end of Gautier's description.

Carlotta Grisi by Theodore Chasseriau
Portrait of Carlotta Grisi by Théodore Chasseriau for Théophile Gautier, 1841

Gautier was in love with Carlotta Grisi from the moment he saw her. He wrote about her, he wrote Giselle for her and after that he persisted in declaring undying love for her, even after he married her older sister.

Grisi refused the bait and kept him, fondly, but at arms length.

Unlike the Rats described by Gautier, Grisi came from a distinguished family of opera stars and performers. She knew the ropes and how to manage them because that was the family business. Originally trained as a singer she transitioned in stages to ballet. And then to star billing as Giselle.

Her first partner was the dancer choreographer, Jules Perrot. Together they achieved great success in Paris and London. Their partnership then took them to Russia where Perrot married a Russian woman. By this time, Grisi had a daughter, possibly by Perrot, and she now headed to Warsaw where she intended to continue dancing but she became pregnant by Prince Léon Radziwill who persuaded her to retire from ballet.

It would seem that Prince Radziwill's persuasion involved enough money for Grisi and her daughters to live on (exactly the scenario described in Gautier's Le Rat) because when she gave birth to her second daughter, Léontine Grisi, she then settled in Saint-Jean, Geneva. A pleasant and peaceful backwater, where she lived for the rest of her life until she died shortly before her 80th birthday.

Carlotta Grisi 1ère danseuse à Atelier Nadar btv1b530663220 1
A photograph of Carlotta Grisi by Nadar, probably c. 1860 (from

This magnificent portrait of Grisi by Nadar, taken after she retired, gives us a sense of what a presence she had: calm, elegant and self-contained.

It confirms everything we can read in her life story and in the reported effect she had on the audiences she performed to.

What a diva! What a proper person!

1 Beaumont, Cyril (1944) The Ballet Called Giselle 2 Smith, Marian (2000) Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle 3 Gautier, Théophile (compiled and translated by Cyril Beaumont) (1932) The Romantic Ballet As Seen By Théophile Gautier 4 Banes, Sally (1998) Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage

Card image: Portrait of Carlotta Grisi as Giselle | From via Wikimedia - permission gratefully acknowledged