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While La Païva was often described as an overly ambitious upstart, excessive in her need for material goods and uncouth in her way of showing her fortune and possessions, I’d rather explore the reasons that might have led her to adopt certain behavior and what really fueled that determined ambition and drove her to build her extravagant Hôtel Particulier. She was, after all, a courtesan.
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The life of a courtesan can be either idealized or vilified. Some depict it as glamorous and opulent, while others regard courtesans as scheming women who will go to any lengths to achieve their objectives. However, as we are aware, life is seldom straightforward.
Like the majority of courtesans, La Païva struggled to make ends meet. She was born Esther Lachman to Polish parents in the Jewish ghetto of Moscow in 1819 and later changed her name to Blanche. At the age of 17, she married a modest French tailor with whom she had a son. However, she soon grew dissatisfied with her mediocre and restrictive life as a submissive and oppressed housewife – the only career she believed was available to her – and fled to Paris in 1839. These were trying times for women, as they had limited opportunities for financial security and social mobility in the 19th century.
After arriving in Paris, Esther reinvented herself as Thérèse and began working as a prostitute. She worked in a low-priced brothel, which is noteworthy since the lives of impoverished prostitutes were marked by humiliation, abuse, and constant persecution by the police and authorities. One can only imagine the hardships that Thérèse endured before devising a plan to lift herself out of misery and the constant threat hanging over her head.
If you like this type of stories, you can read about Marie-Antoinette and her beautiful home “The Petit Trianon” here!
It is said that her comprehension of social structure was straightforward: wealth was the only path to survival, domination, and independence. Consequently, becoming a courtesan and pursuing wealthy men appeared to be the sole viable choice, not only for her but also for many other women in similar circumstances.
Being a courtesan was a double-edged sword. Courtesans were considered the grandest and most elite of prostitutes, enjoying a status that allowed them to afford jewel-encrusted bathtubs and residences throughout the country*. They received protection from wealthy men within exclusive, insular circles where powerful men prevented police intervention. However, despite their extravagant wealth, courtesans were still there for the purpose of male dominance*. They were merely seen as status symbols, and maintaining a courtesan provided the same prestige as owning a private mansion or a beautiful carriage. They were not entirely immune to adversity as their financial security was closely tied to the men who supported them.
As part of her strategy, Thérèse started investing in the latest dresses and fashionable accessories, bought on credit, in order to meet rich men in places such as concerts and theaters. Her plan started to come to fruition. This is how she met the successful pianist Henri Herz in 1841 while attending one of his concerts. They became a couple. Herz introduced her as his wife and Thérèse, who by this time had a new name Blanche, called herself Mrs Herz as if she wanted to establish status and respect. Thanks to her relationship with Herz, she came in contact with influential figureheads, musicians and authors. In 1848, Herz went bankrupt, Blanche was rejected by his family and she was again penniless. She then travelled to London where she managed to maintain a certain lifestyle thanks to her several affairs with rich lords. After few years, she came back to Paris and married Albino Francisco de Païva, an heir to vast wealth based in part on the opium trade. Though he was sometimes called a Marquis, Araújo was not an aristocrat and had no title, being the son of commoners.
Blanche obtained the title of Marquise de Païva, which provided her with another opportunity to ascend the social ladder. In 1852, she met Count Guido Henckel Von Donnersmack, a Lutheran Prussian eleven years her junior, whom she pursued. Guido and Blanche were married in 1871, and Blanche de Païva became a Countess at last. With Guido’s assistance, she began work on her celebrated and opulent mansion, which she named after herself.
Despite the impression one may have had, Blanche de Païva was culturally knowledgeable and had significant talents. She spoke multiple languages, played the piano, enjoyed opera, was an avid reader, and skillfully mastered the business world. She was perfectly capable of engaging in intelligent conversations with distinguished and intellectual guests. At her salon and dinner parties, she hosted prominent figures such as Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Flaubert, Paul Baudry, the architect Hector Lefuel, her friend Théophile Gauthier, and Alexandre Dumas.
Regrettably, like other courtesans, she was publicly despised. However, she was secretly admired for her conversational prowess and fashion sense, as was the case with other women, particularly wives and women of good virtue.
Unfortunately, the dream came to an end when war broke out with Prussia in 1870. Society began to view La Païva with suspicion. Her husband, being Prussian and closely tied to high spheres of power, was quickly accused of being a spy on the payroll of the enemy, as was she. Blanche and her husband were forced into exile in Silesia. She suffered greatly from this forced removal and social degradation. The dream was over, and the strategy had been played out. She died in exile in 1884.
I hope you liked this post!
Inass M. Jenner
- Blanche de Paiva, Lionne de Paris, Plume d’histoire.
- (*) Gender and Class Differences in 19th Century, French Prostitution, Mounica V. Kota Ms.