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Gautier, the Grisi sisters, and the origins of Giselle


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#1 bart

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Posted 27 July 2008 - 10:58 AM

The August 14 New York Review of Books has a piece that throws some light on the origins of Giselle.

The article -- apparently not included in their online edition except for subscribers -- is Richard Holmes's "The Fantoms of Theophile Gautier." Below are some of the parts that apply to Gautier's creation of the Giselle libretto. Most of us are at a little familiar with that story, but I -- at least -- knew less than I thought.

[H]is heart was ... utterly divided between two women.

They were the two famous Grisi sisters: Italians, artistically gifted, and astonishingly beautiful. One was an opera singer, the other a ballet dancer. Ernesta Grisi was stormy and passionate, and Carlotta Grisi was tranquil and utterly dedicated to her art. Ernesta lived under [Gautier's] roof at Neuilly and bore Gautier two daughters, while organizing his domestic life, singing under the trees in his garden, and cooking him risottos. Carlotta danced in all the capitals of Europe, exchanged love letters with Gautier for thirty years, and only once kissed him on the lips.


Back-tracking a bit:

... Gautier was always haunted by material and earthbound lmitations: of his own heavy and demanding body, of his increasisngly domesticated career, and of his endless, treadmill newspaper-writing. ... On his return from Spain in the spring of 1841, where he had first observed fierce young Andalusian women dancing the flamenco ... he suddently saw the twenty-year-old Carlotta Grisi dancing on stage at the Opera. It was a coup de foudre, and he immediately decided to create a ballet for her.

Although the plot was based on an older German legend already developed by Heine, "[t]he whole trajectory of the story is pure Gautier, a story of agonizeed love from beyond the grave." Here is Holmes's translation of the beginning of Act II:

The theater reveals a forest on the edge of a lake ... The bluish light of an unnaturally bright mooon floods the scene with a chill, misty luminescence ... Someone in the distance midnight strikes. ... Hilarion and his friends listen to the clock with growing terror. Trembling they look about them, waiting for the apparitions of those lovely, light foot fantoms. "Quick, let's slip away," whispers Hilarion, "The beautiful Willis are pitiless, they seize hold of travelers and force them to dance, on and on and on, until they drop dead with exhaustion or are swallowed up in the icy waters of the lake." But already a strange and unearthly music is filling the theater."

For those who can get their hands on the August 14 issue, there's a charming colored lithograph of Grisi-as-Willi floating above her own grave. There's also a really stunning -- and to me totally unfamiliar -- oil portrait of "Two Sisters," by Theodore Chasseriau (1843). This painting, now in the Louvre, suggests, as Holmes sees it, "a profound truth about Gautier's schizophrenic desires, his mirror-image romances, and his looking-glass longings."

#2 perky

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 04:23 AM

Thanks for the heads up about this Bart! :clapping:
As I was reading this my first thought was "this story would make a great movie".

#3 bart

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 05:39 AM

As I was reading this my first thought was "this story would make a great movie".

You know, you're absolutely right. We know Giselle. How many people know the strange and somehow sad story of the man -- playwright, poet, essayist, critic -- who created her?

By the way, I came across a reproduction of the "Two Sisters" painting. They're not the Grisis, but they convey something of what the Grises MIGHT have had if dressed identically and put into a stiff and formal posing situation.
http://www.allposter...s_i1350395_.htm

#4 glebb

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 06:32 AM

Years ago I purchased a copy of SEMIRAMIDE (yes on vinyl) and in the accompanying literature was a picture that looked a lot like the GISELLE lithograph of Grisi with her grape septre. So I started reading and learned of Carlotta's sister. Yes, a movie please!

#5 Mel Johnson

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 06:49 AM

The Grisis were a real showbiz family. There was cousin Giulia, too, an historically significant soprano. Carlotta could apparently sing, too. I've run into at least one account of her doing a blackout between the acts of a ballet where she sang "Regnava nel Silenzio" from Lucia. The reviewer said that it didn't go over well, but chivalrously blamed the song.

#6 rg

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 07:43 AM

this scan of a Disderi carte de visite shows what i take to be a photo of Guilia Grisi.
all the identification says in handwriting on the back, which is typical for such cards, is "GRISI'

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#7 bart

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 10:07 AM

Interesting that her "look" -- heavy in spirit, somehow burdened or troubled -- is rather like this Nadar photo of the older Gautier. Far, far from Carlotta, it seems.
http://en.wikipedia...._1856_Nadar.jpg

#8 Mel Johnson

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 10:20 AM

Nadar is a funny photographer. He got his start as a caricaturist, and from there went into photography. Sometimes, his caricaturist credential pops into his photos. Here Gautier looks like the "studied Bohemian" he cultivated. Nadar did a self-portrait apparently suspended in a gondola basket of a balloon, complete with top hat and umbrella.

But I think that Giulia is probably a good identification for the card. Desderi invented the cdv technology in 1854, and Giulia died in 1869, placing her right in the golden age of the carte-de-visite photo. We often use the technology to identify 19th-century photographs with the cdv being eclipsed by the larger "cabinet card" about 1874.

#9 rg

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 11:45 AM

i seem to recall some Nadar pix of Carlotta G. or someone's from that era when C.G. was elderly tho' perhaps not so heavily so as la Guilia.
if anyone here would know, i suspect it's you, Mel: do you know why the larger, stiffer cartes that followed were cdv were called 'cabinet'?

#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 11:54 AM

The term "cabinet" was used to distinguish the photograph as being capable of being displayed freestanding, and not needing the support of the small thermoplastic frames or large heavy albums that contained the carte-de-visite size art. As the names suggest, the cdv was often used as a calling-card, and the cabinet was often displayed in a curio case.

#11 rg

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 12:03 PM

ah, i imagined something like this, Mel, but now i have it on your good authority.
and now a few footnotes:
as someone aptly noted at the showing of Delouche's KATIA ET VOLODIA over the weekend, zeffirelli's film of LA TRAVIATA includes a spanish ballet divert. (shades of Reiman and Romanoff, if distant shades) in which K & V are the spanish dancing couple.
and now a scan of what is arguably the star of my limited collection of cabinet cards, which is a portrait foto of Pierina Legnani, signed, and dated in 1895 St. Petersburg and we all know what role she put on the map that year in St. P. even as her portrait sitting seems to be in the spanish dance theme that's part of this thread.
still, her wrap is trimmed w/ swan's-down-like marabou.

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#12 Andrew73

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 02:43 PM

For those who can get their hands on the August 14 issue, there's a charming colored lithograph of Grisi-as-Willi floating above her own grave.


I bought this fscinating article online for three dollars, but there was no illustration ... Google found this ...

http://www.giselle-b...selle_grisi.jpg

Is that the one they used?

#13 bart

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 05:34 PM

Yes. Thank you, Andrew73. I'm no expert, but this does seem to be a lovely llithgraph, with exceptionally subtle coloring.

#14 rg

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 05:41 PM

this Grisi/GISELLE litho is somewhat well-known. i can't think where i might have seen it reproduced in a book but it would seem this coloring is almost more what we'd now call 'colorization' rather than 'hand-tinted' but i maybe misremembering the previous copies i've seen.

#15 rg

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Posted 28 July 2008 - 06:25 PM

Here's what THE ROMANTIC BALLET IN LITOGRAPHS OF THE TIME (Beaumont and Sitwell) [1938] says:
<<A Lithograph from a drawing by Challamel.
[Carlotta Grisi in Giselle.] The only copy of ths print which I have seen is in the British Museum; unfortunately, that copy has been trimmed and therefore lacks title.
Coloured, 13 1/4 x 10 3/4 ins.
The dancer, facing the audience is soaring to ther right, diagonally to the audience, over the haunted lake. Her right hand caresses the flowers which adorn her hair, her left is extended to the side. The background is formed by dark masses of foliage and distant hills, while in the left foreground gleams the cross that marks Giselle's tomb.
The collection at the Mercury Theatre, London, includes a smaller version of this print.>>


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