Marie Duplessis (1824–1847) led a meteoric life. The girl who grew up to inspire The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas and Verdi’s La Traviata began life as no lady, with no camellias and little else. We know that her original name was Alphonsine Plessis and that she was born into an impoverished, violent household in Normandy.
When the girl was fourteen, her father sold her to a man, who took her to Paris. Illiterate, she had little to work with but her fertile new environment and her face. Luckily for her, her face was memorable. Her portrait by Édouard Viénot shows a spectacular young woman with the heavy dark hair, large dark eyes, and glowing pallor that the nineteenth-century high-Romantic eye worshiped.
What did this victim of human trafficking do? She kept her soulful eyes wide open for ways to rise. She started off as a grisette, a kept woman who lived with a series of students, and learned to read and write. Lingering at the Maison Dorée and other restaurants that were literary hangouts, she met a real aristocrat, Count Ferdinand Monguyon, who set her up as his well-kept mistress. Encouraged, the girl invented for herself a more elegant name, Marie Duplessis. Her next lover was young Agénor de Guiche, the future Duc de Gramont. This early affair, strenuously opposed by the young man’s father, forms the plot thread of La Traviata. Though brief, it gave Marie a chance to learn how to present herself as an aristocrat. She must have had an amazing mind to absorb those social nuances across such a gulf of class and experience. Other opulent lovers followed: the Count de Stackelberg, composer Franz Liszt, and Count Edouard de Perregaux, who would eventually marry her. She enjoyed every pleasure and luxury that these men could provide. She and Dumas had a brief affair in 1844. He got the material for his novel, but he could not afford her in the long term.
Meanwhile, she had been battling the “white plague” of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis. Her last few years were complicated by the futile, expensive search for a cure. Consumption killed her when she was barely twenty-three. It is ironic that she was memorialized as La Traviata, which means the woman who went astray. Her short life was fiercely purposeful, a trajectory from victimhood to spectacular exercise of feminine power.
This summer, find out more! Take our tour and learn about the lives of the sexy and enterprising women who fascinated patrons and artists alike for centuries. Ticket price includes museum admission.