Grisettes in 19th C Literature and Music

The Grisette is a “creature of the media". There are numerous songs, images, and stories that romanticize her lifestyle. Often, she was seen as “the crystallization of some fantasies, poetic and erotic." The grisette enjoyed the media, theater in particular, just as much as her image was created by it. The first mention of the Grisette in media is thought to be in the works of the writer La Fontaine; since then, her presence in works of art only grew. In lithographs, she is often depicted holding a "panier", a delivery box for clothing, signifying her work during the day when she is away from her student. This section showcases depictions of the grisette in literature, art and music [1].

Les Miserables

The famous Les Miserables by Victor Hugo features a grisette named Fantine. Fantine’s character is described as a working class girl who leaves her small town to pursue a better life in Paris. Like many grisettes, Fantine is poor and lacks access to an education. She meets a student named Thomolyès who impregnates her and then leaves her--not uncommon, as men were known to leave their grisettes after the school year. Fantine is left poor and with no resources to care for her child. She trusts the wrong people to care for her daughter, Cosette, who is then abused and used for child labor. In order to pay off her daughter's abusers and free her, Fantine sells her teeth and hair before turning to prostitution (see exhibit on Streetwalkers). When Fantine’s death comes, her body is carelessly thrown into a public grave. Fantine’s story is far from universal for grisettes, but was a reality for some. Most grisettes were also seamstresses and garment workers, but as in the case of Fantine, could get fired once they were outed as a mother who had a child out of wedlock.



This is an excerpt from poem titled "Jaconde" written by Jean de la Fontaine found in La Physiologie de la Grisette by Louis Huart [2]. La Fontaine was a widely noted French fabulist who wrote many poems. Throughout our research, we found many poems written about the grisette because she was easily and often romanticized. 

French-English translation by Elia Tzoukermann

Une grisette est un trésor.
Et, sans se donner de la peine,
Et sans qu’au bal on la promène,
One en vient aisement a bout;
On lui dit ce qu’on veut, bien souvent rien du tout:
La peine est d’en trouver une qui sont fidèle.

A grisette is a treasure.
And with no effort,
And without taking her to the ball,
she is easily overcome;
We tell her whatever we want, often times nothing at all:
The pain is to find a faithful one.

Here, Huart is commenting on the “easy” nature of the grisette, as one ‘doesn’t even have to take her to the ball’ to seduce her. The poem conveys a casual attitude until the last line, which references the nature of a grisette-student relationship. Students nearly always say goodbye to their grisettes when the school year ends in order to pursue other women or to pursue a new career. The audience is guided to feel sympathy for the poor student who must let his faithful grisette go, without considering the feelings or position of the grisette herself.


George Sand, a female French author of the 19th century, wrote a novel where a grisette is one of the central characters. Sand, a Romantic, was known for writing "rustic novels" that focused on the working class and strong, female protagonists [3]. This novel, Horace, was published in 1841 and it revolves around the relationship between Horace, an immoral law student, and Theophile, the protagonist and narrator. Horace focuses on the tensions and drama that result from Horace's involvement in Theophile's life [4]. It is unclear if the grisette, Eugénie, in Horace is based on someone who George Sand knew or if she is entirely fictional, but some of her traits align with those found in Huart's Physiologie along with other descriptions of grisettes in this exhibit.

In Horace, Eugénie is a grisette who has a relationship with Théophile. When she first appears in the novel, Théophile refers to her as a “simple and noble creature." Eugénie first appears serving lunch to Théophile and Horace, one which she herself prepared. Although she performs household tasks for Théophile like cooking, she has her own personality and thinks and acts independently. During this lunch, she forms an opinion of Horace and once she has done her duty during lunch, she chooses to forgo his company any further. Théophile doesn’t chide her and accepts her choice. This behavior, along with his behavior towards her throughout the book, suggests that he respects her and sees her as a partner of sorts, almost a confidant. Horace is surprised to see Théophile bending to her wishes in chapter three, when he says they must smoke outside (because Eugénie doesn’t like the smoke indoors). Horace sees her in terms of her servitude, while Théophile seems to see their relationship as more balanced. In the same section, it is revealed that Eugénie enjoys growing plants and herbs as well as having a spot in Théophile’s study. Her love for plants echoes mentions in Huart's writing about the grisette's love for flowers, and her space in Théophile's study suggests that he considers her more highly than others might. Rather than keeping her sequestered or looking down on her, Théophile seems to deeply value her presence. Throughout the book, Eugénie has ideas of her own and contributes to conversations around her, suggesting that she is treated with the same respect as other characters, and not as a servant as Horace suggests [5].

Grisettes in Music

There are many songs written about, or from the perspective of, a grisette. She was so romanticized that the music also resembled a simplistic and romantic life using mostly Major keys such as C Major and Eb Major. The lyrics describe her as a free woman with big eyes and a desirable personality. She was known for her Sunday traditions and nights out at the ball, spent with her student. In this song, the singer is portraying a grisette, while singing about these traditional topics. The song is written for voice and accompaniment. Today, one might play it on the piano, but during the 1800s, it was customary to have the accompaniment played by harpsichord or fortepiano.

[1] Ecoffet, Christophe (Director and Interviewer). 2011. “Exposition ELLE COUD, ELLE COURT, LA GRISETTE l Maison de Balzac,” (Youtube) paris_musees. Retrieved May 7, 2017 (

[2] Physiologie de la grisette, pg 12

[3] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2015. "George Sand." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retreived May 10, 2017. (

[4] Anon. n.d. "Horace." The France of Victor Hugo: Bohemianism and Counter-Culture, Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved May 10, 2017. (

[5] Sand, George. 1841. Horace, Project Gutenberg. Accessed May 11, 2017. ( p. 20, 21