Isabelle la bouquetière
Beginning at Chantilly in 1834, the Jockey Club de Paris was originally organized as ‘The Society for the Encouragement of the Improvement of Horse Breeding in France,' to provide a single authority for the sport of horseracing. It swiftly became a centre for the male elite of nineteenth-century French society, especially its most sportif gentlemen.
During the Second Empire, the sportsmen of the Jockey Club held numerous boxes at the Paris-Opéra – ‘many little suspended salons,’ in Marcel Proust’s phrase – where the ballet divertissement they expected to see in every opera was never in the first act, when the Jockey Club would habitually still be at dinner. A famous fiasco erupted in 1861, when Wagner insisted on inserting the ballet into the first rather than the second act of Tannhäuser. The gentleman of the Jockey Club arrived, hoping to view their favourites in the corps de ballet; on discovering the divertissement had already taken place, they all but hissed the second act off the stage, despite the presence of the Imperial couple. Wagner never permitted another production of his work in Paris.
Between 1863 and 1913, the club occupied luxurious quarters on the first floor of number 1, rue Scribe. On the ground floor below was the fashionable Grand Café. There, on 28 December 1895, a stylish crowd in the Salon Indien attended the public début of the Lumière brothers’ invention, the Cinematograph.
Isabelle, la bouquetière [a ‘bouquetière’ is a flower-seller] was a popular fixture at the Club and something of a celebrity in her own right. The darling of all the young dandies, she called the duc de Grammont by his first name, the Prince of Wales called her ‘ma chère’ and all the gallant members of the Club were on ‘tutoyer’ terms with her. From Madrid to Istanbul and from Vienna to St Petersburg, everyone who was anyone knew her and you were no one if she didn’t give you a rose for your buttonhole as soon as she saw you.
Several artists painted both her and her basket of flowers and she was also photographed by Léon Cremière, as one of a series of photographs that Cremière produced for the sporting magazine he directed in the mid-1860s, Le Centaure: Journal de Sport Illustré.