One of the questions most asked of writers is "where do you get your ideas?" Usually I don't have the answer, since ideas just...appear. But in the case of my newest book, A Reckless Desire, I know the idea for the story came to me when I first saw this portrait on display in the Artist/Rebel/Dandy: Men of Fashion exhibition at the RISD Museum in 2013. His name is Auguste Vestris (1760-1842), and he was (obviously) included in the exhibition for his remarkably stylish appearance – clearly a born dandy. But he was also a celebrated dancer who, with his family's ballet troupe, became the toast of 1780s London. I wrote the following blog post about Auguste Vestris and his family at that time, but I couldn't put the flamboyant, talented Vestris family from my head. I found myself wondering what would become of the hapless child who didn't possess the talent for dancing but was born into such a family. That child became Lucia di Rossi, the heroine of A Reckless Desire, who can't dance, but still has the desire to perform and move an audience to tears. She became the spark that started the rest of the story, inspired by the Vestris family and their life in the 18thc theater. My thanks to Monsieur Vestris himself....
In this portrait, Auguste reflects the dramatic change in men's clothing that would be embraced by gentlemen like Beau Brummell. Gone are the bright colors, extravagant wigs, embroidered waistcoats, and full-skirted coats of earlier 18th c. gentlemen. Stylish young men like Vestris now preferred a more subdued effect overall, with a new emphasis on the finer details of fit and fabric. His high-collared grey broadcloth coat is closely tailored to display his lean and athletic body. His waistcoat is pale yellow silk, barely containing his voluminous cravat of immaculate white linen. His shaggy fur hat is tipped at a jaunty angle, and he wears yellow gloves with a bamboo walking stick tucked beneath his arm. He wears his own hair, not an old-fashioned wig, and for extra dash, gold hoop earrings.
But as wonderful as this portrait is as a fashion statement, I was still curious to learn more about the sitter. Turns out Auguste Vestris was an acclaimed professional dancer and teacher with a colorful history to match his wardrobe. He was born into a dancing family: his Italian father was Gaëtan Apolline Balthazar Vestris, the most celebrated dancer of his generation in Europe and Louis XVI's ballet-master, and his mother was a much-younger French dancer, Marie Allard. Auguste followed his parents to the stage, making his dancing debut at aged 12.
By the time he followed his father to London in 1780, young Auguste had become the kind of celebrity that's usually associated with modern singers named Justin. He was called "le Dieu de la Danse" - "the God of the Dance." His performances were packed, and the ladies in particular found him and his dancing irresistible. The buzz around him was so great that on the night of a special benefit performance in 1781, the House of Commons adjourned early so the members would be able to attend; Vestris himself earned over fourteen hundred pounds that evening, an astounding amount for any 18th c. performer.
Here's Horace Walpole's droll description of Auguste-Vestris-mania:
"The theatre was brimful in expectation of Vestris. At the end of the second act [of the ballet Ricimero] he appeared; but with so much grace, agility and strength, that the whole audience fell into convulsions of applause: the men thundered, the ladies forgetting their delicacy and weakness, clapped with such vehemence, that seventeen broke their arms, sixty-nine sprained their wrists, and three cried bravo! bravissimo! so rashly, that they have not been able to utter so much as a no since, any more than both Houses of Parliament." The satiric print of a performance, right, seems to focus on Auguste's very tight breeches as well as his success. In his right hand he holds his hat, filled with bank-notes, and in the other is a full purse. The print's title Oh qui goose-toe [O che gusto] is an unsubtle allusion to Vestris's Italian heritage, while the caption below is equally mocking: "He Danc'd like a Monkey, his Pockets well-crammed,/Capered off with a Grin, 'Kiss my A--- & be D–––d.'"
Still, he who laughs last, laughs best. It's no wonder Auguste Vestris projects such attitude in his portrait – he obviously earned it.
For comparison - here's another, earlier portrait of Auguste, painted when he was twenty-ish, by Thomas Gainsborough c. 1780. And for a suggestion of how he might have appeared on stage, see this video of the great Michail Baryshnikov dancing the title role in Vestris, a ballet inspired by his 18thc predecessor.
Above: Portrait of Auguste Vestris, by Adèle Romany, 1793. RISD Museum. Below: Oh qui goose-toe! (Auguste Vestris Dancing), print made by Francesco Bartolozzi, after Nathaniel Dance; published in London by W. Humphrey, 1781.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.