Here is a perfectly splendid 19th century bad boy who, perversely, was probably the nicest one you could ever hope to meet. He’s also someone whose image you might well have seen before, without realizing his identity. And so, may I present to you Alfred Guillaume Gabriel Grimod d’Orsay, more commonly known as the Count d’Orsay.
Alfred was born in Paris in 1801, the son of a Bonapartist general and an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Württemberg (who was, incidentally, married to the oldest daughter of Britain’s George III.) As such, he had a comfortable, privileged childhood, and as a youth was known for his charm and beauty—just about everyone who met him, including the other boys at his school, compared him to a Greek god.
The young d’Orsay followed in his papa’s footsteps and joined the army under the restored King Louis XVIII (though he remained a lifelong Bonapartist at heart). His looks and charm only improved with age, it seems, and to them he added being a faultless horseman and a ready (if sometimes impudent) conversationalist. So it was no surprise when he was asked to accompany the Duc de Guiche, his brother-in-law, as part of the official French delegation to London for Prinny’s coronation as King George IV. By all accounts, he took London by storm…and most especially, the Anglo-Irish Earl and Countess of Blessington.
Lord Blessington was a very wealthy, very enthusiastic collector of art and, it seems, people…and he was determined to collect d’Orsay. He and Lady B. left to travel on the continent the next year, and made a bee-line for Paris…and more or less acquired Alfred, who resigned from the army and joined their household as it traveled around the continent, including Italy (where they hung out with, among others, Lord Byron, who was much struck by d’Orsay and consented to be sketched by him—for as it turns out, Alfred was also a very talented artist and sculptor. The relationship among the Blessingtons and d’Orsay remains murky, though it is widely assumed that Lady Blessington and d’Orsay fell thoroughly in love. Which makes d’Orsay’s marriage in 1827 to Lord Blessington’s daughter by his first marriage kinda creepy…nor did the marriage last, as they legally separated in 1838.
Lord Blessington died in 1829, and Lady Blessington and d’Orsay returned to England and became host and hostess of one of the most brilliant literary and artistic salons of London: Charles Dickens, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Thackeray were all habitués (though not many women came, it should be noted, for Lady Blessington’s past was, shall we say, a shadowy one– honestly, she deserves a biography of her own.) d’Orsay was as admired as he had been on his 1821sojourn: again, he was admired for his beauty, his talents, and his inherent kindness.
Through the 1830s and 1840s Lady B. and d’Orsay reigned over their literary, if raffish, salon…but neither were precisely known for their frugality, and the party came to an end in 1849 when d’Orsay went bankrupt. He moved to France, as all good bankrupt English nobility do, while Lady Blessington sold off her belongings in preparation to join him…but died shortly after arriving in Paris. Devastated, d’Orsay scraped along for a few years painting portraits and probably through the handouts of his enormous circle of friends, until one old friend in particular, now Emperor Napoleon III, offered him a job as the director of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1852. Unfortunately, he became ill just days after the appointment was announced, and died…and was sincerely mourned.
Now, I mentioned that you’ve probably seen a picture of d’Orsay without knowing it. Are there any readers of The New Yorker out there? If so, you’ll recognize this fine fellow…
but did you know he was based on an 1834 sketch of d’Orsay by Daniel Maclise?
I’ve had to leave out all sorts of fascinating detail…but if you’d like to know more about d’Orsay and his life and times (as well as the equally fascinating Lady Blessington), I highly recommend Nick Foulkes’s marvelous biography Last of the Dandies: The Scandalous life and Escapades of Count d”Orsay.