Jean-Étienne Despréaux and the renewal of dance

Jean-Étienne Despréaux and the renewal of dance

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Title: Jean-Étienne Despréaux.

Author : ISABEY Jean-Baptiste (1767 - 1855)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 6.1 - Width 6.1

Technique and other indications: Miniature on ivory.

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved website

Picture reference: 98-021673 / RF5050

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: June 2009

Agrégée in Italian, Doctorate in Contemporary History at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Historical context

It is thanks to Joséphine de Beauharnais that Jean-Étienne Despréaux (1748-1820), former dancer and dance master of the Royal Academy of Music (future Opera) under Louis XV and Louis XVI, resumed under the Directory his career of 'teacher. Although critical, in his posthumous memoirs, of those he considers upstarts elevated to the rank of sovereigns, Despréaux is always grateful to Josephine and Napoleon for their benevolence.

Thanks to his experience as a courtier of the Ancien Régime, Despréaux was entrusted with the organization of public celebrations given under the Consulate and under the Empire, until 1812. When, in 1810, Napoleon married Marie-Louise d 'Austria, Despréaux was called to Compiègne to give dance and posture lessons to the young empress and to teach the emperor the waltz.

Experienced dance master and skillful organizer of shows and celebrations, Despréaux is also a brilliant author of songs, vaudevilles and poems for the occasion. At the birth of Napoleon's son, Despréaux celebrates the happy event by writing the poem "The birth of Spring of 1811, or Hope and Reality", sung at the banquet given in the large foyer of the Imperial Academy of Music the very evening of the birth of the King of Rome.

Under the Empire, Despréaux was at the same time inspector of the Royal Academy of Music and of the Tuileries Theater, inspector general of the Court, professor of dance and grace at the Conservatory of Music and tutor of court ceremonies. He died in Paris in 1820, four years after the death of his wife and a year before that of Napoleon at Saint Helena.

Image Analysis

The famous portrait painter and miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855) began as Despréaux his career under the Ancien Régime to then obtain the favor of Napoleon and Josephine and become the official portrait painter of the court with his beautiful, large portraits in the oil and pastel. Representative of the excellence of the French school of miniaturists, Isabey achieved great renown in Europe thanks to her skill in enamel painting and her remarkable ivories painted with gouache, often surrounded by precious frames or set in boxes. Golden.

If the portrait that Isabelle realizes of Despréaux is not richly framed - it is only a simple painted ivory medallion -, it nevertheless testifies to the status of the master of dancing at the court of Napoleon: Despréaux n ' is not a political figure to be celebrated in an imposing painting, but he does play an important role in the cultural and worldly representation of Napoleonic power. When Isabey painted this miniature, Despréaux was more or less sixty years old, and his position at court was now affirmed. His pale face, framed by his canities and white tie, stands out against the dark background of the miniature: the impression he gives is that of an elegant man, but without excessive luxury; his proud and thoughtful gaze reveals a quick-witted man, aware of his privileges and responsibilities as a master of ceremonies.

In his Posthumous Souvenirs, the old dancing master retraces, not without humor, his career and his meetings with the artistic and political personalities of his time. Beyond social events, Despréaux makes a significant contribution by adapting social dance to the taste of the early 19th century.e century.


Despréaux not only taught the crowned heads and new courtiers of the Napoleonic era to dance, he also wondered about the future of theatrical dance in France. At the beginning of the XIXe century, French ballet does not yet fear competition from foreign artists: Pierre-Gabriel Gardel (younger brother of Maximilien, who had been Despréaux's mentor) directs the dance company of the Royal Academy of Music with intelligence and authority, by sparing tradition and innovation in the genre of ballet-pantomime or action ballet that Jean-Georges Noverre developed in the second half of the 18th centurye century; all of Europe admired the exploits of Augustus Vestris and recognized the supremacy of the French school.

Despréaux, however, foresaw the future decadence of French ballet, due not only to the contamination of the national style by the influence of foreign schools and the excess of virtuosity of dancers like Vestris, but also to the negligence of men of letters and institutions, like This is shown in the satirical poem "La Ronde des beaux esprits, or Sudden arrival of Madame Angot at the Institute", in which he complains about the absence of dance among the arts rewarded during the first distribution of the Conservatory of Music prizes , in the Louvre, year XI (1803).

After this very ironic work (Madame Angot, archetype of the poissarde who has come from vaudevilles and comic operas, is presented here as the mother of Dance), Despréaux composes an ambitious poem in four songs, conceived as a copy of Poetic Art by Boileau and entitled The Art of Dance. The reference to Boileau is a clear position statement: Despréaux accepts the evolution of dance, on condition that this does not involve the denial of the fundamental principles of grace, elegance and good taste, that is - that is to say the art of pleasing without having recourse to virtuosity and grotesque effects.

In his last years, Despréaux worked on a theoretical work on dance, the strong point of which would be a new choreographic notation system, designed to replace the now obsolete Choreography de Beauchamps and Feuillet. This system, baptized by Despréaux "Terpsi-choro-graphie" in honor of his wife, nicknamed "the Terpsichore of the XVIIIe century ", is an original and modern representation of the movement, but unfortunately Despréaux died before finishing the drafting, and no one undertook to continue his work and publish it. The manuscript is now kept in the Deshayes collection of the Opera library.

  • dance
  • Guimard (Marie-Madeleine)
  • Paris Opera
  • court life
  • ballet
  • Acadamy of Arts


Albert FIRMIN-DIDOT, Memories of Jean-Étienne Despréaux, Opera dancer and poet-songwriter 1748-1820 (From his handwritten notes), Issoudun, A.Gaignault Printer, 1894. Jean-Étienne DESPRÉAUX, Mes Passe-Temps, songs followed by the Art of Dance, Poëme en quatre chants, modeled on Boileau's Poetic Art, Despréaux, by Jean-Étienne Despréaux, decorated with engravings after the Drawings of Moreau the Younger, with the airs noted, 2 volumes, Paris, Imprimerie de Crapelet, 1806.

To cite this article

Gabriella ASARO, "Jean-Étienne Despréaux and the renewal of dance"


  • Academy of Fine Arts: Created in 1816 by the union of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, founded in 1648, the Academy of Music, founded in 1669 and the Academy of Architecture, founded in 1671. Institution which brings together artists distinguished by an assembly of peers and usually working for the crown. It defines the rules of art and good taste, trains artists, organizes exhibitions.

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    1. Bradan

      You have hit the spot. An excellent idea, I support it.

    2. JoJokus

      In this nothing in there and I think this is a very good idea.

    3. Majinn

      I can't see your logic

    4. Nick

      pleasing to the eye ..........

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