Gautier, Judith (1845–1917)

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Gautier, Judith (1845–1917)

French writer and Orientalist who was the first female member of the Académie Goncourt. Name variations: Judith Mendès; Judith Walter. Born Louise Judith Gautier in Paris, France, on August 24, 1845; died on December 26, 1917; elder daughter of Théophile Gautier (a poet, novelist, and journalist) and his mistress Ernesta Grisi (an opera singer); attended Notre-Dame de la Miséricorde for two years; tutored by Tin-Tun-Ling; niece of Carlotta Grisi (1819–1899); married Catulle Mendès (a poet), on April 17, 1866 (judicial separation, July 13, 1878, and divorced, December 28, 1896); no children.

Selected works:

(written as Judith Walter) Le Livre de Jade (1867); (written as Judith Mendès) Le Dragon impérial (1869); Iskender (1886); L'Usurpateur (1975); Le Collier des jours (2 vols., 1902 and 1903).

An Orientalist and France's first female academician, Judith Gautier was the elder daughter of the poet and critic Théophile Gautier and his mistress Ernesta Grisi , an Italian contralto. Théophile had earlier fallen passionately in love with Ernesta's sister, ballerina Carlotta Grisi , who at age 22 had danced in Giselle for which he had written the libretto. Although he called Carlotta "the true, the only love of my heart," she had only a platonic affection for him, leaving him to find a substitute in her elder sister.

Judith, favored over her sister Estelle , grew up in her father's house in Neuilly, where the likes of Delacroix, Flaubert, or Baudelaire often appeared at the dinner table. Her education began within the confines of her father's library and then, except for a few unhappy years at a French convent, was delegated to a variety of tutors.

It was primarily Théophile, however, who indulged his daughter's intelligence and her love of the exotic East. As a teenager, he presented her with a Chinese tutor, Tin-Tun-Ling, and arranged for an entree to the Bibliothèque Impériale. Making the most of these unusual privileges, Judith emerged as a brilliant Sinologist.

Gautier grew into a classic beauty as well, possessing what was described as a languid quality in her movements and gestures that only added to her grace and appeal. Maurice Dreyfous, a man of letters, first met her when she was 17. "She was, and long remained, one of the most perfectly beautiful creatures that one could see," he later recalled. "The first time I saw her, she gave me the impression, which has never changed, of the Goddess of Nonchalance." Before the age of 21, and without her father's blessing, Gautier was married to the poet Catulle Mendès, a strikingly handsome man whom Parnassian poet Louis Ménard called "Apollo in person." A disastrous union from the start, the marriage ended in divorce and left Gautier contemptuous of men. Her subsequent paramours became the source of continuous speculation. She was probably the mistress of Victor Hugo and was undoubtedly the inspiration for Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal. John Singer Sargent did a series of portraits of her, and her salon in Paris and her seaside villa in Brittany were frequented by Pierre Loti (who carried on a correspondence with her in Egyptian hieroglyphs), Charles-Marie Widor, and Anatole France. Most disconcerting to Gautier's numerous male admirers was her late-in-life liaison with Suzanne Meyer-Zundel , a young girl of average intelligence who had the unusual occupation of modeling flowers out of breadcrumbs. The relationship, which began around 1904 and lasted until Gautier's death in 1917, was ill-defined; some speculated that it was a marriage, while others saw it more as a mother-daughter bond. Whatever the case, it brought Gautier a measure of peace and happiness that had previously eluded her.

Gautier's prolific output, which included novels, short stories, poetry, plays, translations, and criticism, was recognized in 1910 by her election as the first female member of the Académie Goncourt. Gaston Deschamps, writing for Le Temps, called the appointment "a proof of the good feminist feelings which move this literary company.… and the just reward for a life completely devoted to the pure cult of literature and the arts." The membership carried with it a yearly stipend that helped ease the financial hardship that Gautier endured throughout her career. "You cannot imagine," she once confessed, "what it is… not to be able to pay your coal merchant or your cleaning woman." Earlier, in 1875, her novel about feudal Japan, L'Usurpateur, had been recognized by the Académie-Français. It, along with Le Dragon impérial (one of a handful of her books to be translated into English) and Iskender, a tale of ancient Persia, are considered some of Gautier's best works. However, it was when she was in her late 50s, ill, and feeling uncertain about the future, that she embarked on her autobiography Le Collier des jours, which her biographer Joanna Richardson calls "the work that was to remain one of her best titles to fame and to the affection of posterity." Published in two volumes, it was reviewed by Rémy de Gourmont, who was overwhelmed by both Gautier's genius and her youthful spirit. "Judith Gautier knows every language, living or dead; she knows every literature, philosophy and religion, and, when she writes, it is with the smiling innocence of a surprised and enchanted young girl."

During World War I, Judith Gautier's final days were spent at her villa, Le Pré aux Oiseaux; she was in ill health and devastated by the war. She died of coronary thrombosis on December 26, 1917, at the age of 72.


Richardson, Joanna. Judith Gautier: A Biography. NY: Franklin Watts, 1987.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts