“… it is thanks to her that I already experienced as a child the revelation of the troubling beauty of a woman on a horse, this plastic coupling of two curvilinears that are the most perfect creation: the stallion, aggrandizing woman in all her majesty; woman on the creature she rides, posed audaciously like a wing.”
Circus historian Hughes le Roux salutes the nineteenth-century haute école rider, Emilie Loisset, in Les Jeux du Cirque et la Vie Foraine (1889), translated and cited by Hilda Nelson in The Ecuyère of the Nineteenth Century in the Circus (Xenophon Press).
Emilie naturally rode sidesaddle – hence that beautiful simile about the wing – and was one of several female dressage riders who caused a sensation in the circus ring and in society. They performed classical dressage with the addition of a few “tricks” that perturbed the purists, like the Spanish Walk, the “révérence” (the horse takes a bow) and the lançade (a great leap which I think was somewhere between courbette and capriole), and, on special jumping horses, would clear a dining table topped with burning candelabras.
The écuyère were considered the most respectable of performers – a far cry from ballet girls and actresses, who always teetered on the edge of the demimonde (if they didn’t plunge in head first).
Emilie Loisset was more popular than Sarah Bern-
hardt had ever been in Paris. Her less successful
rivals in the circus were brought by her exceeding
amiability to pardon her public triumphs. She did
not seem ever to excite jealousy. On the days and
nights on which she performed the circus was crowded
with fashionable people. There was no amount of
wealth that she might not have possessed had she not
been a proud, strong-willed, self-respecting girl. She
had no carriage and used to walk from the hippodrome
to the Rue Oberkampf, where she had a small lodging
on the fifth floor. A number of aristocratic and plu-
tocratic admirers used to escort her to the door,
through which none of them were allowed by her to
pass. She aspired to create for herself a happy home
and to marry somebody whom she could love and
esteem. Her sister, Clotilde, is the morganatic wife
of the Prince de Reuss, brother of the German ambas-
sador at Constantinople, and is looked up to in her
family circle. The admiration of the Empress Eliza-
beth for Emilie was increased by the fact that the
charming circus rider spurned the address of the crown
prince of Austria.
He was very much in love with her when she was in
Germany, a couple of years ago, and would have for-
sworn marriage if she would have consented to be his
Dubarry. She did not like the young man, and told
him so. The empress, when she was here, used to
make appointments to ride in the Bois with Emilie.**
From Theatrical and Circus Life; or, Secrets of the Stage, Green-room and Sawdust Arena by John Joseph Jennings (1886).
Known as much for her “melancholy” expression and her beauty as for her riding skills, she died at the age of twenty-six at the very end of what would have been her final performing season at the Cirque d’Eté before her marriage to Le Prinz de Hatzfeld*, when her difficult Irish horse, Pour-Toujours, bolted, skidded into the closed iron door between the ring and the stables and fell back onto her. She was impaled on the pommel of her saddle, and, according to one (dubious) source walked to the infirmiary and even up five flights of stairs at her home afterwards, but died in agony two days later.
The trade sheet, The New York Clipper, says she was buried with three generations of her circus riding family in the cemetery at Maison Lafitte.
Extracts in French from Le Roux and from Baron Le Vaux can be found here.
* a contemporary New York Times report says she married a “Hungarian magnate” called Count Elemer Batthyani. I’m unclear about Austro-Hungarian nobility, but could they have been the same person? The New York Times also says that she was actually injured in rehearsal at the Cirque d’Hiver, on the front of which can still be seen a statue of another “écuyère“, Antoinette Cuzent-LeJars, posing as the Amazon and riding (as I understand from Nelson) a horse called Thisbe. Cuzent-LeJars was an “écuyère de panneau“ like Emilie’s sister Clotilde (who married a Hungarian Prince Reuss): a horseback acrobat like a vaulter, who leapt through floral hoops while balanced on their rosinback, and leaned down to snatch scarves from the ground at the gallop (the NYT seems to have confused the two disciplines). The “panneau” was a flat pad which lay on the back of the horse and on which the artiste stood.
** the more sources I find, the more inconsistencies emerge in details of Emilie’s life. I’m not sure that either the NYT or Jennings are reliable, and Jennings certainly both might be guilty of romanticising her saintedness in the light of her death – her story of tragic, doomed virtue was catnip to a Victorian.