Who is Marie Desmares?

Thanks to the assistance of a gallery in Rouen, a 17th century painting will now have a permanent home in the Musée Départmental Pierre Corneille from this autumn. It is the Portrait de Marie Desmares, dit la Champmeslé [Portrait of Marie Desmares, known as La Champmeslé], which was loaned to the museum for the temporary exhibition on Horace de Corneille in 1987. The first 17th century painting to be acquired for the museum, the portrait of Marie Desmares completes the museum’s collections on several levels. A contemporary of Corneille and from the region, Marie Desmares, known as La Champmeslé, mixed with the greatest authors and actors of her generation.

Apart from the label on the gold frame there is nothing to indicate that this is the portrait of an actress who was adored by the public, and who was the one-time mistress and favourite actress of Jean Racine (1639-1699).

According to her baptismal certificate, Marie Desmares was born in Rouen on 18th February 1642 into a lower-middle class family. Contrary to popular belief her father was not President of the Parlement de Normandie, but a tax collector of the royal household. He died young in 1652. In 1657, at the age of 15, Marie Desmares married for the first time - Pierre Fleurye, an actor from Harfleur. Widowed at the age of 23, she joined the travelling company of François Serdin where she met her future husband Charles Chevillet, Sieur de Champmeslé [Lord Champmeslé], the son of a Parisian merchant. In 1668, the plague which was raging in Normandy forced the troupe to go straight to Paris rather than take their show on a preliminary tour of the regions. Charles Chevillet and his wife managed to find employment in a famous theatre, the Hôtel du Marais. Madame La Champmeslé made her debut on 15th February 1669 in a play by the Abbé Boyer, La fête de Vénus. The following year, 1670, the Champmeslés joined the Hôtel de Bourgogne, a rival Parisian theatre but slightly better known than the Marais.