Fanny Elssler, Austrian ballerina

black and white cropped drawing of ballerina Fanny Elssler

One of the finest ballerinas of the Romantic era

Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Fanny Elssler was a world-famous Austrian ballerina in the 19th century. She danced on stages across Europe and beyond. In the 1840s, she was the first European female artist to go on tour through North America and Cuba.

Fanny Elssler was born in 1810 in a neighbourhood of Vienna. Her father worked in the court of the nobility, and eventually became a valet to the composer Franz Joseph Haydn. Fanny and her sister Therese began dancing at a young age - Fanny's first stage performance was at Vienna's Kärntnertortheater before she was seven years old.

colour illustration of two women, who wear dresses, one green, one blue. One woman wears a large hat while the other has her hair tied up with a flower.

Both sisters studied dancing in Vienna and, in 1827, their dance education brought them to Naples.

While there, Fanny became pregnant and returned to Vienna. The child's father is believed to be Leopold, Prince of Salerno (the son of King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies). She gave birth to a son, Franz, who was fostered and grew up in Eisenstadt, a small city outside Vienna.

black and white drawing of Fanny Elssler who is wearing a dress

Before her pregnancy, Fanny's dancing performances made her a success in Naples. This led to her being offered roles in Berlin which she took up in 1830.

The year previously, she had met Friedrich von Gentz, a German diplomat and writer. He was 46 years older than Fanny and infuated with her. He showered her with gifts, and became a mentor to her. She lived with him until his death in 1832. In 1833, Fanny had another child. Her daughter Therese was born in London was again adopted, by the family of a British member of parliament.

black and white drawing of ballerina Fanny Elssler who is dancing
colour painting of ballerina Fanny Elssler, she is pictured emerging from a painting frame while a surprised artist looks on

In 1834, Fanny began the pinnacle of her career, dancing at the Paris Opéra. There she was placed in competition against Swedish ballerina Marie Taglioni, one of the most celebrated ballerinas of the era. Both were very accomplished dancers, but with different styles. The Opéra management played up their rivalry.

colour illustration of ballerina Fanny Elssler who is dancing while poeple stand around her, she wears a bright blue dress with yellow bodice

As a newcomer to the Paris Opéra, Fanny brought a different stlye of dancing - more precise and sensual. She introduced theatricalised folk dance styles into ballet. Fanny's performance of a Spanish dance Cachucha was a sensation. Its success led to a fashion for more choreographed ballet dances with specific national flavours and styles. She danced at the Paris Opéra until 1840.

colour illustration of ballerina Fanny Elssler, she is wearing a blue and pink dress and surrounded by images and scenes from her life and career
colour photograph of a pink and black ballet costume
small statue of ballerina Fanny Elssler who is dancing and wears a pink dress
small copper statue of ballerina Fanny Elssler who is dancing

Between 1840 and 1842, Fanny toured the United States, earning enormous sums and rave reviews. She had broken her contract with the Paris Opéra in order to extend her American tour and thus could not return there afterwards, but she danced with continuing success in England, Germany, Italy and Russia until her retirement in 1851.

black and white studio photograph of ballerina Fanny Elssler, she wears a long dress and has her arms crossed

She settled into private life, living first in Hamburg and later in Vienna, where she died in 1884 aged 74.