Elisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe was born Princess Elisabeth Riquet de Caraman-Chimay. She was one of the six children of Prince Joseph Marie Guy Henri Philippe de Riquet (1836-1892) and Countess Marie Josephine Anatole de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1834-1884). She married Henri Jules Charles Emanuel Greffulhe (1848-1932), a naturalised Frenchman from a family of Belgian bankers, in March 1881.
A renowned beauty, Comtesse Greffulhe was the uncontested queen of the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. At her salon at 10, rue d'Astorg, she regularly entertained the cream of Parisian society in the arts, science and politics. The Comtesse was a cousin of Comte Robert de Montesquiou, and was in love with him throughout her life; although he was very fond of her, there was no possibility of that love being returned. Montesquiou put her in touch with JW in 1887, when she visited England and saw Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (YMSM 178). Her position as an arbiter of taste guaranteed JW's acceptance in France.
The original letters from JW to the Comtesse are lost, but JW kept drafts or copies of some. When JW was made Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1889, the Comtesse sent him a red ribbon she had embroidered to celebrate his award (#01856). She lent the heavy chinchilla-lined cloak which Montesquiou carries over his arm in Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac (YMSM 398).
The Comtesse launched a fashion for greyhound racing, was a patron of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and promoted many other artists, like Rodin and Moreau, in high society. She also found the time to take lessons in drawing and photography with Félix Tournachon (called Nadar) and played the piano. She probably inspired Marcel Proust's character of the Duchesse de Guermantes in A la recherche du temps perdu.
Newton, Joy, 'Whistler's French Connections: Count Robert de Montesquiou and Countess Greffulhe,' Laurels, vol. 53, no. 1; Michel-Thiriet, Philippe, The Book of Proust, London, 1989; Munhall, Edgar, Whistler and Montesquiou. The Butterfly and the Bat, New York, 1995.