Born into a poor family as Emma Laure Esther Guilbert, Guilbert began singing as a child but at age sixteen worked as a model at the Printemps department store in Paris. She was discovered by a journalist. She took voice and acting lessons on the side that by 1886 led to appearances on stage at smaller venues. Guilbert debuted at the Variette Theatre in 1888. She eventually sang at the popular Eldorado club, then at the Jardin de Paris before headlining in Montmartre at the Moulin Rouge in 1890. The English painter William Rothenstein described this performance in his first volume of memoirs:
"One evening Lautrec came up to the rue Ravignan to tell us about a new singer, a friend of Xanrof, who was to appear at the Moulin Rouge for the first time... We went; a young girl appeared, of virginal aspect, slender, pale, without rouge. Her songs were not virginal – on the contrary; but the frequenters of the Moulin were not easily frightened; they stared bewildered at this novel association of innocence with Xanrof's horrific double entente; stared, stayed and broke into delighted applause."
For her act, she was usually dressed in bright yellow with long black gloves and stood almost perfectly still, gesturing with her long arms as she sang. An innovator, she favored monologue-like "patter songs" (as they came to be called) and was often billed as a "diseuse" or "sayer." The lyrics (some of them her own) were raunchy; their subjects were tragedy, lost love, and the Parisian poverty from which she had come. During the 1890s she appeared regularly alongside another star of the time, Kam-Hill, often singing songs by Tarride. Taking her cue from the new cabaret performances, Guilbert broke and rewrote all the rules of music-hall with her audacious lyrics, and the audiences loved her. She was noted in France, England, and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century for her songs and imitations of the common people of France.
She was a favorite subject of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who made many portraits and caricatures of Guilbert and dedicated his second album of sketches to her. Sigmund Freud attended performances, including one in Vienna, and called her a favorite singer. George Bernard Shaw wrote a review highlighting her novelty.
Guilbert made successful tours of England and Germany, and the United States in 1895–1896. She performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Even in her fifties, her name still had drawing power and she appeared in several silent films (including a star turn in Murnau's Faust). She also appeared in talkies, including a role with friend, Sacha Guitry. Her recordings for Le Voix de Son Maitre include the famous "Le Fiacre" as well as some of her own compositions such as "Madame Arthur." She accompanied herself on piano for some numbers.
In later years, Guilbert turned to writing about the Belle Époque and in 1902 two of her novels were published. In the 1920s there appeared her instructional book L'art de chanter une chanson (How to Sing a Song). She also conducted schools for young girls in New York and Paris.
Twenty years later her biography, "That Was Yvette: The Biography of a Great Diseuse” by Bettina Knapp and Myra Chipman (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964,) was released.
- W. Rothenstein, Men and Memories, Vol 1, pp 65–66
- Du Temps des cerises aux Feuilles mortes (French chanson from the end of the 2nd Empire to the 1950s website
- "Yyette Guilbert, Singer, Dies at 79. Paris Shopgirl Won Success On Stage with Folksongs. Visited U. S. in 1895–96.". New York Times. 4 February 1944. Retrieved 24 July 2009.
- Helena, Montana Daily Independent, Chit Chat Of Affairs Mundane In Land Of Gaul, Wednesday Morning, 10 November 1928, Page 11.
- New York Times, Yvette Guilbert, Singer, Dies At 79, 4 February 1944, Page 16.