Prostitutes in a New Paris ; Show Depicts Their Roles in Society, 1850 to 1910, as Interpreted by Artists

By Sciolino, Elaine | International New York Times, September 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

Prostitutes in a New Paris ; Show Depicts Their Roles in Society, 1850 to 1910, as Interpreted by Artists


Sciolino, Elaine, International New York Times


The Musee d'Orsay is touting this show as the first major exhibition on the artistic representation of prostitution in Paris.

A skirt lifted above her ankle. A beauty mark painted on her cheek. A direct gaze. Sitting alone over a drink in a cafe.

These were some of the clues that a woman in 19th-century Paris might not be a person of standing but just might be a streetwalker.

Ambiguity about prostitutes in the public space is a central theme of "Splendor and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution 1850-1910," which is to run through Jan. 17 at the Musee d'Orsay here. Taking its title from Honore de Balzac's mid-19th-century Comedie Humaine novel "The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans," it is touted by the museum as the first major exhibition on the artistic representation of prostitution in Paris.

Paris during this period was a city in transformation. Its population of one million in 1850 almost doubled by 1870 as men and women abandoned the countryside for this capital. Traditional social structures and codes of behavior shattered. The rise of a wealthy urban class through trade and industry meant plenty of money to spend.

In this frenzied era of commerce, prostitution -- already legal and considered a necessary evil -- exploded.

Every major artist and writer (male, of course) explored the subject. Over the years, it was romanticized, exposed, caricatured and eventually condemned. Prostitution became so central to the artistic imagination that the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote in his personal journal: "What is art? Prostitution."

"Why was prostitution such a big theme for artists?" said Richard Thomson, a professor of fine art at the Edinburgh College of Art and a curator of the exhibition. "There was the sexual aspect, of course. But there was another reason. The city was slippery. Everything was speeding up, becoming more commercial, more ambiguous, more of a spectacle. How can we be sure this person filled a certain role and not another? Who was who? Was she or wasn't she? These questions disturbed and fascinated artists."

In this show, the museum has brought together masterpieces by artists of the day, including Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, Munch, van Gogh and Picasso. They explored only the world of female prostitution; male prostitution was treated as a homosexual act subject to criminal prosecution.

To illustrate the interaction between the artists' representations of the prostitutes' world and its harsh reality, the show has drawn on the vast collection of police records, photographs, periodicals and pornographic material from France's national library.

There are also objects of the trade, including jetons (tokens) paid by clients to prostitutes in lieu of cash, which went directly to the bordello's madame; brothel guides for tourists; and business cards advertising ambiguous services. (One offered "hygienic massages" in a setting where English was spoken.)

One room of the show features the "Armchair of Love, or Chair of Voluptuousness," a brocade-upholstered contraption with a seat and bronze stirrups on the top and a place to recline below, to have relations with two women at once. It was built in the late-19th- century for the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII, who visited Paris for pleasure.

The cornerstone of prostitution in the mid-19th-century was the "maison close" -- "closed house," or bordello, a controlled legal entity where women were registered with the police and subjected to regular medical examinations.

Several bordello paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec are here, the women depicted neither as victims nor femmes fatales, but as working women. …

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