Misery and Splendour: Images of prostitution 1850-1910 at the Musée d’Orsay

Opening Misery and Splendour: Images of prostition, 1850-1910 not so long after a large exhibition on the artistic influence of the Marquis de Sade could inspire accusations of the Musée d’Orsay creating provocating subject-matter to draw in the crowds. Yet this seems hasty: I’m actually surprised such a display was not shown sooner. Indeed, the theme runs through much of 19th century and 20th century art, and was an enduring subject of fascination and creativity for artists that could hardly be ignored. This display’s aim was, to cast a light not only upon the artistic figure of the turn-of-the century prostitute but also hopefully who she truly was in all her different incarnations behind the stereotypical froufrous and cabaret imagery usually associated in some tourists’ minds to Pigalle and the Moulin Rouge, a kind of sexy-whimsy image of Paris as a city of pleasures with all the seedy bits cut out. My great concern was this: was the exhibition going to go in that glossy direction or truly veer into more in-depth social analysis? The result was an experimental, sometimes irregular but ultimately efficient mingling of both.

The display starts with prostitution within the street and as an activity which was more or less ambiguously associated with certain professions in which women not making enough money had to illegally provide for themselves on the side (This is, for instance, what Fantine was accused of in Les Misérables.). The vision of the woman both visually alluring and bleakly resolute mingles with a city transforming, creating new experimentation in lighting and colour. The tone is sometimes melancholic, sometimes bawdy and tongue-in-cheek like just another manifestation of the Parisian nightlife with its iconic cabarets: suggestive but not too vulgar, racy but not explicit. The safe, flirty nature of these depictions were already stirring some concerns in me about how serious this exhibition would actually be on the subject, or remain in the realm of pure fantasy. However, the suggestive waiting at street corners and flirting in bars is already confronted by different kinds of images: the danger confronting the woman selling herself on the street to anyone without protection of safety, in Béraud’s L’Attente. When the scene shifts to opera and ballet the mood darkens surprisingly. Once you notice in Degas’ pastel the man looming in the background behind the graceful ballerina, her regular client and “patron” (the only way these impoverished young  girls could ever have a future in dancing), the context changes drastically, mingling the aesthetic with jarring allusions.

08. Degas_Ballet

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Ballet (L’Étoile), vers 4876 Pastel, 58,4 x 42 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice S


The exhibition moves on to the world of Second Empire prostitution that we know probably best through Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastels: the brothels themselves and the women who lived and worked there. And as expected, a immense, comprehensive collection of them are assembled, showing the every-day life and inner workings of the trade, either “behind the scenes” or while encountering their clients. These works are detached yet sensitive, vivid accounts that do not only document but allow to capture the lives and personalities of the women, rather than reducing them to simple models. They provide a good counterpart to Constantin Guys’ depictions, which are more like little genre scenes or narrative illustrations in their own right. The romanticization of earlier rooms is gone in favour of observation and documentation with a distinct sense of emphathy.
17. Toulouse-Lautrec_Dans le lit

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), Dans le lit, 1892, Huile sur carton marouflé sur bois parqueté, 53,5 x 70 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandow

With these images, historical artefacts are also shown now for the first time, ranging from buisness cards to small whips or hygienic tools, adding an element of reality and of the prosaic. Another element is introduced as a literal side room, forbidden to people under 18 (superfluous in an exhibition about prostitution…?). We usually know of early photography as awkward portraiture or daring experiments but it seemed inevitable that it would provide the opportunity for the first clandestine pornographic albums. Some of these are presented in little peepholes in order to further accentuate the sense of voyeurism.  The erotic, slightly cheesecake pinup photography (at least by today’s standards) is followed by darker material, or at the very least a lot more intentionally bleak than what we have seen so far, where artists seem interested in the prostitute’s daily life and her role amongst a society where people of all social classes use their services.

The next rooms show the way in which legal prostitutes in brothels, registered with the police and made to undertake regular medical examination, were tolerated as a “neccessary evil” to a growing male population. But they have their counterparts: the “non-submissive girls” as they were called by the police, operating illegally and living in constant danger of the police raids that could have them arrested and detained, as well as abuse. There are arresting sketches and paintings of these instances, as well as historical documentation, even popular songs reminiscing on these events and the dangers of venereal disease. It is another chilling reminder that sex workers’ protection and health only really appear to matter as long as their clients cannot be affected by it. It’s also interesting to note that there is a mention of the feminist movement’s pledge and success in the abolition of brothels in 1946, but not focused on the rights of sex workers themselves (which is still, incidentally, a very contemporary issue). The corner devoted to historical documentation of these matters is large but not reinforced by a great amount of painting: it is not quite clear whether or not there was a lack of artists willing to depict such uncomfortable scenes or to which extent the theme was meant to be short in order to spare the visitor.

The subject then veers to the luxurious and the aristocratic with another aspect of prostitution in danger of feeling quite romanticized: the demi-mondaines, seducing and living off rich and powerful men, starting out as actresses and singers and achieving a certain celebrity status. The paintings are decorations and commissioned portraits for these women, sculptures such as the one of “La Belle Otéro” or once again romanticized portrayals of a life of vice and luxury. These are followed by various iconic paintings around the same theme, including Manet’s Olympia, one of the only paintings whose stark realism seems to strip away the lustre of the courtesan, that appears for instance as some kind of Greek goddess in ‘Rolla’.

20. Gervex_Rolla

Henri Gervex (1852-1929), Rolla, 1878, oil on canvas, 175 x 220 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, dépôt du musée d’Orsay © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice S

We then discover imagined depictions of the prostitute this time as an allegorical figure in fantastical scenes, ironically seem often closer to showing all her nuances. Munch’s Alley in which a young naked figure is surrounded by menacing, suit-bearing men, shows once more the menace and horror of prostitution, of a woman given no choice in a world of men. It was interesting to see that most of these depictions focused on the prostitute’s role as one that encapsulated the evil in her potential clients, rather than condemning her own depravity. Béraud adds a contemporary twist to the biblical scene in which the prostitute Marie-Madeleine cries and washes Christ’s feet, as he condemns the men around her who seem to condemn her but would hypocritically be the first to visit her in a brothel.

26. B+®raud_La Madeleine chez le Pharisien

Jean Béraud (1849-1935) La Madeleine chez le Pharisien, 1891, oil on canvas, 95,5 x 127 cm, Paris, musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandow

The final room ends with the depiction of the prostitute in modernism, the advent of new techniques and ways of seeing, in a vast room mingling different genres and visions – perhaps too much so, from André Derain to de Vlaminck, Munch and Picasso. They depict the way in which the world was turned over its head, vibrant and violent, but also quite distinctly the way in which the prostitute became not a subject of genre scenes or moralizing pictures, but a model in her own right. The fact that this was a large room at the end of a very, very large exhibition, sadly, does not do justice to the works that it exhibits. I think it is quite telling that I did have to go two times in order to take everything in, which not everyone has the time to do!

The scenography was elaborated by Robert Carsen, who usually belongs to the world of theater sets. The decision for this decidedly dramatic backdrop is slightly unnerving: it starts with warm tones dealing with the street life of prostitution, then deep red and a plush, boudoir feel accompany the next rooms concerning brothel scenes. It conveys effectively the message of performance and showmanship behind the first portrayals of prostitution in all its forms but its attempt to “recreate” the atmosphere of a brothel’s lounge undermined the sense of intimacy of Toulouse-Laurec’s depictions in the same room. When the display then adopts darker tones for the visually uglier undertones of the trade, such as the room on raids by the police and disease it seems suited and then veers between dark red and grey for the dark romantic visions of the time. It then finished with a vivid, violent red in the final room devoted to avant-garde visions of the prostitutes. There is something to be said about imitating without reconstructing that atmosphere but it sometimes distracted from the works themselves and the nuance within them.

This is a necessary and fantastically diverse exhibition in terms of imagery and subject-matter and if I returned a second time, it was also in order to focus more closely on certain fascinating aspects. I felt, however, that the exhibition would have been complex and would have done the sum of its parts so much more justice in terms of balance, had it focused a bit more on the misery in comparison to the splendour, with maybe more social history and context. I did not only want to know how these women were depicted, I wanted  to know who they were, and more about their work conditions and rights. There are also a few gaps in my opinion, concerning a viewpoint from either side that is not purely heterosexual (what about all these fellow prostitutes dancing and sleeping together in Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings? And what about homosexual clients? Were they able to go to dedicated brothels? Were there any covert, clandestine depictions or traces of male prostitutes?).

However, I believe it still succeeded in crystallizing these issues in ways that delved into many different facets, both aesthetic and social, but never with a sense of gratuitous voyeurism or polemic. If some visitors maybe came to ogle in the first place, they perhaps left with more sobering thoughts than they were expecting, and any sense of drawing in through provocation was justified in my eyes if it allowed to explore such a subject without titillation or judgement. An entire cycle of performances, conferences and screenings around the subject of prostitution was also put on by the museum, allowing to round off issues that could not be explored in the display. When I next visit the Musée d’Orsay and any museum of 19th century art, I will spare a thought not only for the nuanced image of the prostitute but also of all the real prostitutes of the Second Empire who fascinated society but were hypocritically condemned by it, whose life was carefully either observed or romanticized by artists and whose legacy prevails today in our collective imagination.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: