Splendeur et Misère- Prostitution at the D'Orsay | Catherine Conway Honig | Scene4 Magazine-November 2015

Catherine Conway Honig

The splendeur of inspiration and the misery of the muse is the subject of the first ever French exhibition on representations of prostitution currently showing at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris. Featuring masterpieces of paint as well as early attempts at photography, cinematography and graphic arts, it is a vast and impressive collection of provocative and often melancholy images. The exhibition’s organizers chose to frame it during the latter half of the 19th century through the beginning of World War I stating that the profession, along with the city of Paris, evolved rapidly and aggressively during those years.

The bulldozing of much of Medieval Paris and its reconstruction was ordered by Napolean III right in the middle of the 19th century. His chief architect of the destruction and redesign, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, worked against furious though ultimately powerless opposition from the public, to build the grand boulevards, squares and parks that inadvertently encouraged the development of a simultaneously conspicuous and inconspicuous sex trade. The introduction of gas lamps and electricity meant that the night was no longer dark and isolating. The streets welcomed mysterious and ambiguous scenes of the hunt for warm flesh. 


As inviting as the streets were at night, daylight did not discourage the exchange of subtle signals of availability. One of the most striking paintings in the exhibition, possibly because of its inscrutability, is “La Blanchisseuse” by Pascal Dagnan -Bouveret. The scene is set on what was probably a grey and cold autumn day along the quay that borders the wind-chilled Seine. Dried leaves are scattered at the feet of a young woman seated on a bench between two bulging bundles of laundry nearly as large as she. Wearing only a thin cotton blouse of modest vertical black and white stripes, buttoned at the collar, and a long grey skirt that falls to the ankle, she looks away, toward the viewer, as two men dressed in overcoats and hats stare back at her. As if wondering whether she might be offering, or at least willing, to supplement her scant income as a laundry-worker for a more lucrative activity, they smile over their luxuriously-clad shoulders in a state of titillation.

Cafés have always sheltered the cold and welcomed the lonely in Paris. As the setting for shifts in societal norms, cafés can be seen as improvised theatres where women and men adopted characters and played with their destinies. Numerous paintings depict women sitting alone with a drink, once considered a scandalous sight, but as the 19th century evolved a more common one. Edouard Manet’s Irma Brunner is the portrait of a well-dressed though fatigued woman staring into the distance. His La Prune depicts a solitary woman, conservatively dressed in a feathery hat and a pink blouse with a lacy white scarf at the bodice, staring dolefully into the café, unlit cigarette in hand, a small glass goblet holding a single prune placed before her. The prevailing thought at the time would have been that these women were waiting for an assignation. But were they? Or were they asserting the right that men had always enjoyed to simply sit in silence and contemplate?

Seductive, addictive and the cause of ruin, absinthe appears throughout the exhibition. Viewing Pablo Picasso’s scene of a hideous woman sipping the bright green fluid, La Buveuse d’absinthe, is a near psychedelic experience in itself. Brightly clad, the frightfully thin woman seems unaware of the darkness around her and only focused on the glass whose color spills onto the white table—the only light surface in the painting. Her hand cupped over her ear, her skinny fingers reaching for the glass, she is a universe of pinched longing and regret. Femme Melancholique from 1902 during his brief Blue Period is a depressing look into a Paris prison where a woman sits alone on a cold bench hunched under a shawl that barely covers her folded arms. She looks at the floor, her pale face held up only by her hardened stare.


Away from the ambiguity of the streets and cafés, maisons closes or bordellos multiplied throughout Paris. Working girls registered with the state and were subjected to routine medical exams. Scenes of these exams as well as life within the walls of these establishments became another favorite inspiration for artists. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is probably the most widely represented artist in the exhibition and along with various other artists he painted scenes of seduction as well as female camaraderie and companionship during the wait for clients. His Les Valseuses is a vague and beautiful scene of two women dancing together presumably in a maison close.


Not all of the stories told were somber or miserable. Scenes such as Boldini’s (above) glamourous parties, costume balls, and masked galas at the opera have been immortalized in paint as well as literature. Throughout 19th century French literature the courtesans threw the best parties. Zola’s Nana held Paris high-society hostage by the threat or promise of an invitation. The home of Flaubert’s Rosanette, the self-proclaimed party Marshall in Education Sentimentale, was the setting for numerous all-night bashes where the plot thinned to questions of who was the mistress of whom, for how long, and who would be next? Edouard Manet’s painting Bal masqué à l’Opèra is an amusing view of two simultaneous parties. On the floor of the Opera House the upper class men are dressed in top hats, black morning suits and starched white collars. The women are draped in layers of black topped by hooded black capes; their faces are obscured by black masks. Moving throughout the crowd are characters dressed as harlequins, dolls, clowns and other tempting creatures. Above in the balcony is a raucous scene of the scantily clad unwashed masses pressed together as if on a modern day party bus. 


The ballet was yet another domain in which ambiguity ruled. Among the many philosophers, writers, politicians and social commentators quoted throughout the exhibit, Hippolyte Taine states: “Le ballet est ignoble; c’est une exposition des filles à vendre.” Ballet is nothing but a venue for displaying girls for sale. Numerous paintings, photographs and graphics throughout the exhibit portray scenes from the ballet in a suspect light. Notice in the famous Edgar Dégas Etoile (above) the man standing behind the curtain. This is said to be the artist himself who was a frequent guest backstage and in the hallways of the Opera House . I overheard a docent at the D’Orsay whisper that among his personal effects his family found piles of ballet-inspired erotica never shown in public and subsequently destroyed. Oh là.


Thoughout most of the time covered by this exhibit, the art establishment controlled the content of paintings shown in the state-sponsored exhibitions or Salons. Dominated by the Beaux-Arts academy and the long-entrenched establishment galleries, content was supposed to be mythological, biblical or morally inspired. When Manet proposed his Olympia it caused great scandal not only because of its nudity and sensuality but because of her blatant visual address to the viewer. Though many art historians have drawn the conclusion that Manet was inspired by Titian’s 1538 painting, Venus d’Urbin, and the similarity cannot be overlooked. Nonetheless, Olympia broke barriers and revolutionized French artistic content forever. Another famous courtesan, Virginia Verasis de Castiglione (pictured wearing the black mask in the opening) was a muse of photographer Jean-Louis Pierson. The new medium became her stage as she posed in various costumes usually involving a mask. If only she could return to see her splendid images immortalized in 2015!

The exhibition runs through January 16, 2016, at the Musée D’Orsay along the quai D’Orsay on the Left Bank.

All photographs courtesy of Musée D’Orsay, Paris, France.

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Scene4 Magazine - Catherine Conway Honig

Catherine Conway Honig is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of her commentary
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