When the sun went down in 19th-century Paris and lamp-lighters lit the gas lamps, it was time for “absinthe hour”. The elegant daytime flâneurs strolling Haussmann’s grand boulevards had disappeared and were replaced by the ladies of the night.
From the darkest corners of the French capital, thousands of brightly dressed and giddy moths emerged to flirt and solicit clients on the cafe terraces and in cabarets such as the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge.
As prostitution in Paris boomed, the city’s most celebrated artists set about capturing what seemed an exciting and modern social phenomenon, dusted with the undertones of sin and scandal, as well as a dose of Rabelaisian smut.
Out went the still lifes and bucolic landscapes. In came the cocottes and courtesans. Now the Musée d’Orsay is opening what it claims is the first major exhibition on the artistic representation of prostitution in 19th-century Paris.
The event’s title Splendours and Miseries: Images of Prostitution 1850-1910, is borrowed from Honoré de Balzac’s Comédie Humaine novel A Harlot High and Low (Splendeurs and Misères des Courtisanes). It focuses on the work of the painters, artists and photographers who, with a blend of fascination and growing disgust, captured this shadier, decadent side of the City of Light during the period between the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque.
The images they left romanticise the depravity of the age. “Every major artist at the time tackled the subject of prostitution in one way or another,” Richard Thomson, Watson Gordon professor of fine art at the Edinburgh College of Art(ECA) and a curator of the exhibition, told the Observer. “It was a subject that interested them. Why? The obvious answer is that they were men, but another reason was that prostitution was linked to the idea of modernity. People had moved to the city, which was in itself a new concept, where the moral strictures of the village had disappeared. The city was fluid and this excited the artists.”
As Gustave Flaubert wrote to his politician friend Ernest Chevalier in June 1842: “What seems to be most beautiful in Paris is the boulevard … at the hour when the gas lamps shine in the mirrors, when the knives ring against the marble tables, I’m going to walk there, peacefully, enveloped in the smoke of my cigar while looking at the women who pass. This is where prostitution is on display, this is where eyes shine!”
“What is art? Prostitution,” Charles Baudelaire declared in his Journaux Intimes. The exhibition attempts to put 19th and early 20th-century prostitution in France within the moral and social framework of an era when a demographic shift brought many country dwellers to the city and when the authorities regarded prostitution as a necessary evil to blunt the rampant nature of the male libido. For centuries, French kings and aristocrats had kept courtesans and mistresses; but in Paris in the second half of the 19th century, the sex-for-sale business democratised, invaded the public space and boomed.
The exhibition begins on the streets, the rues and boulevards where during the day the scenes are ambiguous and visitors are encouraged to spot the telltale signs that distinguished a prostitute from an “honest woman”: a bold stare, a lifted hem, a female drinking alone in a bar. “There are codes that give us clues,” Thomson said. “But during the day, it was slippery trying to identify who was or who wasn’t. This ‘was-she-wasn’t-she’ was the great question of the age.”
The exhibition moves into the Maison Clos (closed house). In the second half of the 19th century, prostitutes – who registered with the local police and were obliged to have regular medical checks – worked in around 200 legalised brothels and maisons closes.
Many thousands more worked on the streets illegally. Their activity centred around cafes and bars, depicted so colourfully by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, where no “decent” woman would enter without a male escort. Cafe terraces, visible from the street and from inside, were the domain of those who were soliciting.
In a red velvet curtained side room at the exhibition, some early photographs capture the debauchery: there are women in suggestive poses and pornographic scenes of heterosexual and homosexual relations inside the closed houses.
Next, the exhibition moves into the boudoir. If the clandestine streetwalkers, who were often forced to supplement their incomes by charging for sex, were at the bottom of the pile, the young female “courtesans” often actors or singers, were at the top. Kept by powerful, aristocratic or high-ranking “protectors” as a sign of wealth and virility, these demi-mondaines were a subject of fascination for the upper class who looked down on them but also observed them as a reference for fashion and taste. Emile Zola’s character Nana is a streetwalker who makes a meteoric rise to become a high-class cocotte, wrecking the lives of all who fall for her and dying eventually of smallpox.
The exhibition also features Edouard Manet’s Olympia, the nude that shocked and outraged the Paris Salon in 1985, not because she was unclothed but because her gaze was defiant and a number of not-so-subtle details – including the orchid in her hair – identified her as a prostitute. (In fact, the model was Manet’s friend, the painter Victorine Meurent). The work, condemned as immoral and vulgar, became a landmark work in art history.
It ends with the harsh and often cruel portrayal of prostitutes by early 20th-century artists, including Picasso. “By the time you get to the last room of the exhibition and the beginning of the 20th century, the artists’ attitude has changed. The pictures are more caricatural, nasty even, reflecting a misogynist society,” said Thomson.
“We don’t exactly know why, but at the time France had some serious problems, like a low birth rate, and questions over whether the country was degenerating. There were high levels of alcoholism and syphilis, and people were scared.”
He said the courtesans were a world away from the misery on the streets. “The high-class prostitutes had a very, very substantial time. They weren’t paid in anything so vulgar as money, but in diamond bracelets and racehorses.”
For the majority of the prostitutes portrayed, however, the paintings romanticised the wretchedness of the circumstances that drove poorly paid women to sell their bodies, turning their misery into a celebration of art and personal talent.
“The social history was horrible,” said Thomson. “But the paintings are fantastic.”