Prostitution in 19th century French art and literature

Prostitution has always been a popular subject in art and literature, but never more than in the 19th century in France, where artists and writers used prostitutes as a source of inspiration for their creative works.

Paris is such a beautiful city that it’s not hard to understand how it’s been a source of inspiration for so many artists throughout the years. Its streets, monuments, history, culture and the air you breathe make it a very special place for those who are visiting Paris, that this was the chosen city for some of the most thriving times of the 19th century, known as the Belle Epoque. This was the time when the arts were flowing, economy was thriving and there was joy all around. Paris was just the place to be.

One of the biggest attractions in Belle Epoque Paris and the years after that were the cabarets, such as the Moulin Rouge or the Folies Bergère. These were entertainment venues where one could see performances of comedy, dance, theatre and song and where people would sit in tables around the stage and enjoy a night’s fun with drinking, smoking, chatting and good company. Many of the performers or attendants to the cabarets were prostitutes and also, many of the attendants were artists, so the connection was there and they were basically mixing together every day. A lot of these artists would use the cabaret and the prostitutes as a source of inspiration for their work. We need to go no further than the great French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), whose paintings were all in closed spaces and used many of these women of dubious reputation as models, for example his painting ‘Medical Examination’, among many others. Another painter who used prostitutes as inspiration was Édouard Manet (1832-1883) in his painting ‘Olympia’ which caused great uproar. In the painting we can see a black cat, a symbol of prostitution, lying on the bed next to the woman, who by covering her vulva with her hand symbolizes control and dominance over men. This was not the only painting that Manet did of a high-class prostitute, his painting ‘Nana’ was also another.

However, criticism wasn’t a general consensus among the critiques. Literate figures such as Émile Zola (1840-1902) was in favour of depicting such realism and he himself wrote a book also called ‘Nana’, which tells the rise of a girl from being a street-walker to being part of the upper class. Edmond de Goncourt (1822-1896) also wrote a popular novel about a prostitute, ‘La fille Elisa’, about a likeable streetwalker, which also deals with subjects that were also considered taboo back then, such as abortion.

However, one of the greatest yet unknown books about this subject is ‘The Book of Monelle’ by Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) which is a compilation of stories and poetry of the darkest kind which were inspired by the love that Schwob had of a prostitute. This prostitute who in fact was called Louise, with Monelle being her pseudonym, died at a young age of tuberculosis and left Schwob psychologically destroyed, a state from which he never really properly recovered.

Prostitutes have always been depicted in art and popular culture, from Mary Magdalene to more modern narratives such as Gabriel García Márquez but they weren’t shown in a positive light like they were in 19th century Paris, a time where they were considered part of the entertainment and worthy of being the subject of a work of art. Even Pablo Picasso painted his famous ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ in the city of Paris in 1907, even though the inspiration came from a brothel in Barcelona on Avinyó Street.

Given the bad light that they are usually portrayed, one cannot forget that prostitutes have been the subject of some of the greatest works of art of all time, works that are admired sometimes by even the most retrograde critics, but none have been portrayed as well and fairly as those portrayed by French artists in the 19th century.

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