We too often stereotype Impressionism and the other tendencies of French painting before and around 1900: a collection of sunflowers and haystacks, babies and ballerinas, that look good on postcards or a dorm-room wall. But modern French painting was nothing so anodyne. Paris in the late 19th Century was a city in the midst of a massive social transition, and the art of the age depicted much more than the natural world. It depicted a new urban world, in all its intricacy—and shied away from nothing, not even the bordellos of Pigalle.
What is art? Prostitution – Charles Baudelaire
This month Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 opens at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It’s the first major exhibition to look at a theme so central to French modern painting that we often look right past it. Prostitutes were a key subject for artists in Paris, and perhaps the two most revolutionary paintings of the age – Manet’s blunt Olympia and Picasso’s twisted Demoiselles d’Avignon – both depict sex workers. Prostitution, now hidden in the shadows, was for these painters a fact of modernity, and while they drew inspiration from women of the night, they also at times imagined the distance between the studio and the brothel was not so great. Charles Baudelaire, in his early intimate journals, made the equation explicit: “What is art? Prostitution.”
Den of vice
We now think of prostitutes as one of the most disfavoured categories of the social order, to be talked about in disgust when we talk about it at all. But in the Paris of the late 19th Century, prostitution was a central part of daily life, a private transaction with public ramifications. Prostitution was strictly regulated during the reign of Napoleon III and this continued into the 20th Century. Soliciting was illegal and instead women had to register with the police, work out of a single brothel and pay tax. (Brothels were outlawed in France in 1946; selling sex remains legal, though the country is currently embroiled in an angry debate about whether to criminalise buying sex, as Sweden does.)
The regulators and police inspectors of the so-called brigade des mœurs, or vice squad, could be notoriously fickle, and newspapers frequently reported on unfortunate women who chose suicide over being hauled into the prefecture. Nineteenth-Century prostitutes also had to endure mandatory medical inspections every month – which, as the prostitute-obsessed Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicts in his painting Rue des Moulins, could be more humiliating than sex work itself. The hardy, uncoquettish women are in blouses and stockings, but have no skirts or underwear on; they look exhausted, dishonored, victims of bureaucracy more than of clients.
La Païva received her guests in a wildly ostentatious mansion complete with a bathtub whose tap flowed with champagne
Just a few rungs higher up the social ladder were courtesans, who sold sex but also glamour, conversation, and public prestige. Many of these courtesans became celebrities, with their movements – and even their clients – reported in the thriving social press. La Païva, the top courtesan of the Second Empire (1852-1870), was born in the Moscow ghetto and hustled all the way to the Champs-Elysées, where she received her guests in a wildly ostentatious mansion complete with an onyx bathtub whose tap flowed with champagne. (When she died in 1884, her last husband had her body preserved in formaldehyde and kept the corpse in his attic. That was rather a shock to his new wife.)
Artists and writers, in particular, were absorbed by prostitutes and courtesans of all classes. The courtesan Apollonie Sabatier – known to her fans as ‘La Présidente’ – turned her home into a sort of bourgeois salon, frequented by Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Flaubert, and especially Charles Baudelaire, for whom she served as a muse for hire. At the Orsay, Sabatier appears in the marble sculpture Woman Bitten by a Serpent, by the academic sculptor Auguste Clésinger: a deeply controversial artwork in its day, not least because Clésinger worked from a cast of her naked body.
Courtesans had served as models and muses for artists as early as the Renaissance. In Titian’s languorous Venus of Urbino of 1538, for example, the goddess of love is in fact Angela del Moro, one of the highest-paid courtesans in Venice. But by the 1860s, Édouard Manet was fed up with winking asides, and he decided to paint a scene familiar to everyone (or at least every bourgeois man) in town. In a direct quotation of the Venus of Urbino, Manet shows us a woman nude in bed, slipper dangling from her foot, a ribbon around her neck and a flower in her hair. Her expression is severe to the point of blankness. We are no longer in the world of goddesses and water nymphs: welcome to Paris in the golden age of the maison close.
Manet stripped away all the mythological baggage that made images of prostitutes acceptable
Manet’s model for Olympia was in fact not a prostitute at all, but his fellow artist Victorine Meurent – who had already appeared in his Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, his bullfighting portrait, and other works. Nevertheless, the scandal his painting provoked at the Paris Salon of 1865 – then the most important art event in the world – was unprecedented. The newspapers wrote of women bursting into tears before the canvas, and other painters baying in rage. Manet had stripped away all the mythological baggage that made images of prostitutes acceptable in the world of fine art. Worse, he’d done so in a blunt, unforgiving new painterly style that made no attempt to simulate real space via one-point perspective. Instead, the figure of Olympia is entirely upright, flattened out into pure colour and line.
Manet’s Olympia scandalised on two planes: one formal, another social. Olympia, the woman, poses as if she were the goddess of love, but she’s really only a prostitute. And Olympia, the painting, appears to be a three-dimensional representation, but it’s really only two-dimensional paint. The overwhelming genius of Manet is that he understood these two deceptions were interlinked. What made Manet’s flatness possible – what enabled his radical two-dimensionality, from which abstract art would eventually spring – was precisely the collapsing social mores and upended social rules of the new Paris, symbolised by the shift in fortunes of prostitutes from the outside of society to the centre. As TJ Clark, the great scholar of Manet, once wrote: “The painting insists on its own materiality, but does so in and through a prostitute’s stare.” And it was through prostitution, or at least the image of prostitution, that modern art would be born.
Baudelaire, Manet’s good friend, wrote not just that art itself is a kind of prostitution but that Paris itself was a giant brothel. To paint, as Manet showed, was to engage in a bait-and-switch: to seduce the eye of the beholder by dissembling the truth, by making words on a page or paint on canvas appear to be real life. But only a bourgeois – a bourgeois man, we should really say – could be so self-regarding as to equate the act of artistic creation with the unlovely drudgery of sex work.
Most prostitutes were desperate figures who had fled the French provinces
The courtesans may have been showered with jewelry and bathing in Veuve Clicquot, but most prostitutes were desperate figures who had fled the French provinces, had little money or security, and were frequently victims of violence. Occasionally, as in Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastel showing the indignities of medical inspection, gallery-goers had a glimpse of that reality. More often, modern artists indulged in the image of the ‘happy hooker’: independent, unapologetic, and enjoying it as much as the men.
It was a fantasy: a fantasy that was fundamental for modern art, but a falsehood all the same. Not until well into the 20th Century did artists – women artists, especially – look at the reality of prostitution with an unromantic eye. I think especially of Chantal Akerman, the pioneering Belgian filmmaker, whose magisterial Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles depicts in glacial sequences the everyday life of a widowed mother whose only income comes from turning tricks in her house. Jeanne Dielman, one of the landmarks of feminist cinema, depicts prostitution not as a personal preference but as an economic necessity, part of a larger system in which women are never fully independent. That was an insight not even the most radical male artists of the 19th Century could accept – even if, in the half-light of the maison close, they could see it on the poor girls’ faces.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.