Worth-seeing: Images of 19th century prostitution

  • AFP
  • Updated: Sep 24, 2015 16:57 IST

Until January 17, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is showcasing the world of prostitution and many artists’ fascination with these women, from the mid 19th century to the Belle Époque.

The exhibit “Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution” is the first of its kind in France and focuses on the different ways that artists illustrated this secret world that was often called “a necessary evil”. Paintings, sculpture and other media, like photography and cinematography, novel for the time, are featured.

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) “Party scene” - 1889.

The exhibit sets the scene with depictions of the various places associated with prostitution, for instance, the brothel - ‘la maison de tolerance’ -- which fascinated a number of painters like Edgar Degas, Constantin Guys and the renowned Toulouse-Lautrec, an intrinsic part of Parisian nightlife in the 19th century.

The portrayal of the brothel is more about fantasy than a realistic version. The art works show a feverish brothel as well as the life of the women before attending to their clients. For the photographers who cannot gain access to these forbidden places, they compose images in which salons and boudoirs from the 19th century are reconstructed.

Prostitution extends also to the boulevards, the opera, cafés and brasseries. This aspect is less controlled than the brothels and sets the scene for a number of paintings and portraits of women that fuse melancholy and exhilaration, in particular from Edouard Manet and Vincent Van Gogh.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) “Woman pulling on her stocking” - 1894.

It is impossible to portray prostitution without mentioning the courtesans who immortalized their social success via painted portraits, sculptures or photographs. A success that is also glimpsed in luxurious bathrooms and private mansions. These powerful women were seen as models of success for young dancers and actresses as well as avant-garde fashion leaders for high society. They are represented in allegorical works by Gustav Adolf Mossa or Felicien Rops.

This dark yet passion-filled world inspired some key works of art by leading figures of the early 20th century like Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso and Maurice de Vlaminck.
“Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910” runs until January 17, 2016 at the musée d’Orsay.

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