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A national obsession with prostitution: Hannah Stamler on 19th-century French depictions of prostitution

A book looking at Modern images of prostitutes is lacking in necessary context

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, prostitutes were said to be invading the French capital: loitering on the newly-built boulevards and soliciting in cafés, concert halls, theaters and brasseries—spaces of bourgeois entertainment that typified Second Empire and, later, Belle Epoque Paris. Painters, sculptors and graphic artists hoping to represent their era’s defining features elevated prostitutes to central figures in their work, which is the subject of the large, if somewhat superficial, catalogue for the exhibition Splendours and Miseries at the Musée d’Orsay, the first major survey of prostitution in French (mainly Parisian) art from 1850 to 1910. (The show closed on 17 January.)

Early in the 19th century, a regulatory system was created to make prostitution, which was deemed a necessary evil, tolerable. Prostitutes had to register with the police, submit to medical examinations and lim it their trade to brothels or designated residences. From the 1850s onward, however, registrations decreased, prompting policemen and health administrators to warn that insoumises (unregistered prostitutes) were growing in number and infiltrating "honest" establishments. Artists like Édouard Manet, Edgar Dégas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec imbued their paintings with a sense of ambiguity appropriate to the problem. Is the subject of Manet’s Waitress Serving Beer (1878) offering more than just refreshment? Does the young woman in Giovanni Boldini’s Crossing the Street (1873-75) lift her hem to signal availability or is she merely avoiding dirtying her skirt?

Ambiguity was one tenet of Modernism; another was frank, naturalistic depiction that favoured both beauty and the ugliness. In her contribution to the catalogue, Isolde Pludermacher focusses on paintings and caricatures of prostitutes that capture their garish makeup, made harsher by gas lighting, and the “dazed or melancholy” expression of many of the subjects. Another essay looks at images of brothels, where artists of this period sought out “nude[s] of today”, as the printmaker Félician Rops put it—models whose bodies felt real and contemporary.

But idealised or classical representation had not entirely faded. As Richard Thomson reports in one of several contributions to the catalogue, prostitutes were depicted differently from courtesans, who were exalted in sculpture and painting as mythical goddesses or beauties despite the venal undertones of their kept existence. Allegory, he explains, also persisted in works that show prostitutes as emblems of vice or harbingers of corruption, echoing the sentiments of Third Republic abolitionists who decried prostitution as immoral.

Explicit photographs were similarly thought to degrade the nation’s health. Photographic models were frequently conflated with and punished as insoumises and viewing suggestive or pornographic images was perceived as psychically endangering. One reporter wrote in 1862 that photographs were sapping the nation’s strength: “Each Parisian on average wastes a quarter of an hour a day looking at photographs, which by the end of the year amounts to 90 hours.” (His math was not exact.)

This claim, impossible to verify, mimics today's rhetoric about the Internet’s corruptive powers and betrays not only the reporter’s fear of vice, but also of technology. Indeed, much of the mania over the insoumise related to male anxieties of diminished control over women and the working classes in a radically changing Paris, where the actual pervasiveness of prostitution is hard to glean from historical record. (Contemporaries speculated that anywhere from 14,000 to upwards of 100,000 insoumises were active at the time.)

In her essay, Gabrielle Houbre reminds us that those accused of prostitution, justly or falsely, were not just colourful characters, but real women vulnerable to police punishment and client violence. But apart from Houbre, no other authors delve deeply enough into the period’s history and major developments like Haussmannization, industrialization, women's suffrage and early feminism and the rise of the working class, which together contributed to the national obsession with prostitution and cast suspicion on urban women. This peculiar chapter in French histoire des mentalités is well studied precisely because the prostitute is a rich cipher for understanding changing city, class, gender and labour structures.

Alongside mentalité, mentioned but twice, another related term remains conspicuously absent: the male gaze. Were women truly as illegible as many of the works of art included in the book imply, or did men simply read provocation and lust into passersby? Although this question doesn’t invalidate the catalogue’s strong and detailed image analyses—the artists did indeed perceive and depict their female subjects as slippery and suspicious, as potential insoumises—it does question whether such portrayals were truly so accurate and whether the women depicted were actually duplicitous. While Splendours and Miseries does its job of introducing general audiences to the iconography of prostitution, and decoding references to prostitution in some of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism’s most celebrated works, the subject begs for more substantial historical grounding.    

Hannah Stamler is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Frieze, Flash Art, Modern Painters, and online at Hyperallergic and BOMB.

Splendours and Miseries: Images of Prostitution in France, 1850-1910

Gabrielle Houbre, Richard Thomson, Félician Rops et al.

Flammarion, 308pp, $55