New exhibit explores the splendor and misery of the world’s oldest profession

Prostitution as a muse at the Musée d’Orsay

This summer, Amnesty International endorsed a new policy calling for the decriminalization of the global sex trade, triggering an open forum debate about how to arbitrate prostitution and best protect the women whose line of work it is. Against this contemporary reality, the exhibition Splendor and Misery: Images of Prostitution 1850-1910, on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, feels especially relevant. Although it doesn’t address the knotty discussion swirling around the topic today, it provides an interesting history as to how women’s bodies and livelihoods have always been embroiled in socio-sexual politics.

In the 19th century, art was the exclusive purview of the male gaze and, in a fitting pairing, prostitution was deemed a “necessary” outlet to satisfy men’s carnal impulses. Writers and painters fixated on the circumstances and etiquette around commercial sexual exchange in their creative output, confounding observation and fantasy, with women as ciphers for male desire. Varied artistic styles all toyed with sundry depictions, later trickling into the emerging media of photography and cinema.

The sheer density of artists on view here depicting prostitution elucidates it as a clear and veritable cornerstone of societal practices. What is often imagined as some seething underbelly was actually an extremely visible quotidian reality, threaded into the fabric of society across all social strata: on the streets in broad daylight, by lamplight at dusk, dazzlingly lit onstage, and thinly veiled behind curtains.

The first overarching sector of the exhibition, “ambiguity,” grapples with the nuances that signaled women’s sexual availability, carefully deciphered through coy clues. Amidst the crowds on the boulevard, red flags for sex were detectable by a glimpse of ankle boot, a telling sly look, and other coded gestures. Public space itself was coded too, from cafés at which women loitered in the early evening—venues otherwise never frequented alone by “reputable” women—to box seats at the opera.

The exhibition indexes the various “types” of prostitution: pierreuses working illegally in the dead of night, filles en carte (registered prostitutes) or filles insoumises (unregistered girls) soliciting in public places, verseuses (waitresses) employed in brasseries à femmes. In working-class circles, women with low-paying jobs didn’t earn enough to afford basic necessities, and resorted to prostitution for monetary supplement. Though the depictions of these women in paintings never exude outright desperation, their equanimity feels forced. In Jean Béraud’s La Proposition (The Proposition, 1885), a mustachioed man in a top hat closes in on a woman standing in a near-empty cobbled street, her eyes downcast as if unwilling to face her fate. The predatory gape of two passers-by, leering over their shoulders, at a flustered woman burdened with baskets of laundry in Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret’s La Blanchisseuse (The Laundress, 1880), is so sharply invasive as to be thoroughly bone-chilling. One can only imagine the daily presumptions and violations of civil decency women had to wrestle with, simply by virtue of being women in the public sphere.

Venues providing nightlife entertainment teemed as hotbeds of prostitution, notably cabarets like the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergère. Spectators “came to enjoy the show in the auditorium just as much as the opportunities to procure sexual favors in the gallery,” the wall text reveals. In Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1889), a dance hall feels less light-hearted when it becomes clear that the three women in the foreground are not simply sitting one dance out, but are being carefully surveyed by their pimp, who sits behind them with a fixed stare.

Edgar Degas, Ballet (L’Étoile), vers 4876. © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Edgar Degas, Ballet (L’Étoile), vers 4876. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Up the social ladder, aristocratic men at the Paris Opera accessed the backstage Foyer de la Danse to mingle with dancers, wielding their wealth as “protectors” over girls from humble backgrounds stuck in an exploitative stage profession. With this in mind, you may well never look at a delicate Degas dancer the same way again. His pastel Ballet (1876), featuring a ravishing young ballerina mid-show in ribbons and tulle, relinquishes into something sinister upon spotting the faceless black-suited “protector” laying in wait behind the curtains for the performer offstage.

The grand auditorium of the Opera house served its purpose too, as a showcase: the Avant Foyer was filled with elegant men flaunting lavishly dressed companions, obvious signifiers of their power. Kept women—deemed demi-mondaines, grandes horizontales or cocottes—reigned at the apex of the prostitution hierarchy, and could ascend the social ladder by associating with high-society patrons, becoming taste-makers in their own right. These “prized” women were commemorated with painted portraits. Their unabashed expressions and self-possessed body language flouted the passivity of typical female subjects, and stuck out even when the artist adhered to formal and aesthetic norms.

Though many prostitutes went unregulated, some were officially licensed at brothels (maisons de tolérance). Such venues doubled as fishbowls for artists seeking to explore the nude female silhouette. These women were seen lounging socially, completing their toilette, or skulking through the boredom of waiting for new clients. The evolution of photographic practices at the time provided an additional means of scrutinizing the body, within the secluded environment of the photographer’s studio. The heavily staged studio scenes were not representative of actual brothel practices, but their goal of clandestine titillation hardly required realism.

The exhibition concludes with a section deemed “an explosion of form and color,” ushering the viewer out with garish palettes painted by André Derain and Kees Van Dongen. One oil painting by Gustav Adolf Mossa, Elle (1905), shows a remarkably violent portrait of a naked woman crouching atop a pile of tiny bloodied corpses. Mossa overtly expresses the misogyny that perhaps lies dormant within some of the more attractive and subtle paintings. Abruptly ending on this type of brash aesthetic note is, in a sense, quite apt. The exhibition abandons us at the cusp of the 20th century, and provides no commentary on the future or the present. By this very absence of compass, the spectator leaves trying to size up what differentiates the polemics surrounding prostitution today from those of a century ago. And in trying, one wonders if, in truth there’s any progressive change at all. The world’s oldest profession loops us right back into the world’s most up-to-the-minute debate.

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