Sunday 3 January 2016

Art Review: Splendour and Misery: Picture of Prostitution, 1850-1910, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Paris exists in the modern popular imagination globally as a city of romance—the picture perfect background to innumerable engagements, honeymooners and weekend breakers. Yet the City of Love also has a darker past, a reputation for which, in the nineteenth century, it was even more famous, as a spiritual home for Europe’s sex trade.

Rolla, Henri Gervex (1878)
Forget the stylised costumes of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001); the d’Orsay’s current exhibition, Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910, is the first major art show dedicated to vice and contains 15 rooms of artworks (drawings, paintings, photographs and film), spanning the major art movements of the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond, and shedding new light on the practices of the trade.

Au salon, scène de maison close, Constantin Guys 
The show transports you from the streets of Paris, where both illegal and registered prostitutes rubbed shoulders with ‘respectable’ women, advertising their services with subtle visual cues, to the environs of the ballet, where many chorus girls led a double life, to the brothels (maisons de tolérance) where men could indulge in a variety of sexual pleasures at leisure, and, finally, to the pornographer’s studio where staged sexual acts, captured on early film, start to take on a decidedly modern appearance.

Les belles de nuit au jardin de Paris, Jean Béraud (1905)
The experience of visiting the show is designed to feel illicit. Deep red walls serve as a backdrop to the works, while velvet curtains veil those parts of the exhibition off-limits to under 18s, where crowds push to view daguerreotypes through peepholes and stand in awkward silence watching a reel of a nineteenth-century couple taking off layer upon layer of clothing before getting down to the deed.

Le Client, Jean-Louis Forain (1878)
Yet the major takeaway from the show isn’t to romanticise the work women at many social levels were often forced into due to lack of opportunities, education and equal pay.

Femme à La Voilette, Anquetin Louis (1891)
Venereal disease is a major subject and subtext for the works on show (there’s even a wax model taken from the marked face of a syphilitic woman), several of the paintings focus on the interiority and unhappiness of their subjects (for instance Edgar Degas’s L’Absinthe) and the realities of prostitution prove as fertile a ground for artists as the fantasies that surround it, with many works focusing on aspects of life at the brothel we might find mundane (like contemporary hygiene practices) or surprising (e.g. the homoerotic relationships between women living in close proximity to each other within these establishments).

L'Absinthe, Edgar Degas (1875-1876)
The exhibition’s title comes from Honoré de Balzac’s Splendeurs and Misères des Courtisanes (1838-1847) and there’s certainly a lot of splendour on show here too. There are the fine clothes of Jean Béraud’s belles de nuit, Edouard Manet’s infamous Olympia lounges naked and triumphant, and there are many paintings dedicated to recording the lives of the demi-mondaines—those women at the pinnacle of prostitution in the period, who enjoyed luxury and celebrity.

Olympia, Edouard Manet (1863)
When walking around the exhibition, it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer variety—of stories, social classes, sexual positions, body types. The curators choose to touch only briefly on the story of male prostitution (there are some early photographs of male/male penetrative sex on display), but the female sex worker is examined from every angle, always an object, frequently of lust, occasionally of horror, often of pity.

Rousse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1889)
If you’re in Paris before 17th January, the exhibition is worth every minute in line at the d’Orsay. It’s a window into Paris’s past and into the bedrooms of generations of its men and women.

Sur le Boulevard (La Parisienne), Louis Valtat (1893)
Do you know of any art exhibitions in New York you think the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.


  1. Years ago I was behind doors of a Cleveland natural history museum and was shown a skull of a 19th century patient. There was a corroded, burned hole in the skull which looked to be caused by dripping acid. The patient died from syphilis which attacks the brain leading to madness. When I see paintings like these, I can't remove that image from my mind.

  2. STDs most likely ran rampant back then. I live in Nashville, TN, and on 2nd Avenue, history notes that as the area where prostitutes stayed, offering their services. Temporarily, the higher ups enacted licensure requirements and clean bills of health to participate the prostitution arena. It's understandable, John Redmon, how your image would keep coming back to you.