japonisme: courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part II Prostitutes

29 January 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part II Prostitutes

as you study this subject the realization that begins to dawn on you that the two main reasons prostitutes were such favored subjects in france were that the artwork sold well, and artists were often encouraged to paint life in the brothels by their galleries and agents; as we saw in the discussion about grun, an illusion was being constructed, and all forms of artist were enlisted in the name of this goal. but more importantly, many a lonely painter could find insufficient human warmth and solace elsewhere. toulouse-lautrec, degas, van gogh... men known to have never formed a long-term, settled relationship in their lifetimes. the holy grail.

further, visual artists could often escape censorship of their work by its acceptance as illustration, or as art. it was written in guidebooks that whores posted for photographs but it was nicer girls who posed for the paintings. some, like bernard, had never been in a brothel himself, but painted up an entire series of 'visits' and mailed them to van gogh!

van gogh's response: ...And now that I have started thanking you, I thank you furthermore for the batch of sketches entitled “At the Brothel.” Bravo! It seems to me that the woman washing herself and the one saying, “There is none other like me when it comes to exhausting a man,” are the best; the others are grimacing too much, and above all they are done too vaguely, they are too little living flesh, not built up sufficiently. But no matter, these other ones too are something quite new and interesting. At the brothel! Yes, that's what one ought to do, and I assure you that I for one am almost jealous of the damned fine opportunity you will have of going there in your uniform, - which these good little women dote on. 1

There were several different kinds of brothels in Paris during the time of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and like the varying levels prostitutes which corresponded to each social class, there were also several different levels of brothels.

On one side of the spectrum were luxury brothels, which catered to wealthier, bourgeois clients. These offered more elaborate setting as well as more elaborate sexual spectacles and practices. They cost approximately 100 francs a night. The most common whorehouse was geared towards the working class, and offered more traditional settings and practices. (These types usually cost 5-10 francs for a "brief encounter" and 10-20 to spend the night.)

Meanwhile, lower class whorehouses which cost only one franc, were even more stripped down. With each step down in quality and price, the brothel became less refined, as did the clients who frequented them. 2

it has been written that the strong prostitution presence in new orleans came from being settled by the french.

His first commercial poster, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891), contrasts the seductive performance of La Goulue (The Glutton), one of the dance hall's most famous stars, with an anonymous, predominantly male audience identifiable as middle class by the ubiquitous top hat. Such sexually suggestive images—a direct result of the loosening of censorship laws in 1881—created a sensation with the Parisian public as they both assaulted bourgeois morals and transformed Montmartre's working-class performers into overnight celebrities.

By the time of the World's Fair held in Paris in 1900, Montmartre had developed into a veritable entertainment industry, boasting over forty venues comprised of cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theaters, and circuses. The area's underground bohemian culture had become a part of mainstream bourgeois entertainment through the rapid commercialization and marketing of its venues and performers.

As a result, Toulouse-Lautrec and his avant-garde contemporaries lost interest in Montmartre's nightlife and sought their modern subjects elsewhere. What had begun as a critique of decadent society had become a symbol of decadence itself.

Nicole Myers
Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The nineteenth-century brought about a radical transformation of the role of the European artist. Instead of working on commission for aristocratic patrons, artists in all media were more and more left to their own devices, creating works of art alone in their studios and then sending them into the market place hoping to attract a buyer and secure a sale. Innovative forms, new subjects and styles emerged from the changing economic structure brought about by the dawning of the industrial age and the importance of urban cities.

The new clientele the artist sought to attract was increasingly comprised of the nouveau riche and the urban bourgeoisie and by the mid-nineteenth century the involvement of an anonymous public in artistic matters was an irrevocable fact that had been secured by mass production. New processes in lithographic printing and of the photographic print made art available to the general populace – the democratization of art coincided with the diversity of the japonisme movement of nineteenth-century France. 4

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Blogger Joan DaGradi said...

Great post!
For Degas, the use of prostitutes as models may have also been pragmatic- who else would pose? What other woman could be as comfortable in her own skin in late 19th century France? Figurative painting can require long poses and multiple sessions to produce one painting or drawing and the costs of paying a model can sometimes become prohibitive. One of the finest paintings in the Louvre is a Degas pastel [@ 24 x 24 inches] of a nude.

01 February, 2008 07:20  

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