Literature has given us the most impressive stories relatable to every human experience. As so, many authors have explored all the limits and possibilities of love as one of the main human emotions and the one that most of us look for. Love portrayed often as the ultimate prize of happiness has given us the most beautiful romantic stories but also the most brilliant tragedies. Alexandre Dumas, fils, son of the great author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote an emblematic story of culture about a forbidden love story between a man and a courtesan. The Lady of the Camellias, inspired by his short but intense affair with Marie Duplessis, a courtesan herself, shows us the restraints and prejudices towards a profession that has long been conceived as dark and wicked. Just as it happens with literature, the art world has always had an interest towards this particular activity filled with controversy.
More or less at the time when Dumas published his iconic novel, prostitutes took the place of goddesses and respectable ladies, becoming the muses of some of the greatest artists the world has seen. Here are ten paintings that depict the world of prostitution during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. Why were the artists of the time so interested in prostitution? Let's see:
Olympia (1863) - Édouard Manet
This painting that has become one of the most important of the nineteenth century caused a huge commotion when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon. Were the attendants shocked for the nudity? Not really. We could say that above all European cities, Paris was the most liberal. No, they were offended by the facial expressions of Olympia. If you add to the sassy nudity a face looking directly at you with absolute disregard, then you have an image of a powerful woman who looks down on anything. That's perhaps what painters loved about prostitutes, their personality and defiance. Manet placed some elements to let the audience know that the character of the painting is indeed a prostitute, like the black necklace, the orchid on her hair, the black cat, and of course, the bold attitude.
Rolla (1878) - Henri Gervex
How to lose your status of a society's favorite painter in just three steps, according to Henri Gervex: Number one, create a painting of a prostitute. Number two, portray her naked with her legs spread and with a relaxed body language. Number three, place her on a bed with a man admiring her from the balcony door. Yes, when young Gervex presented his painting based on a poem by Alfred de Musset, the jury was extremely offended by its immorality.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) - Pablo Picasso
Probably one of Picasso's most famous paintings and the most controversial at the time. It was so controversial, that some monocles broke into pieces when they fell to the floor. Okay, that was a very bad joke. Everybody knows that monocles are attached to a waist-coat. Actually, it wasn't controversial for portraying five prostitutes from a brothel in Barcelona. It wasn't well accepted due to the style the painter had used. For the first time, he started including his classical 2D shapes and faces inspired by tribal masks. According to the art dealer and Picasso's friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, this new style looked unfinished.
Black-Haired Girl with High Skirt (1911) - Egon Schiele
Schiele loved pushing the boundaries of morals in art like no one. He didn't care about the critics and loved depicting women in sensuous and daring positions. Schiele's female paintings and sketches are characterized by the gestures and expressions of his protagonists, which show defiance and strength. Of course, an artist like Schiele caused many controversies because of his explicit images and also because of the position of his distorted characters. Clearly, when he presented this sketch, many went crazy, since it was a girl exposing herself to the spectator. Moreover, this girl was just a young prostitute.
The Client (1878) - Jean Louis Forain
Well, I think this painting is self-explanatory. We have four women standing in front of a man who is inspecting them or just enjoying the show, while another woman sits expectantly. The gentleman with a top hat and baton is clearly the protagonist of the painting, as the name suggests. However these ladies take all the focus with their sass and great colorful stockings.
Christmas in the Brothel (1907) - Edvard Munch
It is said that Munch painted it while spending the holidays at a brothel in Lübeck during a dark moment of total depression. He had had some issues with a commissioned painting, and secluded himself in this place, of course, accompanied by an excessive consumption of alcohol to sink his problems. Munch's paintings, although colorful and enticing, always held a secret and dark purpose. Perhaps, that's what makes it so intriguing and appealing.
In the Salon at Rue des Moulins (1894) - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Here we are with the king of prostitution in paintings, Monsieur Lautrec. It's well known that our artist enjoyed portraying prostitutes like no other artist before. It's said that he would attend brothels at Paris, especially this one on le rue des Moulins, and would spend hours observing and sketching. He liked depicting these women in their everyday activities, from medical appointments to them just chilling and chatting like in this painting.
Portrait of a Prostitute (1885) - Vincent Van Gogh
We all know the story of Van Gogh never reaching the fame he deserved and living in absolute misery. When he moved to Antwerp in Belgium he devoted most of his work to practicing portraits. However, it was very hard for him to find a model willing to pose for him, since he was not a renowned artist. The solution was easy. Go to a brothel and convince one of the women to become your model. Although the lady in this portrait seems like a wealthy respectable woman, in fact, the cleavage of her dress and her makeup prove she was a sex worker. Well, that and the name of the portrait, of course.
La Grande Odalisque (1814) - Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Odalisques in Turkey were traditionally only chambermaids. However, westerners couldn't understand a term like that and conceived them as concubines. Then, there are many paintings showing the lives and secrets of odalisques (because, yes, they were probably naked all the time, right?) in the harem, modeling and waiting for their master. More than causing a fuzz for the nakedness of the painting, Ingres was and is still criticized for the disproportionate body of the protagonist and his apparent lack of knowledge of human anatomy. However, although it's strange looking, it's a captivating painting filled with color and mystery.
The Festival of the Owner (1876-77) - Edgar Degas
Finally, our beloved Degas, one of the creators of Impressionism, famous for his paintings of innocent ballerinas with their flowy tutus and graceful movements. Well, here he presents one pastel painting depicting what it seems to be the birthday or a celebration in honor of a brothel's madame, who's clearly enjoying while her girls dance around her and worship her. A lovely image isn't it?
One of the greatest things about these paintings is the normality in which they are presented. Naturally, with "normality" I mean the fact that they don't depict them as either the poor or perverted women. For instance, in Lautrec's paintings, he always depicts them happy and jovial, as really normal people, because that's precisely what they are. This happens especially with the avant-garde movements because they saw prostitution as a symbol of modernity, and by portraying them, these artists were distancing themselves from the strict norms of art.
Take a look at: