Splendeurs et misères : le Musée d’Orsay propose une exposition sur la prostitution pendant la Belle-Époque à Paris

Majesty and melancholy

Exhibition on prostitution in Belle-Époque Paris

An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay covers the theme of prostitution from 1850 to 1910. K’s reporter had a private tour with opera supremo Robert Carsen, the exhibition’s artistic director and scenographer.

The world’s oldest profession has provided fodder for artists of all kinds, from writers to musicians. “You can’t really work on an opera without being intimately connected with courtesans and prostitutes because almost every second 19th century opera has one!” director Robert Carsen exclaimed.

Prostitution inspired many great artworks of the late 19th and early 20th century now on display at the Musée d’Orsay in an exhibition called Splendour and Misery (after a novel by Honoré de Balzac). Carsen, who served as artistic director and designed the set, admits, “It came as a big surprise when I started working on the selection, I had no idea that the theme had been so explored by artists.”

Edouard Manet’s Olympia created such uproar that police were hired to protect it from the crowd.

Though there is nothing novel about portraits of nude women, these paintings were different. In Edouard Manet’s Olympia, for example, a young woman lying garmentless on her bed stares unabashedly at the viewer while receiving a bouquet of flowers, undoubtedly from a client. In 1865 it created such uproar that police were hired to protect it from the crowd.

But Carsen decided to start the exhibition with more discreet works that flirt with ambiguity.  He points out a work by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, Laundress, of a respectable-looking woman sitting on a bench, next to a basket of laundry. Two male passers-by turn their heads to stare at her. “You’re not sure if she is or she isn’t, or if she could be,” he explains.


Further along, he points to a depiction by Giovanni Boldini of a woman crossing the street holding a bouquet of flowers. “You’re looking at a picture of a very pretty girl who’s lifting her skirt because there’s a puddle of water but actually this was a sign of availability. You see a man leaning out of a carriage to look back at her and you understand what’s actually going on.”

This is entirely based on the male gaze; these are paintings and photographs exclusively portrayed by men.

The presence of the men in these paintings and their lascivious glances is what makes us ask these questions. He notes “This is entirely based on the male gaze; these are paintings and photographs exclusively portrayed by men.” As a result, there’s a certain amount of fantasy in most of these works, an idealistic vision far from the bleak reality of prostitution.

Paris transformed radically after the Second Empire, as people moved into the city from the countryside, and many women struggled to get by. Prostitution took many forms. At the top of the echelon were the demi-mondaines, richly kept courtesans who lived like aristocrats. Less fortunate women plied their trade within the regulated environments of brothels. The most destitute walked the streets, including those whose day jobs didn’t pay enough to make ends meet: shop girls, waitresses, and washerwomen.

Soliciting sex in public was legal (provided the prostitute was registered) after nightfall, when the streetlamps were lit. Then the ambiguity gave way to more obvious displays on the city’s new boulevards. Cafés were popular meeting spots, giving rise to paintings such as Degas’ L’Absinthe. Prostitution also proliferated in brasseries à femmes (bars in which escorts sought clients), café-concerts and cabarets like the Moulin Rouge.

Splendeurs et misères : le Musée d’Orsay propose une exposition sur la prostitution pendant la Belle-Époque à Paris

Dirty dancing

But one of the most surprising venues for illicit encounters was the ballet. “The foyer de la dance at the back of opera house was built for men, if they were properly dressed, to meet the dancers afterwards.” Carsen indicates Jean Béraud’s Les Coulisses de l’Opéra de Paris: men in top hats, their arms around the waists of young dancers in tutus. “You see the positions - this girl with this old man, the stagehand watching.”

The passageway to the next section is papered with oversized photographs of two Paris brothels, one on either wall—Le Feydeau and the celebrated Le Chabanais.

France legalised brothels in 1804 to facilitate policing. Artists from Felicien Rops to Emile Bernard painted scenes of daily life there: the women resting, washing themselves, or even in bed together. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicted them waiting around for clients, some playing cards to pass the time.

In reference to this waiting, Carsen has placed a red velvet banquette in the middle of one room. A glass case behind it shows unusual period objects such as a “pique couilles”—like a letter opener, but supposedly used to pleasure a man. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen one of those before,” he says drily, before pointing to a beautifully decorated item next to it. “I don’t think you’ve seen a box of 19th century condoms either.” More red velvet chairs are placed in front of a curtained room, where adult visitors can check out some of the first pornographic photos and films.

Splendeurs et misères : le Musée d’Orsay propose une exposition sur la prostitution pendant la Belle-Époque à Paris

At his majesty’s pleasure

The Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII, was a frequent visitor to Le Chabanais and had a specially made love-seat permanently installed at the brothel, now standing like a throne in a room of the exhibition. “This famous chaise allowed this very corpulent man to have sex with two girls at the same time,” says Carsen. “You have to figure it out. Start by seeing where his feet go.”

The chair is surrounded by portraits of three renowned demi-mondaines. Carsen explains, “I thought it was really important to put them into context with this major sex toy. Otherwise you think they are just three beautiful women.” Other ‘minor’ sex toys, such as the courtesan Valtesse de la Bigne’s brass whip, sit nearby.

Caroline Otéro or ‘La Belle Otéro’ is quoted on a nearby wall: “La fortune vient en dormant…mais pas seule.” (Fortune comes while you sleep…but not alone.”) “Look at that extraordinary shape with that mad corseting,” Carsen says, referring to the photographs on exhibit. “People bankrupted themselves, went crazy, and spent vast sums to spend one night with her.”

Bedding in

Another room is devoted to the Marquise de Païva, perhaps the most successful courtesan of all, who owned a mansion on the Champs Elysées. When researching her furniture, Carsen came across an old postcard on the Internet with a picture of a bed—perhaps La Païva’s—that had been displayed in a Paris suburb at the Musée de la Femme (now closed).

It had been dismantled and put away in four different locations, so the Musée d’Orsay had it restored. Carsen covered it with hand-embroidered sheets, rumpled just like those in the painting on the opposite wall, Rolla, by Henri Gervex. The work, based on the poem of the same name by Alfred de Musset, portrays a man contemplating the sleeping prostitute who ruined him, just before killing himself.

Paintings from the early 20th century conclude the show: vibrant coloured portraits by modernists from Derain to Van Dongen to Picasso, whose study in blue of a solitary prostitute at the Saint-Lazare prison, La Mélancolie, hangs apart. “I had to put her alone, Carsen says, “because she is alone.”


Splendour and Misery, until 17 January, 2016

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) Ballet (L’Étoile), 1876
Pastel, 58,4 x 42 cm
Paris, musée d’Orsay © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Constantin Guys (1802-1892) Hommes attablés en compagnie de femmes légèrement vêtues
Recto, encre brune, lavis gris, plume, 19 x 26,5 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Christian Jean
Henri Gervex (1852-1929) Rolla, 1878
Huile sur toile, 175 x 220 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, dépôt du musée d’Orsay © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
Virginia Verasis de Castiglione (1837-1899) Jean-Louis Pierson (1822-1913) Christian Bérard (1902-1949) Un dimanche, entre 1861 et 1866
Épreuve sur papier albuminé, 13 x 14 cm
© RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Droits réservés
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) Olympia, 1863
Huile sur toile, 130 x 190 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt