“I love prostitution in and for itself…” Gustave Flaubert wrote in 1853 to his mistress, Louise Colet.
In the very notion of prostitution there is such a complex convergence of lust and bitterness, such a frenzy of muscle and sound of gold, such a void in human relations, that the very sight of it makes one dizzy! And how much is learned there! And one is so sad! And one dreams so well of love!1
“Sex work,” as it is now fashionable to call the profession,2 is highly paradoxical: it demands that a woman offer her body but withhold her pleasure, sell her flesh but reserve her emotions, and remain, in the truest sense, impenetrable; it can be seen as her most humiliating subjugation or as her ultimate freedom from male dominance. These ambiguities of prostitution, its “splendor and miseries,” were examined with particular intensity by the two generations of men—those of Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola, Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and numerous other chroniclers of the bordello culture—who came of age in France under the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe between 1830 and 1848, or under the Second Empire that followed.
There are a great many social and political reasons for the extraordinary flourishing of bordellos during the July Monarchy. From the 1820s on, the Industrial Revolution, which affected France many decades later than England, created a large new female proletariat of pitifully underpaid factory workers, who were easily drawn into the sexual market. The expansive economic climate created by the revolution of July 1830 and the suspension of most forms of censorship imposed by the previous Bourbon rulers also helped vastly to increase the numbers of prostitutes under the reign of the bourgeois king.
Furthermore, as the very term maison de tolérance implies, France already had a long tradition of legalized prostitution. In 1796 the responsibility for surveying filles publiques had been given to the police authorities of each French city, who assigned teams of doctors to check prostitutes periodically for venereal disease. In 1828, under the orders of Paris’s prefect of police, weekly inspections were required by law, and most French cities followed suit. This was the fertile ground upon which the pioneer of French bordello life, a priggishly moralistic citizen named Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, constructed his remarkable system of legalized, “regulated” prostitution.
Parent-Duchâtelet was a medical doctor and an expert on public hygiene with a morbid fascination for decomposition and excrement. An esteemed member of his government’s Public Health Council, he invented numerous implements and items of clothing designed to protect citizens who worked in morgues, slaughter-houses, or sewers (which he referred to as the city’s “most useful monuments,” and visited many times a month) from being overcome by disease or stench. And from 1830 on, reflecting the obsession with social hygiene that characterized the newly powerful bourgeoisie, Parent-Duchâtelet simultaneously took on the tasks of revamping the capital’s sewer and prostitution systems, frequently equating the two in his rhetoric. His magisterial two-volume study, De la Prostitution dans la ville de Paris, was written during the same six-year period in which he wrote his numerous government reports on the disposal of human feces and the recycling of dead horseflesh. Parent-Duchâtelet justified his passionate dedication to the study of prostitutes (a labor which he envisaged as a service not only to his own country, but “to all civilized governments”) in the following manner:
If, without scandalizing anyone, I was able to enter the sewers, handle putrid matter, spend part of my time in the refuse pits, and live as it were in the midst of the most abject and disgusting products of human congregations, why should I blush to tackle a sewer of another kind (more unspeakably foul, I admit, than all the others) in the well-grounded hope of effecting some good by examining all the facets it may offer?
In another passage he writes:
Prostitutes are as inevitable in an agglomeration of men as sewers, cesspools, and garbage dumps; civil authority should conduct itself in the same manner in regard to the one as to the other; its duty is to survey them, to attenuate by every possible means the detriments inherent to them, and for that purpose to hide them, to relegate them to the most obscure corners, in a word to render their presence as inconspicuous as possible.
De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris, published in 1836, had an immediate and revolutionary impact on the control of France’s sexual trade and provided guidelines for police regulation of prostitution for the rest of the century. Until the 1830s, whores had been able to find clients in numerous bars and gambling houses. Parent-Duchâtelet’s system outlawed such licentious practices, replacing them with a network of meticulously surveyed maisons de tolérance (also referred to as maisons closes), and required that the names of all prostitutes be inscribed in the police registers.
Parent-Duchâtelet’s strategy of containing and hiding legalized vice was based on an ancient notion, set forth by Saint Augustine in his De Ordine, that sex workers are a necessary evil who help to maintain social order. But in fact it segregated prostitutes more severely than they had been in most periods of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when they were restricted to certain urban districts and often made to wear some item of clothing to denote their trade.
For a few decades Parent-Duchâtelet’s system imposed on sex workers a bondage seldom paralleled in its degradation and severity, one ironically similar to that of the most cloistered convents. Helpless before the greed of their bordellos’ patronnes, most prostitutes lived in a state of humiliating indebtedness. They often did not even own their clothes; they were forced to “do” between a half-dozen and a dozen clients a night and to work throughout their menstrual periods. They were allowed an average of two outings a year (on July 14th, and for some religious observance or a death in the family).
Successful escapes were very rare, owing to the vigilance of the patronnes, who bribed police handsomely to track down any deserter; and chances of returning to a more normal life were made equally difficult by the police’s reluctance ever to delete a prostitute’s name from its registers—throughout the nineteenth century no more than an estimated 5 or 6 percent of filles publiques ever managed to have their names deleted.
Before he died of exhaustion at the age of forty-six, Parent-Duchâtelet (always accompanied, he prudishly insisted, by a member of the police force) visited brothels at every time of day or night to survey the magnificent orderliness of his achievement. According to this Linnaeus of prostitution, France’s growing number of registered whores (10,000 of them in Paris alone in 1836 by his estimate, 30,000 according to police records) contributed to “the maintenance of social harmony.” But as dictators know all too well the control of dangerous elements is made more efficient by rigorous classification. Beyond giving directions for their surveillance, Parent-Duchâtelet also created a new terminology for different kinds of working girls that would last into the twentieth century: filles en carte (duly registered whores); filles en numéro (those few lucky women who received a percentage of their clients’ payment from their patronnes😉 insoumises or filles de barrières (literally, unregistered “street-walkers,” whose shameless flaunting of his system, in Parent-Duchâtelet’s view, made them “unworthy to appear on the registers of prostitution;”3 ) and the even more dangerous femmes galantes, femmes à parties, femmes de spectacle et de théâtre—those higher class sex workers or courtesans, later referred to as cocottes, mangeuses d’hommes, or grandes horizontales. These were considered by Parent-Duchâtelet the most subversive of the lot; for through their social mobility they threatened, like Zola’s Nana, to become “an offal which would rot the very aristocracy,” “a ferment of destruction” who could “corrupt and disorganize Paris through her milky thighs.”4
Each of the four books under review explores some aspect of France’s bordello culture during the July Monarchy and the Second Empire, including the misogynous social attitudes (succinctly expressed by Parent-Duchâtelet’s central metaphor of the whore-as-sewer) under which it flourished and the artistic works inspired by this vast sexual commerce. The most majestic, path-breaking, and taxing book of the lot is Alain Corbin’s Women for Hire, the first systematic investigation of the political and economic aspects of the French sex trade. Corbin, a professor of history at the Sorbonne, includes over two dozen graphs and tables illustrating such minutiae as the previous occupations of prostitutes at different moments of French history (domestic servants and garment workers were most numerous). He divides the history of the French prostitution business into three distinct phases: “Regulationism”—the strategy of strict confinement and concealment pioneered by Parent-Duchâtelet, which lasted until the late 1850s; “neo-regulationism,” the more tolerant system that evolved during the Second Empire and the Third Republic; and “sanitarism,” the even looser arrangements that emerged after World War I, aspects of which survive in France to this day.
Describing how Parent-Duchâtelet’s “regulationist” system became more tolerant after the 1850s, Corbin emphasizes the effects on Paris and other large French cities of the urban planning of Baron Haussmann, which resulted in the destruction of the very districts of the nation’s larger cities—the poorer neighborhoods in the centers of towns—in which maisons de tolérance had traditionally been situated. The rise in the cost of real estate was such that starting or even maintaining a tolérance became extremely risky.
From the 1860s on, various political pressure groups tried with some success to abolish the “white slave trade” of regulated bordellos. Seemingly oblivious to the greatly increased threat of venereal disease any such ban would bring, the nascent feminist movement organized a strong campaign to outlaw prostitution altogether; the increasingly powerful Socialist Party stopped short of abolition but lobbied to soften the regulations that had controlled sex workers during the July Monarchy.
By 1880, Parent-Duchâtelet’s enclosed maisons de tolérance had been replaced by a more loosely controlled network of maisons de passe or maisons de rendez-vous, bars, cafés-concert, brasseries à femmes, and by various clothing, millinery, and perfume shops (boutiques à surprise) where sexual trade went on in back rooms. By the 1900s numerous laws had been passed requiring that prostitutes must live outside the maisons de rendez-vous in which they worked. After 1910, supervision of bordellos became even more lax; the patrons or patronnes of various types of maisons were no longer required to obtain permission from the local préfecture and could admit unregistered prostitutes.
“Neo-regulationism” made it possible for a growing number of women to avoid registration with the police—in 1892 the number of filles insoumises was estimated to be as high as 100,000 in Paris alone. Most prostitutes were now free to solicit clients in front of their hotels, or even on the grand boulevards designed by Haussmann to create a healthier, more decorous Paris. They were paid directly by their clients, and owed their keeper nothing more than the rental fee of their rooms. An interesting aspect of this neo-regulationist phase is that it created a far wider spectrum of sexual services. The grander maisons de tolérance, which continued to flourish after 1870, survived by becoming maisons de débauche, offering a variety of erotic refinements, perversions, and spectacles for high society voyeurs: tableaux vivants of nuns being raped, or lesbian scenes staged with leather straps and dildoes of British make. Grandly decorated rooms were designed for group sex or parties carrées (partner-swapping). To satisfy sadomasochists, machines were provided for giving localized electric shocks; and for those interested in bestiality Great Danes and Newfoundlands were particularly popular.
“Sanitarism” is Corbin’s phrase for the new system that evolved during the decades following the First World War, when the number of genuine maisons declined, leaving no more than thirty by the end of the 1930s. With the growth of the suburbs, and the relaxation of social mores which allowed unaccompanied women to go where they pleased, hotel bars and lounges took the place of the fin-de-siècle cafés-concert so superbly depicted by Toulouse-Lautrec.
The Marthe Richard law of 1946, so named after the woman who lobbied most actively for it, outlawed all brothels and succeeded in closing down nearly all of the immensely luxurious half-dozen maisons that were still open after the Armistice of 1944. By forcing all prostitutes to carry a “medical certificate,” the Marthe Richard law merely centralized the old system of registering prostitutes with the police, making it as difficult as ever for them to escape the stigma of their trade and start new lives as “honest women.” The law also proved to be ineffective. A decade and a half after it was passed, the French government had files on 30,000 prostitutes, but police again estimated that the number of “unregistered” sex workers was close to 100,000. The new law also increased the importance of the pimps, and, later, of mafia-run sex cartels, both of which recruited and controlled thousands of prostitutes.
The Marthe Richard law was ultimately abolished as a result of UN General Assembly resolutions adopted in 1949 that prohibited, in Corbin’s phrase, all “trade in human beings.” The French government had been prevented from endorsing these resolutions because it still kept files on prostitutes; and it was able to support the resolutions only in 1960, when the Debré government set up a new and far looser system of medical supervision which was once again put in the charge of local préfectures. At the same time the government outlawed even “passive soliciting”—making oneself visible but waiting to be asked—and imposed jail terms on second-time offenders. The law was never strictly enforced and soliciting went on as usual, and still does so in quarters ranging from the Place Pigalle to the Champs Elysées to the Bois du Bologne.
Corbin is a libertarian, a feminist, and a strong supporter of sex workers’ rights. He opposes any penalties whatever for prostitution, believing it to be as healthy a way as any other for a woman to express her sexuality. (Any two people should be free, he writes, to form “a temporary sexual relationship in which money replaces any lasting commitment.”) Whether it is a healthy way to make a living is an issue he does not raise. But one finishes his book feeling that the centuries-old “French system” of legalized prostitution, however severe its restrictions and methods of surveillance, ultimately gave sex workers more power to protect themselves than they have had anywhere else in the world.
This becomes clear from Corbin’s account of the demonstrations that took place in a dozen French cities during the summer of 1975, when prostitutes demanding the right to solicit occupied churches, met with mayors and archbishops, and organized a national conference in Paris attended by thousands. They also asked for family-allowances benefits, old-age pensions, and Social Security (the last demand has since been met). Corbin’s defense of the rights of prostitutes seems to me entirely justified: to imprison women for soliciting while hard-core pornography is allowed to proliferate throughout the Western world may be among the greater hypocrisies yet encountered in the long history of prostitution.
Laure Adler is a feminist historian who currently works as cultural adviser to President Mitterrand. She has published several excellent books on different aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French women’s lives, among them Les Premières journalistes and Secrets d’alcôve: Le Couple de 1830 à 1930. Her most recent publication, La Vie quotidienne dans les maisons closes, 1830–1930, is by far the most impassioned and interesting study of prostitution I have read. Adler is the first professional scholar I know of who has tried to recapture the personal experiences of women whose history has been recorded mainly in the icy, dehumanizing language of police reports and doctors’ files; and because she writes imaginatively and with irony and sensitivity about the paradoxes of the sexual trade, she succeeds admirably.
Adler deals with the same period as Alain Corbin, but organizes her material quite differently, ranging beyond the maisons closes of her title and describing the experiences of three very different kinds of sex workers. The chapter “L’Amour dans l’alcôve” is about courtesans, and those more modest kept women, omitted in Corbin’s volume, called grisettes—salesgirls or factory workers, so named because many of them were associated with the garment trade, in which gray cloth was widely used. “L’Amour au bordel” concerns registered bordello prostitutes; “L’Amour dans la rue” chronicles the poorest, most pathetic kinds of sex workers, the unregistered women—often called pierreuses because they sold themselves under bridges and in courtyards—who roamed the city soliciting poor workers for one franc or less, or even for payment in kind (vegetables, bread, items of clothing).
The stupendous luxury, boredom, and solitude of courtesans’ lives (“one of their most efficacious weapons is the covert but deep disdain they feel for their lover-clients”) are picturesquely documented by Adler. A famous grande horizontale of the Second Empire, Cora Pearl, disappeared into her bedroom during one of her opulent dinner parties, right after the filets de perdreau à la Penthièvre, and was carried back to the drawing room by four valets while lying naked on a huge silver platter garnished by beds of violets. Adler also evokes the almost unfailingly miserable and lonely old age of the most successful courtesans. She observes that their often tragic deaths, like the suicide of Esther in Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, are usually caused by their treacherous amants de czur, the freely chosen lovers who are the only men with whom they permit themselves to enjoy orgasm and have children (a choice made possible by the remarkably efficient contraceptive measure, also used throughout maisons closes, of inserting tiny uterine sponges soaked in vinegar).
Adler is at her best when she describes the inner life of the maisons closes that flourished under the July Monarchy, in which
The girls rise late, around ten, eleven AM. Confidences, kisses, endearments. They leave their warm beds to come down to the dining-room…. Around the table, they chatter about the preceding night’s events, the money earned. They linger, stretch their limbs, smoke cigarettes. Still in their dressing gowns, the girls then install themselves in the little salon, where they sew, crochet, read the newspaper, talk some more. The quietude and boredom of boarding school life.
The maison close was a community with an aura of great bourgeois respectability: the model patronne or madame was a poised, authoritarian woman of bourgeois origins who put great stress on decorum, and made her inmates respectfully stand when she entered the dining room for the evening meal. (“Just where do you think you are?” Toulouse-Lautrec reports the patronne of his favorite brothel saying to her girls when their conduct verged on lewdness.) Adler is fascinating about the madame’s husband or lover, the only male allowed to live in a bordello, who helped to recreate “the classical functioning of a petit bourgeois couple running their little business.” Responsible for procuring new girls, for maintaining a liaison with the police, and for booting out the more unruly clients. This prince consort was also the inmates’ protector and confessor, always respected, sometimes adored, a fatherly figure (strictly taboo as an object of lust) who listened to their most intimate problems and sorrows and settled their disputes.
Adler is also far more instructive than Corbin about the methods by which women applied for permission to open a brothel. She cites Parent-Duchâtelet’s meticulous guidelines for the ideal madame’s character (“the task is delicate and demands many qualities: Force, vigor, moral and physical energy”). She is also more explicit than Corbin on the sexual preferences of nineteenth-century French bordello clients. Basing her accounts on medical records and the very rare prostitutes’ and patronnes’ diaries to have survived, she tells us that fellatio was practiced by eight clients out of ten; that anal coitus was extremely frequent, and pregnant women were much in demand. She describes the specialized services offered by bordellos after 1860, as the more modest maisons went out of business: some customers desired uncombed, unwashed, twelve-year-old factory workers who had to appear in their filthy work clothes, or menstruating women who had not changed their linen.
Adler devotes some of her most moving and best documented pages to the scandal of child prostitution, which was not outlawed in France until 1909 (an issue which Corbin barely mentions). She has much to say about the religiosity of the overworked prostitutes, making the whores in Maupassant’s story “La Maison Tellier,” in which an entire bordello community closes down for twenty-four hours to attend a young friend’s First Communion festivities, sound true to life: “In their rooms, between the towel and the peignoir, hangs a picture of the Holy Family and a sprig of holly.” Adler describes whores’ traditional love of children, both their own and their colleagues’ (children were allowed to remain in brothels until the age of five, when they were sent out to the most expensive pensions the women could afford). She also chronicles the frequent lesbianism in maisons closes, and its attendant rituals. (To signal officially her new liaison, a prostitute who had won a colleague’s affection put two bottles of champagne on the breakfast table the morning after her conquest, one at her own customary place, the other at that of her new lover.)
Both Corbin and Adler recall the inefficiency and humiliation of medical examinations imposed on registered prostitutes in the nineteenth century, and the inhuman manner in which they were hospitalized. The more avaricious patronnes, Adler and Corbin tell us, had perfected the art of hiding the girls’ venereal diseases through careful cosmetic techniques, “applying small pieces of colored gold leaf to lesions and carmine on the sexual organs of inmates suffering from gonorrhea or syphilis.” Until more reliable techniques were developed in the twentieth century, when analysis of blood and vaginal fluid samples replaced archaic speculums, the women who submitted to a check-up were examined in dispensaries at production line speed—some doctors testify to have examined as many as fifteen prostitutes in one minute.
Some historians might object to Adler’s unconventional methods (she has an excellent bibliography, but gives infrequent attributions and no precise page citations); others might criticize her for relying too much on works of fiction, such as Goncourt’s “La fille Elisa” or Maupassant’s “La Maison Tellier,” from which she liberally quotes to recapture the intimate details of the prostitutes’ lives. But her book brilliantly reconstructs a previously hidden history from a rich variety of sources. I hope it will soon be published in the United States.
Charles Bernheimer’s Figures of Ill Repute is also a great pleasure to read, a rare quality these days for a work of academic criticism. Its general purpose is to document the rabid misogyny that was typical of many men during the nineteenth century, and that led them to associate female sexual organs, particularly those of prostitutes, with disease, offal, and decay. After an excellent first chapter on Parent-Duchâtelet, Bernheimer concentrates on the writing of Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Sue, Jules-Amedée Barbey d’Aurevilly, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, and J. K. Huysmans, and the art of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.
Bernheimer compares Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris and Balzac’s Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, pointing out that in Romantic literature from Rousseau to Hugo to Sue, the recurring archetype of the virtuous reformed prostitute served to support a conservative patriarchy increasingly threatened by the whore’s social mobility. In Sue’s novel, for instance, the priggishly self-righteous Rodolphe rehabilitates the prostitute Fleur-de-Marie for strictly conventional bourgeois reasons—“to save a soul,” as Bernheimer puts it, “for productive moral and maternal use.”
Bernheimer emphasizes that although Sue and Balzac write about fictional whores with equal sympathy, Balzac’s novel is far less moralistic and more subversive than Sue’s. Esther is liberated from a prostitute’s life and turned into an apparently virtuous woman by the depraved priest Carlos Herrera, who in reality is Balzac’s most ubiquitous creation, the homosexual ex-convict Vautrin, in disguise. Herrera is far more corrupt than the most fraudulent bordello patronne, and his interest in Esther is based solely on his greed and his passion for his alter-ego, Esther’s weak-willed lover Lucien de Rubempré. Using the most diabolical tactics, Vautrin-Herrera persuades the generous, naive Esther to sell herself to a rich banker in order to increase Lucien’s fortune, ultimately causing both lovers to kill themselves.
Bernheimer is particularly acute in his treatment of Barbey d’Aurevilly and Huysmans, whose attitudes epitomize an epoch—the French fin de siècle—in which male revulsion against women’s bodies was more phobically expressed than at any other period of Western history. The hero of Huysmans’ A Rebours is haunted by the vision of a hideously diseased woman called “La Syphilis.” In Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “La Vengeance d’une femme,” the wife of Spain’s most eminent grandee, the Duchess de Sierra Leone, takes revenge against her husband’s murder of her lover by becoming a low-class Paris prostitute; she relishes dishonoring her husband’s name by steeping it “in the vilest mud,” “turning it into offal, excrement.” And in their phantasmagorically sadistic images of women, both writers find the syphilitic prostitute to be the most telling “emblem” of an “entire organic world … diseased and decomposing.” (Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Duchess eventually dies of syphilis after the illness has caused one of her eyes to pop out of her head, “falling to her feet like a fat coin.”)
In Bernheimer’s brilliant chapter on Flaubert he emphasizes the complex attitudes toward prostitutes—a combination of identification and revulsion that may be unique to French culture—among members of Flaubert’s generation. The estranged artists and intellectuals who, like Flaubert, came to manhood during the height of the Romantic movement seem to have found in the prostitute’s condition a spiritual mirror image of their own marginal state, a defiance of both Classical and bourgeois standards analagous to their own. Flaubert even suggested that the prostitute might be the exemplary Muse of his generation: “Ah, writers of elegies, it is not on ruins that you should go lean your elbow but on the breasts of these gay women!”5
Yet Flaubert’s milieu indulged in what amounted to a psychological gang bang—either through the consecutive possession of the same woman, or through a compulsively libertine exchange of information (“Have you seen Elodie again… and sniffed at the fog of her clitoris?”). Their disdain for prostitutes and women generally was virulent. Flaubert frequently boasted that he liked to choose the ugliest whore in any bordello and take her in front of his friends, his hat still on his head, while puffing on a cigar.
In Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, Bernheimer points out, not only the prostitute Rosanette but her entire profession are seen as living in a “void of human relations,” which confirms Flaubert’s association of the female with absence and loss. In discussing Flaubert’s misogyny, moreover, Bernheimer does not limit himself to Flaubert’s fiction, but gives equal attention to the brutal attitudes toward women expressed in Flaubert’s correspondence. Like any other sensitive reader he concludes that throughout Flaubert’s letters to his friends Alfred de Poittevin, Maxime du Camp, and Louis Bouilhet, female sexuality seems mainly to serve as “a disposable conduit for bonds between men,” as a way of “deepening their male solidarity.”
Bernheimer is well aware that the sexual bragging he describes might be part of the fashionable pose assumed by young literati of Flaubert’s generation to épater les copains, impress one’s pals. But his perceptive reading of Flaubert’s correspondence with Louise Colet, his mistress for many years, reveals that Flaubert’s hatred of women went far beyond mere posturing. Flaubert clearly took sadistic pleasure in littering with misogynous comments his letters to Colet, who was one of the most respected woman poets of her time and an outspoken feminist. “You write verses the way a hen lays eggs,” he told her, or “Contemporary literature is drowning in women’s menses.”6 He insisted on separating Colet’s femaleness from her intelligence, claiming that the two were incompatible: according to Flaubert, to the degree that Colet was gifted and imaginative, she had to be partly male. Using perverse, mutilating metaphors, he repeatedly expressed his wish that he could transform her into “a sublime hermaphrodite… male down to the level of the stomach.” “I would wish you to be a man from the waist up. Going downward you encumber me and trouble me and damage me with your femaleness.”
Bernheimer’s chapters on Degas and Manet (particularly the latter) are flawed, to my taste, by an excess of Freudian zeal. Must the delicate black ribbon around the neck of Manet’s Olympia have been inspired by a male desire to mutilate the female by “severing her body into distinct pieces”? Does the upright tail of the black cat at her side have to be “potentially phallic,” and why must the black servant at her side be seen as an emblem of Olympia’s “primitive concupiscence and sexual degeneracy”? Could we not credit Manet for choosing these particulars for formal, painterly reasons, as a means of dramatizing and highlighting the milky whiteness of his model’s skin? But Bernheimer’s is a splendid achievement, and can be recommended to anyone interested in nineteenth-century European culture.
Hollis Clayson’s Painted Love: Prostitution in French Art of the Impressionist Era carries to silly extremes the feminist-revisionist jargon of her mentor, the art historian T. J. Clark, without a trace of his originality or elegance of style. (“[Degas] sadistically gourmandizes over the women’s enlightened because masochistic awareness of her irredeemably debased sexuality.”) The claim on Clayson’s book jacket that the author “provides the first description and analysis of French artistic interest in women prostitutes” is also patently false in light of Bernheimer’s work, which was published two years earlier.
Clayson devotes some perceptive pages to women’s costumes, and the ways they identified different social classes in late-nineteenth-century French art. Her almost inquisitorial vigilance in detecting the slightest trace of sexist iconography enables her to criticize convincingly such minor artists as Gervex, whose pictures of fallen women were clearly aimed to titillate male viewers, and indeed verge on the pornographic. But her understanding of the greatest art of the period—Degas, Manet—is severely limited. When approaching such masters, she seems unaware of the rich ambivalence of lust and bitterness, of openness and mystery, which fascinated the greatest French artists and writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Flaubert to Picasso.
Take Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for instance, whose young woman looks at us with a marvelously inscrutable gaze, her back reflected in a mirror which also shows the dim figure of a male customer. Most people have seen this great painting as a sympathetic portrayal of a working woman; and beyond its admirable formal qualities most of us had admired the impassivity and neutrality on the part of the artist, the lack of any value judgment concerning the barmaid’s condition or social rank, which give the painting much of its mystery and power.
In Clayson’s exegesis, however, the mirrored image of the young woman, and the male client hovering at the right of the picture, raises the issue of her “double profession… serving and prostitution.” As for Manet’s deadpan treatment of his subject, Ms. Clayson dismisses it as “modernist fence-sitting,” a potentially sexist attitude reinforcing common prejudices against prostitutes. It is more than a little troubling that here as elsewhere she describes as misogynist the deliberate ambiguity of some of the world’s greatest art.
In the most recent account I have read of the current prostitution trade in Paris, some 20,000 persons are still practicing the profession. Many of them are men, and, according to police figures, some 70 percent of these sex workers are of foreign nationality, often from third world countries such as Brazil.7 Admittedly such statistics do not take into account the sex workers who make use of telephone networks, massage parlors, escort services, and other late-twentieth-century methods of trade. But still the recent estimate should be compared to the approximately 100,000 prostitutes in Paris in 1890, when the city’s population was about 2.6 million, approximately one fifth the size of greater Paris today.
Having lost their traditional function as initiators of minors, their appeal to voyeurs diminished by X-rated films and videos, and their clientele mostly limited to a small band of middle-aged men, the French filles de joie, the most glamorous members of the oldest profession, seem to be threatened with extinction. And as I read these mostly congenial books (an experience similar to visiting a museum of a bygone culture), I was reminded of a comment made by a French writer of my father’s generation upon visiting one of the half-dozen brothels still open in Paris directly after the end of World War II: “Everything is done there to reawaken memories of childhood… for any man who can boast of a good education.”8
July 16, 1992
Gustave Flaubert, Correspondence, edited by Jean Bruneau (Paris: Pleiades, 1989), Vol. II, pp. 340–341. ↩
See Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, editors (Cleis Press, 1987). This is one of the better feminist anthologies on the theme of prostitution. ↩
Parent-Duchâtelet, De la Prostitution dans la ville de Paris, Vol. I, p. 128. ↩
Emile Zola, Nana (Paris: Editions Fasquelle, undated), p. 205. ↩
Flaubert, Correspondence, Vol. II, pp. 340–341. ↩
Flaubert, Correspondence, Vol. II, p. 480. ↩
New York Times, January 11, 1992. ↩
Francis Carco, quoted in Corbin, p. 338. ↩