French Love for Sale

Jean Béraud: The Proposition or The Assignation in the Rue Chateaubriand, circa 1885
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
Jean Béraud: The Proposition or The Assignation in the Rue Chateaubriand, circa 1885

Great cities have often been compared to whores. The Whore of Babylon, mentioned in the Book of Revelation, may have been a metaphor for imperial Rome, or possibly Jerusalem. Juvenal’s satirical poem about Rome, written at the end of the first century AD, conjures up the lascivious image of Messalina, Emperor Claudius’s wife, as a symbol of urban depravity. At night, the “whore-empress” made straight for the brothel, “with its stale, warm coverlets,” where “naked, with gilded nipples, she plied her trade….”1

The city, in Juvenal’s time as much as our own, was a place where everything, including sex, was traded, where the constant flow of money broke the barriers of race or tribe. The illusion of cultural purity cannot survive in the urban melting pot, hence the ancient strain of native distrust of foreigners. Juvenal’s satire of Rome is filled with two-faced Greeks and grasping Jews, deceitfulness and greed being the twin vices commonly associated with city life.

In 1874, Gustave Moreau did a painting of Messalina, nude except for her rich jewels, groped by a young Tiber fisherman, while a couple of exhausted debauchees lie prone at the feet of a procuress. Like Juvenal, whose poem he knew well, Moreau drew a moral from this scene of what he called “debauchery leading to death.” Except that in this case it wasn’t Rome that stood for terminal decadence, but Paris under Napoleon III’s Second Empire, which had come to an ignominious end four years before.

So the prostitute as an artistic icon is not new. But rarely has she been as obsessively depicted and described, in painting, print, or sculpture, in novels, popular songs, and photographs, as in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century France. As idealized figures of fashion, the courtesans and prostitutes in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japanese woodblock prints and fiction also come to mind. They were almost never as realistically portrayed as in late-nineteenth-century French art, but at least one reason for their prominence was similar to what created the later vogue for cocottes, filles de maisons, or horizontales in France: the shift from aristocratic or feudal customs to the dictates of the marketplace. Prostitution, in its many manifestations, grew exponentially with the rise of the modern city.

The exhibition “Splendours and Miseries: Images of Prostitution in France, 1850–1910” at the Musée d’Orsay is exhaustive—in fact, a little bit too exhaustive; after viewing a dozen pornographic photographs reenacting brothel scenes, you get the point. You don’t need dozens more. The same is true of prints by Felicien Rops, an interesting but minor artist, best viewed in smaller doses. Perhaps because the former Orsay railway station is so vast, shows designed to fill its space have a tendency…

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