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Prostitution was a central part of daily life in late 19th Century Paris. It is key to understanding the art of the times — and everything that followed, writes Jason Farago. We too often stereotype Impressionism and the other tendencies of French painting before and around a collection of sunflowers and haystacks, babies and ballerinas, that look good on postcards or a dorm-room wall. But modern French painting was nothing so anodyne. Paris in the late 19th Century was a city in the midst of a massive social transition, and the art of the age depicted much more than the natural world.
It depicted a new urban world, in all its intricacy—and shied away from nothing, not even the bordellos of Pigalle. Prostitution, now hidden in the shadows, was for these painters a fact of modernity, and while they drew inspiration from women of the night, they also at times imagined the distance between the studio and the brothel was not so great. We now think of prostitutes as one of the most disfavoured categories of the social order, to be talked about in disgust when we talk about it at all.
But in the Paris of the late 19th Century, prostitution was a central part of daily life, a private transaction with public ramifications. Prostitution was strictly regulated during the reign of Napoleon III and this continued into the 20th Century. Soliciting was illegal and instead women had to register with the police, work out of a single brothel and pay tax. Brothels were outlawed in France in ; selling sex remains legal, though the country is currently embroiled in an angry debate about whether to criminalise buying sex, as Sweden does.
Nineteenth-Century prostitutes also had to endure mandatory medical inspections every month — which, as the prostitute-obsessed Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicts in his painting Rue des Moulins, could be more humiliating than sex work itself.
The hardy, uncoquettish women are in blouses and stockings, but have no skirts or underwear on; they look exhausted, dishonored, victims of bureaucracy more than of clients. Just a few rungs higher up the social ladder were courtesans, who sold sex but also glamour, conversation, and public prestige. Many of these courtesans became celebrities, with their movements — and even their clients — reported in the thriving social press.