The Way Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec Glamorize Prostitution

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Throughout the course of history, the art world has always been known to have a big interest towards activities filled with controversy. During the late nineteenth century, artists and photographers began to ditch the goddesses and respectable ladies that generally modelled for their works and used courtesans and street walkers in replace. Using prostitutes was a very wide-spread phenomenon and artists saw it as the modern subject of excellence at the time. Although most people would consider it as erratic and elusive, it became the muses of some of the best artworks people have ever seen today. Prostitutes were an accepted practice, however, as time has gone on, views on prostitution have changed and in today’s society, the topic remains a largely taboo subject. The purpose of this book is to explore how artists have either exploited or glamorized prostitutes within their work from historical and contemporary backgrounds. I aim to uncover as to why artists and photographers were so amused by prostitutes, from both, positive and negative perspectives.

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What is prostitution?

A prostitute is an individual, particularly a woman who engages in sexual activity in exchange for payment. This field is often described as sexual services, profitable sex, or hooking. The idea that people sell their bodies is ethically controversial. In popular debate, it is often reduced to something you can either be for or against, but the issue is not black and white. Contrary to the old cliché, prostitution is sometimes referred demurely as “the world’s oldest profession” however, that is not true. Prostitution has existed in nearly every civilization on earth, stretching back throughout recorded history and despite consistent attempts at regulation, it continues to be an activity that remains unchanged. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is remembered as one of the greatest artists of the 19th century. People remember him for his prostitute obsessed artwork. In adulthood, he joined the culture of Paris’ bohemian Montmartre section, painting the nightlife of district Paris. It’s spectacle of circuses, dance halls, nightclubs and racetracks, as well as the artists, writers, aristocrats, can-can dancers and prostitutes who mingled among the clientele in search for business. After it’s opening, the Moulin Rouge dance hall reserved a table for Lautrec every night and displayed his paintings and sketches in the foyer and commissioned him to create posters for their advertisement.

Toulouse-Lautrec was an uncontrollable absinthe drinker and his physical appearance contributed to his suffering from his death of alcoholism later in his life. He accordingly suffered from congenital health conditions which are sometimes attributed to a history of inbreeding from his past generations. For an adult he was classed as an extremely short man, measuring at just 4 ft 8 inches. Half of his body grew into an adult sized body but his legs ceased to grow to the proportions of his torso.

Prostitutes accepted Lautrec as a fellow outcast, and allowed him to wander around the brothels, sketching and painting freely on his own ingenuity. He produced an entire album of work inspired by prostitutes, titled simply “Elles”.

Edgar Degas

In comparison to Lautrec’s work, here is a Painting created in 1875. The work portrays a prostitute sitting in-front of a glass of absinthe. Next to her sits a man wearing a hat and smoking a pipe, looking to the right off the edge of the canvas. The woman dressed more formally in fashionable dress and hat, stares expressionlessly downward. They appear lethargic and lonely.

Degas used a palette of muted greys and soft earth tones that gives a sense of stale air and melancholy. In this time of era, absinthe also known as ‘the green fairy’ was a green coloured, highly alcoholic spirit. Poured over ice and served with water and a cube of sugar to soften the bitter taste. It was highly addictive and known to cause hallucinations. Its growing popularity and its negative social effects led to absinthe being banned in much of Europe and America.

Degas created a painting in which he did not glamorise his chosen prostitute but used the absinthe to tell a story within his painting. You take one look and gather that these people in the painting are probably tormented souls, too sensitive for the mean old world.

The painting was treated with derision and sparked great controversy. Degas’s scene is a glimpse of a single moment that is part of a bigger ‘story’. The people and the absinthe represented in the painting were considered to be shockingly degrading and uncouth.

Conclusion

Prostitution in art, examines what it was that drew artists to this complex and sensitive subject. The world of prostitutes have been recorded by a variety of painters and photographers throughtout the course of history. Documentations that contrast luxury, lust, make-up and glamour, but also of poverty, disease and misery.

Artists fascination with the rise of prostitution, started mostly in the late 19th century when the French capital boomed. Celebrated artists set about capturing what seemed an exciting and modern social phenomenon, which is why majority of their works were romanticised. Every great artist at the time tackled the subject of prostitution in some shape or form.

Within the moral and social framework of an era when a demographic shift brought many country dwellers to the city and when the authorities regarded prostitution as a necessary evil to blunt the rampant nature of the male libido. For centuries, French kings and aristocrats had kept courtesans and mistresses; but in Paris in the second half of the 19th century, the sex-for-sale business democratised, invaded the public space and boomed.

As the 20th century took place, artists’ attitudes began to change. The pictures that were created were caricatural, nasty even, reflecting a misogynist society. Yet unknown as to why.

For the majority of the prostitutes portrayed, however, the paintings romanticised the circumstances that drove poorly paid women to sell their bodies, turning their misery into a celebration of art and personal talent. The social history was horrible behind the scenes, but the paintings are indeed fantastic.

29 April 2022

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