In 1849 Flaubert was in Cairo with his friend Maxime Du Camp, a rising littérateur as well as the official photographer for their tour of the Middle East. On 1 December, Flaubert wrote to their mutual friend the poet Louis Bouilhet:
This morning we arrived in Egypt … we had scarcely set foot on shore when Max, the old lecher, got excited over a negress who was drawing water at a fountain. He is just as excited by little negro boys. By whom is he not excited? Or, rather, by what? … Tomorrow we are to have a party on the river, with several whores dancing to the sound of darabukehs and castanets, their hair spangled with gold piastres.
Flaubert’s attitude to prostitution was complicated, as one might expect. In 1853 he explained it to – of all people – his lover Louise Colet:
It may be a perverted taste, but I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects. My heart begins to pound every time I see one of those women in low-cut dresses walking under the lamplight in the rain, just as monks in their corded robes have always excited some deep, ascetic corner of my soul. The idea of prostitution is a meeting place of so many elements – lust, bitterness, complete absence of human contact, muscular frenzy, the clink of gold – that to peer into it deeply makes one reel. One learns so many things in a brothel, and feels such sadness, and dreams so longingly of love!
Flaubert remained largely consistent in his views throughout his life; whereas Du Camp, as time, renown and social position took their toll, became increasingly conservative and moralistic. Twenty years after landing in Egypt, he began publishing his six-volume Paris: ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie (1869-75), a massive, Zolaesque account of the city, teeming with statistics and reportage, opinion and anecdote. In the third volume (1872), his chapter on the guillotine is immediately followed by one on prostitution. He defines the activity as one of ‘the chronic, morbid phenomena which are inherent in our species. The brutality of male passions, and the organic and moral weakness of women, have produced the same results, in every age and in every culture.’
In France at that time prostitution was of two main kinds: the ‘controlled’ sort, in which the state regulated the activity and carried out regular medical inspections on working women; and the ‘uncontrolled’, in which – throughout all ranks of society, up to the very top – money bought sex. For Du Camp, it was a question of essential moral collapse: Paris in the 19th century, like Venice in the 17th, had become a city in which the mind had repudiated its rights, leaving matter and the senses to take over. In middle-class society, men thought having a mistress just as much a fashionable necessity as ‘taking the waters, sea-bathing, and going to first nights’; while kept women, like ‘female minotaurs’, were ‘devouring’ France’s young men. There was also the practical, medical problem of limiting the spread of venereal disease. Du Camp knew what he was talking about: in Egypt he had endured three doses of VD to Flaubert’s one. And for all his moral disapproval, his attitude to ordinary working girls is much more sympathetic than to those higher up the social scale; he also reserves more scorn for the male than the female in their paid exchanges.
Luc Sante, in his recent The Other Paris: An Illustrated Journey through a City’s Poor and Bohemian Past, dismisses Du Camp as ‘an end-of-society hysteric’.This seems a little over-robust; those six volumes were published during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. When the war broke out, there had been many (including Flaubert) who wondered if the Prussian invasion was not some kind of necessary moral purge, a cleansing punishment for the vulgar iniquities of life under Napoleon III. (Fast-forward a century and a half, and an Isis spokesman is denouncing Paris as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’.) The subsequent internecine horrors of the Commune suggested that society could equally be brought to an end even in the absence of external force. Nor, in the light of the French military collapse, was it irrelevant for Du Camp to point out the debilitating incidence of venereal disease among its soldiery. After the French capitulation, the Prussians demanded an indemnity of five billion gold francs, to be paid off within five years, with Prussian troops stationed in France until it was. But the victors had underestimated France’s wealth: the money was raised in half the time (indeed, the war did far less damage to the economy than the contemporaneous phylloxera epidemic in the vineyards). Moralisers’ warnings went unheeded, and the pleasure-loving part of France went back to its old prewar ways.
Splendeurs et misères at the Musée d’Orsay, given a red-plush overall design by the opera director Robert Carsen, is a vast and sprawling show: aesthetic, sociological and historical, from high-end paintings to low-end memorabilia (police reports, brothel calling cards, and a ferocious gimletty prodder which, as far as I could work out, was for puncturing a hydrocele). Perhaps out of some libertarian spirit, there was no system of timed entry; this, combined with the usual cramped d’Orsay spaces, and the well-advertised presence of much early photographic and cinematic pornography, resulted in a Parisian thrum as intense as any at that famous place of masked assignation, the Opera Ball, of which several pictures are on display. Orientation was made the harder by the catch-all nature of the show. What were we being shown, and why?
For a start, some great art. Early on, I found myself wondering what an equivalent British show might look like. A couple of rooms, perhaps, with Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, Watts’s Found Drowned, Augustus Egg’s three-part Past and Present, then a time jump to Sickert’s prostitute paintings (two of which are shown at the d’Orsay). The subject, when not off-limits, was morally corseted for the Victorians. Here, the opening rooms give us Manet, Lautrec and Degas at the height of their powers; Van Gogh and Cézanne; then lesser but very interesting painters such as Forain, Béraud, Guys, Vallotton, Emile Bernard. At first – because this was, after all, an art gallery – the eye dutifully went to pick out the best pictures: Degas monotypes, Lautrec brothel interiors, and, of course, Manet’s Olympia. I have seen this painting many times before, but never before with such a particular effect. For a start, its sheer size (among many smaller genre pictures) overwhelms; you realise how extremely bold it was of Manet to paint his courtesan this big and this bare. And then – because of the context, which makes us all, if at one remove, customers of prostitution – I have never before felt so inspected by Olympia: by the courtesan herself, by her black maid, by the black cat in the bottom right-hand corner. We know what you’re here for, they all seemed to be saying: you can’t fool us.
As the show proceeded, however, the eye became less concerned about hierarchies of talent, more about the specifics of the subject. It also recorded the range of tone. That imaginary British show, for instance, similarly combining art and sociology, would be fairly monotonal: shocked, moralistic, pious and, where sympathetic, concerned with rescuing the fallen woman. (There might be allusions to Gladstone’s and Dickens’s rescue projects; to Gissing marrying a prostitute.) The French pictures, by contrast, run through many moods: realistic, sympathetic, tender, celebratory, farcical, satirical, glamorous, erotic, voyeuristic, masturbatory, but rarely moralistic or dissuasive. Even allegories of vice often make vice appear, at the very least, interesting. Félicien Rops covers some of the darker sides of prostitution, not least the sanitary hosing-down a naked prostitute is seen receiving in The Perineal Douche. But the only items which might make you, as a man back then, wonder if prostitution was an entirely good idea are not works of fine art. Rather, they are two pieces of moulded wax apparently commissioned by a psychiatrist: a woman’s hand and a woman’s face, the former with a single syphilitic lesion, the latter with a rash of them. The extreme lifelikeness of such modelling (the hair circling the woman’s forehead even contains a kiss-curl) makes them properly alarming. Though would men have been put off? Some regarded venereal disease as a male rite of passage; Maupassant was exultant when diagnosed. ‘I’ve got the pox! At last! The real thing! Not the contemptible clap … no, no, the great pox, the one François I died of. The majestic pox … and I’m proud of it, by thunder.’
That British show would be predicated on the idea of the fall, often of a triple kind: the fall from virginity (perhaps leading to an illegitimate child) or from marriage; the fall into prostitution; then the fall into the river. The thematic armature of this French show, on the other hand, is the rise. The top end of the profession might easily appear glamorous, because it was. There is a photostrip story, made up of 11 ‘aristotypes’, of a young grisette who falls asleep in her ordinary surroundings and dreams of being raised in her profession: benevolent sprites redecorate her apartment, maids dress her in the finest underwear, all has been achieved – until she wakes and finds herself back where she was and will remain. Nowadays, girls may dream of becoming top models – those fabulous, sultry creatures who won’t even get out of bed for less than a very substantial sum; back then, over there, girls dreamed of becoming grandes horizontales – those fabulous, sultry creatures who wouldn’t even get into bed until a million gold francs had been deposited in their bank account. Du Camp noted that the whole system of high-end vice was bringing about a major redistribution of capital: it had the same effect as drainage systems in agriculture.
The rise. The subject of one of the period’s most repeated bons mots was the grand yellow onyx staircase of Esther Lachmann, aka ‘La Païva’, probably the most financially successful courtesan of the century. Born to Polish parents in a Moscow ghetto, she rose to become the wife of a Portuguese marquis and then of a Prussian count who financed her building of a mansion on the Champs-Elysées. The playwright François Ponsard, adapting a line from Phèdre, said of her staircase: ‘Ainsi que la vertu le vice a ses degrés’ (degré meaning ‘stair’ as well as ‘level’). But what did a minor dramatist’s witticism matter when those who trotted up that staircase to your grand receptions included Renan, Taine, Gambetta, Gautier and the Goncourt brothers? Whereas in Victorian England a woman who had once committed the morally dubious act of being on the stage would have to obliterate that part of her life in order to make a respectable marriage (Nellie Ternan did it by simply lopping 14 years off her age), in France a grande horizontale could have limitless ambitions. One of the most straightforwardly terrifying images at the d’Orsay is an 1862 portrait of the demi-mondaine Jeanne de Tourbay by Amaury-Duval. She was then in her mid-twenties, and dressed as if to sit for Ingres: fringed black satin on a yellow satin day bed; discreet jewellery; immaculate coiffure. But the face, of great beauty, is also of utter determination. Flaubert, a long-term friend, wrote that she had the grace of a panther. On this evidence, the ferocity of one too: there is something almost carnivorous about the way she gazes at us. This is a woman who knows exactly what she wants and exactly how to get it. Next to her, Olympia looks like a nice, friendly girl. Jeanne de Tourbay makes you want to turn and run for a taxi. Ten years later she made it to be the Comtesse de Loynes.
And in case we forget what the ‘hôtel de la Païva’ was built on, there are stereoscopic photographs of largely unenviable couplings, and early (1909-10) pornographic films to entertain us. The latter came as a surprise, both in the very existence and their manner. If they hadn’t been French, they might well have been English, with their jaunty-jolly, semi-embarrassed clowning. (Why does one expect French sex to be more elegant than British?) Most of the men wore ridiculous stick-on beards and moustaches, while the women were cast as being – mainly – in charge of events. There was also much smoking. In one sequence, an open-air prostitute receives a client’s money, stows it, then obligingly bends over; the man unbuttons, and enters her from behind, all the while puffing on his cigarette. After a while, with a knowing eye to the camera, he flicks away his cigarette butt and continues with his pleasure. The audience’s reaction confirmed that, as far as taboo goes, smoking is the new sex.
There is, however, only so much antique porno a gallery-goer can take, and the crowds thinned quickly in later rooms. This was partly because of exhaustion, partly because the show overreached itself. When focusing on Paris in the second half of the 19th century, it retained clarity and authority. But it wanted to go everywhere, and so, in the last rooms, it was back to fine art from across Europe: Munch, Kupka, Sickert, Picasso. This later imagery was more screechy in colour and sinister in tone, but the aesthetic lesson seemed to come too late. However, there were also a couple of pictures by the only painter with a name fit for a porn star: Kees van Dongen.
Walking from Prostitution at the d’Orsay to Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun at the Grand Palais, you pass the Rosa Bonheur floating restaurant on the left bank of the Seine. Bonheur was the most famous female painter of her day, Le Brun the most famous of hers. Would this make some kind of link, I wondered, between two such disparate shows? But in fact there is a more exact one, for among Le Brun’s many aristocratic and blue-blooded subjects was one who also featured in Du Camp’s chapter on prostitution: Madame du Barry, the low-born Jeanne Vaubernier, of whom he wrote that she ‘seemed to have opened a career path to fortune’ for others of her kind. Le Brun painted this former mistress of Louis XV, then living in retirement at Louveciennes, three times in the 1780s. In her voluminously agreeable memoirs, Le Brun comments at length on Du Barry’s beauty and grace, while allowing herself to note that her sitter had a rather childish pronunciation of certain words, and still retained one mannerism of the coquette: ‘Her elongated eyes were never entirely open.’ This exceptionalism is very well conveyed in the portrait of La Du Barry in a straw hat; it also makes you notice, as this show unfolds, how roundly open most of the sitters’ eyes are. It is a sign, you come to realise, of virtue, truthfulness and good birth.
The exhibition catalogue’s note on this painting describes Madame du Barry as a woman ‘who, coming from the lowest ranks of society, passed through the palace of a king, before ending on the scaffold, where her sad end makes us forgive the scandalous thrill of her life.’ Some might find the sexual politics of that sentence a little iffy, the more so when Le Brun has over the last decades been rediscovered – or at least retitled – as a kind of feminist heroine: in 1984 her Souvenirs were republished in ‘une édition féministe de Claudine Herrmann’. In a recent interview, Erica Jong announced that Le Brun (whose pictures she first saw with her mother) might be the subject of her next novel. If this is a slightly alarming possibility, it also confirms how the painter has for some time been better known in the States than in France. This is the first solo show Le Brun has ever had in her own country.
Her father was a painter; she showed much early promise and made the right connections (her husband being an art dealer); by 23 she had painted her first picture of Marie Antoinette, for whom she became the portraitist of choice. She was very accomplished, excellent at flesh and all the varieties of material that covered it: the muslin and lace, the satins and silks, the straw hats and the flowers that lodged in them; she was good at and with children. She was also very professional, knowing how to disguise physical fault and accentuate any hint of beauty; she knew the most winning relationship between parted lips and visible teeth. She pleased her sitters; her sitters pleased her. She was expert at a kind of formal informality. In this, she resembles Cecil Beaton at the court of the young Elizabeth II: both produced a very highly worked art whose intended effect was of naturalness. She was very French. She spent three years in England, much of it – from Matlock to the Isle of Wight – reminding her of Switzerland. When visiting Bath she thought the city’s effect from a distance was ‘immense’; but up close, you realised its architecture ‘was not in good taste’. She also complained of Reynolds’s art that it was somewhat ‘unfinished’. Her own painting is always, always finished.
A tension between artifice and naturalness: this is where her art comes from, and what it delivers. The clothes are loose, the hair usually unpowdered, the pose informal, the smile of just the right size. All her aristocrats look noble, all her mothers devoted, all her children cute; even the background furnishings and fittings are loyally supportive. The charm is tremendously calculated. And charm is dangerous, double-edged. Take one of the century’s most famous portraits of a child, her Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart of 1788, now in the National Gallery in London. This seven-year-old girl is all in white, a pocket minuet of muslin and silk, while her auburn curls escape from a knotted white scarf. She is rummaging in a sewing bag from which she has just removed a red ball of wool. Naturally – or rather, ‘naturally’ (since she would ‘normally’, i.e. in ‘real life’, be looking where she is rummaging) – she fixes us with big round eyes and a cautious, disarming half-smile. There are no two ways about this picture. Either you want to adopt this adorable bundle of girlhood; or else you want to strangle the knowing little moppet.
It is right that the French are doing Le Brun belated justice; but there is such a thing as too much belated justice. At the Grand Palais, the show is split-level: starting downstairs and then, halfway through, moving up a floor via a monumental staircase. In 2011 this same twin-level strategy worked to tremendous effect for Odilon Redon: downstairs, every single exhibit was murky, monochrome and mysterious; upstairs, the painter burst into riotous colour. The Le Brun show breaks at the year 1789, when the painter fled to Italy. There she began a life of wandering exile which also took her to Austria, Russia and England, while previous clients of hers who had not made such an escape (including Madame du Barry) were sent to the guillotine. As I paused on that staircase – alas, not made of yellow onyx – I found myself wondering what effect all of this might have had on her art, its style and subject matter.
And the answer came: very little. Wherever she went, her style went too, like a dog with flowers in its hair. Aristocratic women sat for her in foreign capitals and looked the same: appealing, direct, formally informal, regarding us in the same round-orbed way – the eyes have it. Such women were her clients, and doubtless employed her because they knew exactly what they were going to get; but even so. The longer the show goes on, the more limited her tropes and her manner seem. (Compared to, say, Liotard she seems hidebound. The Swiss painter had a similarly peripatetic life and well-born clients. But set Alexandrine-Emilie Brongniart beside Liotard’s Princess Louisa Anne of 1754: Le Brun shows us what we might prefer to imagine childhood to be like; Liotard gives us the existential lostness of a little girl in a dress too big for her and a lace cap that looks silly not stylish.)And then, suddenly, towards the end of the exhibition, there is a painting of the great outdoors: a shepherds’ festival at Unspunnen in Switzerland. Mountains, trees, hundreds of celebrants spreading up a green hillside, a table of lunching locals, a big circle of spectators round various groups of wrestlers. It doesn’t look like Le Brun: if you saw it in isolation you wouldn’t think it the work of a court painter, rather of a highly talented provincial artist. But it suddenly breathes air into the show, and hints at what might have been.