Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality




In the 19th century many people were painting what they saw as "everyday life". Manet came from a more privileged class, yet he chose to portray the lower classes or the less desirable. Like Victor Hugo, Manet captured the real life people of Paris. This was not always a popular thing to do as was made evident by the fact that when Manet's painting, Olympia was hung, in 1863, viewers had to be physically restrained so that they would not to ruin it. The public was confused by such details as a black servant and a black cat but were mainly outraged by the nude courtesan who, with her pale skin almost becomes one with the bed. The fact that this woman, a courtesan, is given a face, was cause for a lot of uproar. It humanizes prostitution which was not, in a time where no one wanted to be reminded of the shadier side of life, a very popular thing to do.

Olympia by Edouard Manet, 1863.(9.for source click here)

  • Manet painted this picture with strong brush strokes many people considered this a childish and unskilled fashion of painting.
  • Manet based the composition of this painting on The Venus of Urbino, by Titan.
  • Olympia is the painting of a reclining nude woman , tended to by a maid while a black cat (far right) gazes mysteriously out at the viewer.
  • The maid is presenting Olympia with a gift of flowers, presumably a gift from a lover. This type of scene was not generally portrayed.
  • The French practice at the time suggested that women were to be modeled on historical, mythical or biblical themes.
  • Manet painted a woman of his time but not the ideal woman, a real woman, a courtesan.
  • The way in which this is painted, with the startling contrast between the dark of the background and the light of Olympia lying on her bed draws much attention to the subject of the painting.
  • Manet's model, Victorine Meurent, is depicted as a woman who's body is a commodity.
  • Although middle and bourgeoisie gentlemen did frequent courtesans they did not want to be confronted with one in an art gallery.
  • Olympia is a real woman, flaws and all who stares out from the canvas at us, confronting us with an unwavering glance. This in itself was a cause for outrage because this woman dares to stare out, meeting the eye. It was scandalous for a woman in general, let alone a courtesan, to be so brazen as to stare directly at anyone.
  • Olympia's only adornment consists of shoes, a bracelet, a flower in her hair and a string around her neck.
  • She looks almost bored at the prospect of another gift, suggesting that this is not a first time occurrence or something to be overly excited about.

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Visual representations

Le Dejeuner sur l'herb