Manet's Before the Mirror

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




Before the Mirror, Edouard Manet, 1876.
Edouard Manet's 1876 painting Before the Mirror depicts the sumptous life style of Balzac's archetype of the decadent and wanton courtesan.


  • The scene, though more private and far less provocative than that of Manet's more famous work, Olympia, is still one far more private than what would have been seen of a bourgeoisie woman. It is clear, by the very fact that the woman is standing unabashedly in front of her mirror, only partially dressed, admiring her own reflection, that Manet wanted the viewer to believe that this was a courtesan. The argument could me made that Manet did not intend this explicity, especially in light of some of his other works, like Woman in Evening Dress. However, the clues that the woman pictured is indeed a courtesan, or perhaps a lorette, seem too clear for the meaning to have been purposely ambiguous.

  • The brush strokes are in themselves decadent and unpredictable, much the same way that the common preconception of the woman pictured by society would have been much the same.

  • This piece is part of a large portion of Manet's work interested in representing the truth of French society, in a manner that captures the flavor and feeling of the subject's lives.

  • Manet, along with the artist Edgar Degas and the writer Emile Zola, paid much attention to the motif of prostitution, believing that it was an essential key to understanding modern life. (Spector)

For more on Balzac's archetype click here.