Visual Representations

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 an age when no one is easily shocked by exposed flesh or nudity it is difficult to see what was so extraordinary about many of the nude portraits that were painted during the eighteen-hundreds. Even though they were usually painted of courtesans or prostitutes (the only people who would pose nude) it is still hard to decipher exactly why every unveiled painting of a nude woman caused such an uproar. One reason was that although prostitution was certainly widespread and was utilized by the majority of men at the time it was not something that was openly discussed. It was something that was avoided. The police turned a blind eye to the wealthier courtesans and lorettes. Common prostitutes were seen in the open and were kept under very close surveillance by authoritative figures while the higher classes of prostitutes were allowed to do as they pleased. It was shocking to see courtesans portrayed in art galleries because it was a revolutionary thing to openly publicize and acknowledge this side of society.

The artist Manet is widely known and highly acclaimed. Strangely enough several of his paintings caused quite an uproar. Although it might be difficult to understand why such paintings, to us today seemingly harmless, would create such chaos in the Paris of the nineteenth century. There were several reasons which, seeming foreign to us with our very modern attitude, made all the differences at the time. In three of his paintings:Olympia, Le Dejeuner sur l' Herb, and Nana we see representations of paintings that made such an uproar. In each one of these paintings we see several characteristics in common.

  • The woman in each painting is a courtesan.
  • The woman in the painting is looking out at the viewer with no shame or remorse. Each seems comfortable as who she is.
  • The woman is the central focus in each painting.
  • In every painting Manet was putting a face on prostitution. This was not something that everyone wanted to be shown on canvas. Although people frequented brothels or courtesans they did not openly discuss this or make it a widely known fact. In these three paintings Manet exposes and humanizes prostitution while bringing it into the context of the nineteenth-century

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Le Dejeuner sur l' Herb