Les Femmes Dangereuses

Courtisanes-Not Just More Pretty Faces

See the pretty face of Manet's Olympia

See the pretty face(s) of Gervex' Rolla

"The author represents and gives us the name of Olympia, a young girl lying on a bed, having as her garment a knot of ribbon in her hair, and her hand for a fig leaf. The expression of her face is that of a being prematurely aged and vicious; her body, of a putrfying color, recalls the horror of the morgue. "

--Victor de Jankowitz, 1863

This painting shocked salon audiences in 1863 when it was first unveiled in 1863, a year after Hugo's Les Miserables was published. There was such an uproar over the subject matter of Olympia that som members of the audience had to be held back to prevent harm to the painting. As a result, the painting did not rest long in the salon. Manet was like Hugo and took pleasure in portraying the real people of Paris--the workers and the "miserable ones " and so he was genuinely surprised at the uproar over his seductive coutisane and her negro helper.

Olympia, Edouard Manet-1863

Pearlmutter was right when he said "Images do not lie, rather text does." This critique of Manet's Olympia ultimately proves that text can lie, and that images can spark an interest of the historical time period when they were created.

We should try to determine why the courtisane suddenly appeared when, for hundreds of years, the "street-walker" or "wench" was the only kind of woman available to satisfy:

  • Basic conditions which had determined the demand for prostitution (Physical; for example: a worker recruited from the country side unable to find a woman his age in the big city) were ending
  • The dawning of the 1860's was the dawning of new needs being expressed: intimacy, desire, seduction
  • These needs were now not just being expressed by workers, but by the mainstream bourgeoisie.
  • The bourgoisie class often had more money than they knew what to do with.
  • This excess of money brought on the desire for beautiful fleshly forms.
  • Enter the COURTISANE
  • A few things to remember about courtisanes:

    • She had to be beautiful to charge high prices
    • Unlike the street-walkers, she did have some choice in clients
    • She specialized in dominance and make believe often changing roles form client to client.


    Henri Gervex, Rolla, 1878

    " With a melancholy eye Rolla gazed on

    The beautiful Marion asleep in her wide bed;

    In spite of himself, an unnmeable and diabolical horror

    Made him tremble to the bone.

    Marion had cost dearly.-To pay for his night

    He had spent his last coins.

    His friends knew it. And he, on arriving, Had taken thier hand and given his word that

    In the morning no one would see him alive.

    When Rolla saw the sun appear on

    the roofs,

    He went and leaned out the window.

    Rolla turned to look at Marion.

    She felt exhausted , and had fallen asleep .

    And thus both fled the cruelties of fate,

    The child in sleep, and the man in death!" --Alfred de Musset, "Rolla", 1833.


    Henri de Gervex' Rolla is another good example of a courtisane. Her clothes are obviously exspensive, the actual sexual favor takes place in a hotel room and not in the street or brothel. And if you look closely, she posesses jewels-not the mark of a street walker.

    Details such as the cane sticking out from under the prostitute's corset ( seen as a phallic symbol) and the man's unbuttoned shirt (it was deemed completely raunchy if a man's naked torso could be seen in paintings in the 19th century) shocked audiences in the salon.