The subject of Musee d’Orsay’s new show “Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes” (The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans) is about prostitution in 19th century France. The exhibit title was taken from the title of a novel by Honoré de Balzac. But if you take the word courtesan literatim, not all the pictures on exhibition fit the bill. While some portray courtesans (women with a clientele of royals or men of high social station), others describe what is commonly known as streetwalkers or hookers. Quelle différence !
You can see the difference by comparing exhibit examples by Toulouse Lautrec and Édouard Manet. Lautrec’s “Huile sur toile” is a gritty view of a worn-looking woman standing nude from the waist down donning her stockings as she readies for a night’s work. Manet’s “Olympia” describes a pampered-looking woman literally lying in luxury, complete with maid in waiting, wearing a self-assured air. The only commonality between the two is that the exchange of sexual services they offer, whether for money or mollycoddling, was not illegal in 19th century France.
Manet’s painting, though modeled after Titian’s 1538 “Venus of Urbino,” is nothing like the Titian work when it comes to the woman’s state of mind. You can tell this by the way each holds her hand over her genitals. Titian shows her curling her hand toward her body, cupping it as if to call attention to it. Manet shows the woman flat-handedly blocking the view, as if to cut off all thought of entry.
But the biggest difference of all is the woman’s facial expression. Titian shows her looking flirtatiously at the viewer, while Manet shows the woman’s face looking at the viewer with a bold, confrontational stare, as if she were saying, “What are you looking at?” Manet’s vision defines the modern woman before there was such a thing. It’s notable that you can’t see the woman’s face in Lautrec’s rendering of a streetwalker. She is anonymous.
How, you may ask, did a painter in the 19th century – the time when women led restricted lives, as recounted by Jane Austen, come up with such a markedly modern image of an independent woman?
Maybe the celebrated Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, who was married to Manet’s brother, taught the painter something. When Manet famously said, ”My sister-in-law wouldn’t have been noticed without me,” Morisot said, “I don’t think there’s ever been a man who treated a woman as an equal. And that’s all I would have asked, for I know I’m worth as much as they.”