Prostitutes in Art

From Sirens and Pirens, we move on to their surrogates, the prostitutes. Muses will be considered in a future blog. Both prostitutes and muses have been and are still subjects for the visual artist.

When society requires a more realistic substitute for the succubus, incubus, siren or piren, they often substitute the prostitute. In the earliest stages of Luce Irigaray’s work, her principal investigation may have been on prostitution, but the real subjects of her study were male artists and the relationship to the women models used in their art. She focused on the general social and economic patterns upon the exchange of women. She asked the question as to, why are men not objects of exchange among women. Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One,” translator Catherine Porter, (Ithaca, NY: Cornel: University Press, 1977), Ch 8 “Women on the Market, pp170-191.

The use of prostitutes as models by photographers and artists is well known. Simone de Beauvoir’s formulation for this situation was: “In truth, woman has not been socially emancipated through man’s need —sexual desire and the desire for off- spring —which makes the male dependent for satisfaction upon the female”. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, Constance Borde, Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (Translators), (New York: Vintage Books, 2011) p800, ISBN978-0-307-27778-7. It is difficult to completely understand the motivation and thoughts of an artist through his paintings, even the honest ones.

Figure B-1 a work by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec, is but one of many artists that used prostitutes for subject matter in their artworks.

B-1. 300px-Au_Salon_de_la_rue_des_Moulins_-_Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec

Figure B-1. De salon in de rue des Moulins, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,1894, oil on canvas, 44 x 52 in, Musee Toulouse Lautrec, Albi, France.

­Ernest J. Bellocq photographed prostitutes of New Orleans at their place of residence and as well as their place of work. Figure B-2 shows one example of Bellocq’s photographs from the Red-Light district in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ernest Bellocq, Storyville Portraits- Photographs from the New Orleans Red-Light District, Circa 1912, (New York: Vintage Books, 2011).

The mind can change a visual image into a touch image. If the viewer has photographed, painted or sketched nudes under studio lighting conditions, one would also remember the odor radiating from the body. So far, the odor has not been included in photographs.

B-3. 061-_E.J._Bellocq,_c.1915

Figure B-2. Photograph, 1912, Ernest Bellocq.

It is important to distinguish between the male and female species. According to the geneticist David Reich, the differences between the sexes are far more profound than those that exist among human populations. The differences reflect more than 100 million years of evolution and adaptation. Males and females differ by huge tracts of genetic material. Males have the Y chromosome that females do not. Females have a second X chromosome that males do not. In addition to anatomical differences, men and women exhibit average differences in size and physical strength. There are also average differences in temperament and behavior, though there are important unresolved questions about the extent to which these differences are influenced by social expectations and upbringing. Though out history, men and women have bartered for sensual pleasure. David Reich, 2018. “Race in The Age of Modern Genetics,” New York Times, Sunday Review, March 25, 2018. also https://reich.hms.harvard.ed

We all know or think we know what the name prostitute implies. As defined by most western dictionaries, it is a person, generally a woman, who engages in sexual activity for payment. It may also be a person who misuses their talents or who sacrifices their self-respect for the sake of personal or financial gain. Many names have been used for the prostitute: call girl, whore, streetwalker, fille de joie, courtesan, hustler, tart, scarlet woman, harlot, trollop, and wench. Not to leave men out, the names; rent boy, gigolo, gent of the night and sporting boy are often heard. Dictionaries fail to list the occasional names that may also apply, such as savior, saint, model and many other positive names. The word “prostitution” can also be used metaphorically to mean debasing oneself or working towards an unworthy cause or “selling out”.

Prostitution is a significant issue in feminist thought and activism. Many feminists are opposed to prostitution, which they see as a form of exploitation of women and male dominance over women. Other feminists hold that prostitution can be a valid choice for the women who choose to engage in it; in this view, prostitution must be differentiated from forced prostitution These feminists also believe that they should support sex worker activism against abuses by both the sex industry and the legal system. In some cultures, temporary marriage often provides men with a religiously sanctioned equivalent to prostitution. It is the use of the terms to describe prostitution that is important, such as misuse, debasement, exploitation which distinguishes it from the sports profession and other professions in which one trades talent for money. How does the use of marriage for geopolitical and financial reasons fit the definition?

In Sweden, the act of selling sex is decriminalized but the purchase of sex is illegal. Canada, Iceland, Norway, France, and a few other countries have also adopted this approach. Although the practice may serve to curtail the sex trade, it may be unfair to the buyer.

Jesus showed mercy to a repentant prostitute and even honored one. (Mathew 26:13), while being very harsh toward arrogant religious men. (Matthew chapter 23).

The term “prostitute” gradually took on a Christian moralist tradition, as being synonymous with debasement of oneself or of others for the purpose of ill-gotten gains.

In some cultures, the profession is viewed differently. These define the courtesan in more positive terms. A courtesan danced, sang, recited poetry and entertained their suitors. Like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often incidental, it was not assured contractually

In addition to visual artworks, many books, movies, and news articles have been written on prostitution and activities associated with the sex trade. Many also become best sellers; the most watched movies and news articles have a large following. Some books have been written both on the working side of prostitution, as well as on the family and residential side. Doloris French, Working: My life as a Prostitute, Victor Gollancz; New Ed eduition (August 1, 1997) A few movies such as Lady L and Pretty Women, offer a more positive, albeit a comic side, to the activity. Lady L, 1965, Carlo Ponti, directed by Peter Ustinov based on a novel by Romain Gary and Pretty Women, 1990, A. Milchan, S. Reuther, G. W. Goldstein, directed by Garry Marshall, written by J. F. Lawton.

We all have a primal need and desire to survive, even the prostitute!

Figure B-3 is an advertisement for a guide to a good night out in London in 1847. Swell’s Night Guides were guidebooks for the fashionable man-about-town and probably published in the 1830s and early 1840s. The book described the clubs, pubs, and bars in which prostitutes were to be found. There were also addresses for ‘Introducing Houses’, where women waited for clients. Some were just the upstairs rooms of pubs, while others masqueraded as respectable businesses, with a brass plaque on the doors claiming the house was that of a doctor, or a milliner, or a dressmaker.

You now have the Internet as a guide! It also appears to be more gender neutral.

B-2. The New Swell's Night Guide 1847 B20101 22

Figure B-3. The New Swell’s Night Guide, 1847, artist unknown, J. Paul printer, British Library, Public Domain.

Figure B-4 is an example of a positive offer by a famous courtesan of Athens. Athenaeus recorded that Phryne was possibly the richest self-made woman of her time. She became so vastly rich at some point in her life that she offered to fund the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes, which had been destroyed by Alexander the Great in 336 BC. She demanded that the words “Destroyed by Alexander, restored by Phryne the courtesan” would be inscribed on the walls. Intimidated by the idea that a woman – and for that matter, not just any woman, but a prostitute – could rebuild what Alexander the Great had destroyed, Phryne’s offer was rejected by the town’s patriarchs and the walls remained in ruin. Although known as a famed courtesan of Athens and because of her extraordinary beauty she also became a model posing for various painters and sculptors. The giving to charity or to public works does not necessarily change the meaning of the name, courtesan or prostitute but gives meaning to the idea of sharing.

B-4. Phryne-at-the-Poseidonia-in-Eleusis

Figure B-4. Phryne at the Poseidonia in Eleusis, Henryk Siemiradzki, 1889, Public Domain.
Saint Petersburg

In researching the history of prostitution, I happened on a book jacket, covering the history of the sex trade. The cover was a 1920’s rendition of the three graces shown in Figure B-5. The artist of the image used on the cover was not listed. The subject matter in the book suggested that the three graces were prostitutes. In Greek mythology they were goddesses. The artist of the piece was by Georges Barbier (1882–1932) one of the great French illustrators of the early 20th century. He went on to design theatre and ballet costumes, to illustrate books, and to produce haute couture fashion illustrations. One is not sure what he was thinking when he made the illustration on figure B-5. Other works by Barbier Figure B-6. suggest an erotic theme to his work but not necessarily related to the sex trade. Like the definitions of words, one has to be careful with images on book jackets as well!

B-5. three graces art deco Barbier

Figure B-5. Three Graces by Georges Barbier.

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