Fin-de-siècle printmakers were always on the lookout for subjects from modern urban life in Paris, and opted surprisingly frequently to depict prostitutes.
The ‘capital of pleasure’ teemed with women offering their bodies for sale.
While politicians and the press denounced France’s moral decay and the danger of lethal venereal diseases, artists focused first and foremost on the subject’s creative potential.
Modern artists, including printmakers, depicted the erotic world of the brothel, which ranged from seedy establishments to opulent palaces.
While preparing his celebrated print series Elles, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec actually spent a considerable time with the girls, who became friends of his.
Encounters on the Street
In addition to brothels, with their government-registered prostitutes, there were ordinary working-class women forced by poverty to sell themselves on the boulevards of Paris.
The large proportion of prostitutes operating in public meant that any well-dressed woman walking on the street alone was potential prey for men on the prowl, as was every passing laundress or milliner girl.
These awkward encounters, frequently between a woman from the lower classes and a wealthy bourgeois, were a rewarding subject for printmakers.
Susan Hollis Clayson, Representations of Prostitution in Early Third Republic France, Ann Arbor 1985
Charles Bernheimer, Figures of Ill Repute. Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France, Cambridge 1989
Alain Corbin, Women for Hire. Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850, Cambridge 1990