Painted Ladies

"The Naked Maja", c. 1800
Francisco de Goya

"Nana", 1877
Edouard Manet
Prostitutes have been the subjects of and/or modeled for many masterpieces by world-renowned painters throughout history. We've already seen some of these, but here are a few more examples:

Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) is famed in part for his paintings of Majas--loose, carefree common women of questionable repute who dressed in gaudy fashion. Two of his paintings portray Majas sitting on balconies, a typical place for prostitutes to attract customers. Behind them stand shadowy male figures, probably pimps. These representations suggest that Goya saw the Majas as prostitutes--which many surely were. And art historians believe that the model for "The Naked Maja", Goya's most famous work, was the mistress of his sponsor, Spain's chief minister Manuel Godoy. Nudity was rare in Spanish art at that time, and so controversial were the "Majas" that in 1815 Goya was called before the Spanish Inquisition to explain them. He was released unharmed, however.

In 1877, French artist Edouard Manet (1832-1883) exhibited "Nana", a lighthearted, life-size portrayal of an adorable prostitute in undergarments, standing before her fully clothed gentleman caller. The painting, rejected by the official Salon exhibition (perhaps because of the scandal caused earlier by Manet's portraits of Victorine Meurend), was displayed in a fashionable shop window--where it predictably caused another furor. The model for it was the popular courtesan Henriette Hauser. Manet was probably inspired by his novelist friend Emile Zola's descriptions of his upcoming prostitution novel Nana, which was published in 1880. Despite all controversy (or because of it) Manet was awarded the Legion of Honor in 1882, and his works were highly valued by the end of his life. The prostitutes of his portraits paved the way for artists to express themselves openly on real-world topics.

"A Modern Olympia", 1874
Paul Cezanne
Art begets art. One of Manet's followers, the impressionist artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), created several goodnatured spoofs of "Olympia", each titled "A Modern Olympia". The one shown here more-or-less faithfully portrays the prostitute with her cat and servant, but adds a clothed gentleman caller. "Olympia" influenced the works of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and in 1891 he painted a straightforward reproduction of it. His appreciation for "Olympia" may have stemmed from his own experiences with mistresses, one of whom--"Anna the Javanese"--the famed art dealer Ambroise Vollard found for him. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) created his "Parody of Olympia" in 1901. Not only did he add himself and a friend to the picture, but he placed Olympia's black servant in the bed instead of Victorine Meurend!

"The Demoiselles of Avignon", 1907
Pablo Picasso
Picasso's real-life adventures in brothels inspired him to paint "The Demoiselles of Avignon", which he referred to as "my bordello". This breakthrough image of five prostitutes was the first to exhibit the characteristic distortions of reality that would soon evolve into cubism. It is often hailed as the first work of truly modern art.

U.S. artist John Sloan (1871-1951), well known for his paintings, etchings, and lithographs of daily life in New York City, was clearly sympathetic to prostitutes. His 1907 painting "The Haymarket" unabashedly shows prostitutes entering a famous dance hall; in the 1908 lithograph "Sixth Avenue and Thirtieth Street", a wealthy prostitute or madam summons the courage to stride confidently through the street despite stares from onlookers; and in the 1913 courtroom scene "Before Her Maker and Her Judge", a gentle prostitute faces prosecution by obviously overbearing and malevolent police authorities. Sloan's paintings also feature women in fancy dress and feathered hats. Were they prostitutes or merely "bachelor girls"? Art experts have debated the issue, but the very ambiguity of these paintings speaks volumes: to Sloan, the question was irrelevant. Prostitutes or not, these women were worthy subjects for his work.

"The Haymarket", 1907
John Sloane

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