Prostitutes have been the subjects of and/or modeled for many masterpieces by
world-renowned painters throughout history. Here are just 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.
"The Naked Maja", c. 1800
Francisco de Goya
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.
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--sans pants!
"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!
"A Modern Olympia", c. 1870?
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.
"The Demoiselles of Avignon" (detail), 1907
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.
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Copyright © 1999-2011 Blake Linton Wilfong
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