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  • In the living room, a brothel scene.

    GUYS Constantine (1802 - 1892)

  • The patron saint's day.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • Blond housewife.

    TOULOUSE-LAUTREC by Henri (1864 - 1901)

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Title: In the living room, a brothel scene.

Author : GUYS Constantine (1802 - 1892)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 22.7 - Width 34.4

Technique and other indications: Brown ink, gray ink, gray wash, graphite, pen

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Michel Urtado

Picture reference: 15-525204 / RF15830-recto

In the living room, a brothel scene.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Michel Urtado

To close

Title: The patron saint's day.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Creation date : 1879

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 26.6 - Width 29.6

Technique and other indications: Monotype, pastel highlights

Storage location: National Picasso Museum Paris website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Picasso Museum in Paris) / René-Gabriel Ojédasite web

Picture reference: 97-021457 / RF35791

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Picasso Museum in Paris) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

To close

Title: Blond housewife.

Author : TOULOUSE-LAUTREC by Henri (1864 - 1901)

Creation date : 1894

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 68 - Width 48

Technique and other indications: Oil on cardboard

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 91-000198 / RF1943-65

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Publication date: January 2016

Historical context

The regulation system and the strategy of confinement

Constantin Guys is the first artist to take an interest in the brothels of his time, a sulphurous subject in which he perceives a certain beauty and, above all, a way of treating the nude with real novelty. He reveals his talents as an observer in works of artistic value such as documentaries.

For his part, Edgar Degas examines the subject in a series of monotypes which are not intended for the public. The prostitutes are here apprehended in a trivial way, without any kindness.

In the XIXe century, prostitutes operate within the framework of the regulatory system which advocates control and surveillance, notably through the registration of girls in a police register. The merchants of love thus become "submissive" or "inset", named after the identity card that was in their possession. The ideal of the project lies above all in the strategy of confinement, the girls operating in bawdy houses, or brothels, where the greatest obedience is demanded of them.

Image Analysis

Inside a brothel

In the wash and ink drawing In the living room, brothel scene, Constantin Guys, the "painter of modern life" as Charles Baudelaire describes it, represents women seated on sofas and chairs, surrounded by bourgeois or rich men in dark suits and top hats. In this salon where one seems to be simply conversing, the women, in bright outfits, are all identical, appearing as prototypes of maidens in the 19th century.e century: plunging necklines, worked hairstyles, large dresses raised revealing the legs, seductive poses, like the young woman on the right, standing, the hand on the hip. In the background, on the left, the doubt is definitely raised: a young woman openly goes up to a room with a client, showing that it is indeed a question of venal love. With a quick and synthetic line, a masterful mastery of light that reveals a keen sense of observation, Constantin Guys is the first artist to glimpse an embodiment of modernity in lupanar scenes.

To represent The patron saint's day, Edgar Degas uses the monotype technique, a process of printing an ink drawing enhanced with pastel on a metal plate. The scene, a sort of family portrait, moreover not very credible, brings together a group of eight girls, naked or only dressed in colored stockings, around an elderly woman dressed in an austere black dress, contrasting sharply with the others. characters, which clearly marks their difference in status. One of the prostitutes kisses her, while the one in the foreground stands, in an ungracious posture, a bouquet of flowers in her hand, echoing the abounding pubic triangle offered to our eyes at the center of the work, and affectionately strokes the hair of his boss. The women are all round, with plump bellies and heavy breasts, with faces quite similar and rather coarse, according to Degas, characteristic of housemaids, in accordance with the naturalistic and scientific theories of the time which tend to demonstrate the physical stigmata of women who prostitute themselves.

Blond housewife, oil on cardboard with monochrome and colored inks, represents a standing prostitute, three-quarter length, lifting her jumpsuit. Toulouse-Lautrec captures the young woman with a virtuoso and fluid stroke, in an extremely spontaneous manner. The work, dated 1893-1894, is a sketch prepared for the vast canvas At the salon in rue des Moulins. The prostitute studied here is on deck for a medical check-up, illustrating the artist's intimate knowledge of brothels and her residents. Every week, a doctor came to give the girls a medical examination. The aim was to screen for venereal disease, pox, gonorrhea and syphilis, which affected 20% of the Parisian population and caused dementia and early death if the disease was not treated early enough. We now know that the hygienic conditions were deplorable, the doctor examining the girls with an uninfected speculum that he reused for all the prostitutes.


The decline of licensed houses

Between 1830 and 1870, the openings of brothels multiplied, reflecting a major social phenomenon to which the three works studied testify.

At a time when Constantin Guys, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec represent the housemaids, the inhuman conditions in which they work as well as the concept of confinement are debated. The girls were in fact forced to pay a large part of what they had earned by offering their bodies to clients, on average seven to eight passes per day, in exchange for accommodation, food and often the purchase of products. beauty (bathrobes, stockings, costumes, perfumes, toilet soaps, candles or cigarettes), which were sold to them at indecent prices by the boss. It quickly became a cog, and these young women literally saw themselves trapped in these houses, in debt to the point of not being able to consider leaving. In the event of a revolt, they were often severely beaten and threatened with having to go to work in slaughterhouses, where life expectancy was very short.

From the 1890s appear the abolitionist discourse and the fight of Marthe Richard. More and more voices are being raised vehemently against brothels, a phenomenon compared to actual trafficking.

In addition, the formula of the brothel no longer suits the expectations of customers of the Belle Époque, in search of new forms of seduction. In Paris, only the big luxury houses with sophisticated sexual services, like The Chabanais, endured and would be very successful until the interwar period.

  • prostitution
  • city
  • women
  • brothels


ADLER Laure, Daily life in brothels (1830-1930), Paris, Hachette, coll. "Daily life", 1990.

CORBIN Alain, The bridal girls: sexual misery and prostitution (19th century), Paris, Flammarion, coll. "Fields: history" (no 118), 1982.

PARENT-DUCHÂTELET Alexandre, Prostitution in Paris in the 19th century, Paris, Le Seuil, coll. "The Historical Universe", 1981.

SHACKELFORD George T. M., REY Xavier (ed.), Degas and the nude, cat. exp. (Boston, 2011-2012; Paris, 2012), Paris, Hazan / Orsay museum, coll. "Exhibition catalogs", 2012.

To cite this article

Catherine AUTHIER, "The brothels"

Video: Inside Americas Secret Neighborhood Brothels


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