Archive for January 17, 2016

Prostitution in Paris (1850-1910) Prequel of the billet about Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau.

January 17, 2016 29 comments

I bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris when I attended the exhibition Splendeurs et misères. Images de la prostitution 1850-1910. A cocodette seems to be the female of a cocodes, a young Parisian from the Second Empire (1852-1870) who is only interested in showing off and being elegant. I read this short novel right away but before writing about it, I want to share with you what I learnt at this fascinating exhibition. It will help understanding the context of the Feydeau.

Splendeurs et misère was very informative about prostitution in the French society from 1850 to 1910 and how it influenced painters and writers. There were gradations in prostitution. The “happy few” if I may say, were the cocottes, the highly privileged courtesans like Nana in Zola’s novel. The painting of Blanche d’Antigny, who inspired the character of Nana was displayed.

La femme aux bijoux (Courbet)

La femme aux bijoux (Courbet)

At the time, keeping a cocotte was a proof of wealth and virility for a man. It was a social status. These women were fashionable, rich and extravagant. The papers related their parties and described their clothing.

Second rank were courtesans. Like the prostitutes living in brothels, they were listed and the police kept the records straight and implemented health controls. They had business cards that said for example “Massages hygiéniques. Massages suédois. English spoken”. English spoken? Actually, there were a lot of English aristocrats having fun in Paris at the time. Victorian etiquette wasn’t relaxing back home. Now I’m not so surprised that Odette, in Swann’s Way by Proust, peppers her sentences with English words. She’s a former cocotte and I suppose Proust did it on purpose.

Third rank were prostitutes in brothels. That part was mostly illustrated with paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Femme tirant son bas (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

Femme tirant son bas (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec)

He did series of paintings in famous maisons closes and he was friends with a lot of prostitutes. He painted them in their everyday life. Relaxing, having a bath, chatting, waiting on customers. We also had the chance to see the Prince of Wales’s custom-made love seat.


It stayed in his favourite Parisian brothel and was designed to accommodate his heavy body and allow threesomes. When you think of the hard time the current Prince of Wales was given for his long term mistress…

And then there were the others, women who had jobs that didn’t pay enough and resorted to prostitution to feed the children. They were linen maids or sales clerks. As linen maids, they had the opportunity to enter houses. (Keep that in mind for next billet) and as sales clerks, they were put on display behind the shop’s window and men had the chance to approach them. Now think about Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women and Monica who works at a shop and becomes Edmund’s wife…The implications of working in a shop ring differently.

The theatre and the opera were also an opportunity for men to meet women and for women to find a protector or at least customers. The bal of the opea was famous for that and even on normal nights, available women were lingering in the stairs and in the hallways to catch a suitor.




It was explained that dancers of the opera Garnier were fair game for the men who had a subscription at the opera. They had the right to visit the dancers after the shows and hit on them. The dancers were willing to find a protector to leave misery behind. It gives another perspective on Degas’s series of paintings about dancers, no?

Available women waited on the streets or could be seen on the boulevards at nightfall. This is why they are called Belles de nuit (night beauties) in French.

L'attente (Beraud)

L’attente (Beraud)

Sur le boulevard (Louis Valtat)

Sur le boulevard (Louis Valtat)

Gas lamppost revolutionized prostitution as the women were able to better show off their assets. To attract customers, they would lift their dresses a bit to show an ankle or show off their derriere.


Le lampadère (Jean-Louis Forain)

The other ways to find a prostitute was to go to a café. It was not appropriate for women to stay in a café without a chaperone. So, when a woman was sitting there, drinking alcohol, she sent the message that she was available for paid sex. Like here in Degas’s paintings:


L’absinthe (Degas)

Femme à la terrasse d'un café (Degas)

Femme à la terrasse d’un café (Degas)

I wonder about Albertine, from In Search of Lost Time. Her freedom had always seemed odd to me. But now, I’m pretty sure she was selling her charms. She moved in with the Narrator and she was spending time in cafés with her girlfriends.

The law regarding selling alcohol was changed during the Second Empire. It resulted in the development of specialized cafés where women made themselves available for paid sex. They called themselves The Bees or other nicknames and recruited waitresses. They were solid competition for the women in brothels who were monitored by the police.

The exhibition made the link between painting and literature, quoting Balzac (Splendeurs et misère des courtisanes), Zola (Nana), Baudelaire, Dumas (La dame aux camélias)

This fascinating exhibitions showed that new inventions like photography and cinema were quickly used for pornography. A “red room” showed the visitors that our century has nothing to teach to the 19thC in that matter.

It also showed the miserable side of prostitution and the ravages of syphilis. There is no testimony from women. All we have is seen through the men’s eyes. I bet it’s not as ugly as it felt for the women.

Honestly, I didn’t know that prostitution had infiltrated society that way. It seems like it was everywhere and a component of it. It was, let’s say, a fact of life. It was extremely informative and it gave me another perspective on the paintings and literature of the time.

%d bloggers like this: