Final Essay: Holy Prostitution
Peut-être est-il fée, est-il dieu?
~Baudelaire, Fleurs du mal
Like the nearly 50,000 Parisian Salon attendees on any given Sunday, we are free to scrutinize Manet’s offerings, and critics flock to his canvases as they once did to “Room M” where his canvases were hung. Edmond About in 1864 dismissed Manet’s art, writing, “This young man, who paints in ink and is constantly dropping his inkwell, will soon not even exasperate the bourgeoisie.” He predicted, “He will spell out his lovely caricatures of angels in vain; the public will go its own way, saying, ‘There is Manet amusing himself again; let’s go look at some paintings’” (rpt in Cachin 199). Yet we continue to return again and again to Manet’s enigmatic canvases, wondering, Modernist or Impressionist; Socialist or Republican; Catholic or Atheist; Feminist or Chauvinist; Revolutionary or Conformist? Like the distinctive lines Manet used to demarcate his subjects on his canvases, the critics attempt to fit him in their binary worlds which reflect the prevalent colors of his paintings: black and white. Few take the time to look for the “pervasive greens, vivid blues, rust-reds...which dominate delicious pale yellows, pinks and peach tones” Anne Coffin Hanson identifies as “startling;” splashes of grey which float across his canvas as frequently as his other brilliant strokes of color (162).
Following his rejection of Absinthe Drinker by the Salon in 1859 as well as criticism of this piece by his mentor Couture, from 1860 through 1865 Manet executed a number of paintings which are deliberately self-referential and highly political. After his argument with Couture regarding the painting, he expressed his frustration by stating, “I was silly enough to make a few concessions and foolishly laid in my picture according to his formula. That’s all over now.” Shortly thereafter, while visiting a popular resort on the Seine, he said to Proust, “It seems that I must paint a nude. Very well, I shall paint one,” but added he would paint “people like those you see down there,” indicating the modern Parisians they were watching (Wilson-Bareau, ed. 34-35).
The dialogue between these modern paintings, which includes Young Woman Reclining, in Spanish Costume; Portrait of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s Mistress Reclining; L’Dejuner sur l’herbe, The Dead Christ and Angels, Olympia and Christ Scourged is remarkably delicate. Using this series of paintings as framework, I will concentrate primarily on the pieces displayed at the Salon of ’65, Christ Scourged and Olympia to explore the subtlety seditious politics of these paintings.
The images he painted during these five years visually play off one another, and the viewer must understand that while Manet alludes to masters including Titian, Rembrandt and Goya in this series of paintings, in his act of interlacing the feminine subject with modernity and Christianity, he also offers clever political criticism as well. Paul Hayes Tucker in his introduction to Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe explains Manet’s careful selection of his canvas size for the painting, noting that Manet utilizes the massive canvas usually reserved for history, religious or allegorical mythological paintings (11). The size of his fete-champtier, which is almost twice the size of Giorgione’s painting upon which Manet bases his work, alerts his audience to the import he placed on the subject matter (14). “Meditate upon me,” his canvas proclaims.
Susan Stromber points out that size is also relevant when viewing Manet’s 1862 Young Woman Reclining, in Spanish Costume and Portrait of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s Mistress Reclining as pendant pieces, noting that Manet’s representation of feminine “became entwined” in his expression of modernism (Sondergaaurd, Ed 99). Stromber notes that in addition to being painted the same year on nearly the same size of canvases, they are similar in composition, recall Goya’s style and both have “deliberative, recognizably artificial settings,” thereby predicting Olympia and Christ Scourged, which also must be viewed as pendant pieces to be fully appreciated (117). Although the subject matter differs substantially on Christ Scourged and Olympia, we see similar canvas sizes and tonal values on these complimentary pieces.
Stromber argues that Baudelaire’s Mistress reveals Manet’s interest in Napoleonic politics since Duvall is wearing a crinoline, the fashion introduced to France in part by Napoleon III’s Spanish wife Eugenie, as depicted in Winterhalter’s 1855 The Empress Eugenie with her Ladies-In-Waiting (103). Ross King also explores the political nuances evident in Young Woman Reclining. In 1862 Napoleon III entangled himself in Mexico by sending 3000 soldiers to rescue “a whole continent from anarchy and misery,” who were then defeated at Puebla by Benito Juarez’ troops (68). By borrowing from Goya’s Maja, Manet’s Spanish-clad woman echoes Goya’s criticism of Napoleon Bonaparte’s colonialism thereby offering his own criticism of Napoleon III’s expansionist intervention in Mexico. Eisman points out that Goya’s traditionally-clad aristocratic women subversively illustrate how the Spanish women stood in opposition to the Napoleonic regime in the early 19th century by attiring themselves in traditional Spanish clothing.
Within a year, Napoleon III had sent an additional 30,000 troops to Mexico following the defeat at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo, so it is no surprise that Manet would continue his political objection of Napoleon’s oppressive policies in the other paintings of this period (King 68). By 1863, Napoleon had also enacted restrictions at home as well, forbidding the singing of the Revolution’s call to arms, La Marseillaise. Additionally, books, which were required a license for publication, were more frequently rejected by the censors, and Victor Hugo, fearful of approbation fled France when he was overheard referring to the Emperor as a “disgusting dwarf” (67). The Salon that year, with as many paintings submitted as there were registered prostitutes in Paris, had been dubbed the Salon of Venuses by Theophile Gautier, who predicted that Cabanel’s Birth of Venus “would be turned into colored lithographs to decorate the boudoirs of low-class prostitutes” (77, 78). Gautier’s comment played off the increasing problem in a city which had 13 percent of its 1.7 million inhabitants working as prostitutes, who, like the literature, were required to undergo strict governmental scrutiny before being allowed to be presented for public consumption (79-80). Only 5,000 of the working prostitutes had complied. In January of the same year, shortly before the troops were deployed to Mexico, artists, too, were feeling the restrictions imposed by Napoleon when Comte Nieuwerkerke, the Directeur-General de Musees and head of the Salon announced that only three works could be submitted to the Salon of ’63 by each artist, an announcement that would eventually lead to the Salon de Refusés where Manet exhibited his highly criticized L’Dejuner sur l’herbe.
With its blatantly stimulating sexual content, how did Cabanel’s Salon-sanctioned Venus differ from Manet’s rejected nude? Manet’s inclusion of a recognizable prostitute was poorly received. Critic Louis Étienne noted his model was “a commonplace woman of the demi-monde, as naked as can be” (rpt in King 88). Her nudity, since it was offered for display at the Salon of Venuses, was not the issue. Ernest Chesneau noted the underlying issue, the immorality of an unchaste woman “seated in the woods, surrounded by students in overcoats” (rpt in King 88). John House notes that modern dress along side a nude woman “was acceptable in the semiprivate realm of prints designed for a gentleman’s portfolio, but not in a public fine art painting” (House 77). Étienne also referred to Manet’s female as a bréda, which House explains is among the lowest class of prostitutes. House also points out two critics identified the men beside her as étudiants. Manet thereby subtly referenced an 1860 pamphlet which warned “well-brought-up, innocent sons of the bourgeoisie” to avoid the corruption of the “night life and the demimondaines of the left bank” (House 85). Indeed, Manet himself seemingly makes the connection with the pamphlet by placing the grenouille, the student slang term for prostitute, in the foreground of the left side of the painting, thereby placing both frog and prostitute on the “left bank” of his canvas (86). The representation of prostitutes on canvas was reprehensible as early as 1861 when Maxime Du Camp wrote a review of Auguste Glaize’s Misery the Procuress in which he was troubled by the infusion of the prostitutes into the everyday life of the Parisian, arguing that “the lower classes of our society were not unknowingly perpetuating the conflict which began at the end of the last century” (rpt in House 80). Du Camp’s double negative alludes to prostitutes’ willful participation in the French Revolution of the late 18th century, placing the modern Parisian demi-monde among the potential instruments of revolution in the 1860’s.
Gautier points out Manet’s Christ is as dirty as the prostitutes which Du Camp wrote of a few years earlier. Although it would be easy to associate Manet’s dirty Christ with Renan’s recently published work Vie de Jesus in which he represents Mary Magdalene as a hysterical woman who, by refusing to accept Christ’s death, perpetrated the myth of His resurrection. Jane Mayo Roos in her reading of Dead Christ with Angels, however, maintains that the painting is highly Biblical instead. Roos points out that Manet began his painting sometime after November ’63 when he had commented to his friend Abbé Hurel that he would base his Christ “with the angels, a variation on the scene of the Magdalen at the sepulcher according to Saint John” (84). According to Beth Archer Brombert, Renan’s discussion of the Magdalen enraged the readers when he wrote: “Let us say that the powerful imagination of Mary of Magdala played a capital role in this event. Divine power of love! Sacred moment in which the passion of a hallucinating woman gave the world a resuscitated God!” (rpt in Brombert 149). Brombert further points out that even one of Manet’s critics had associated Renan with the Christ: “Do not miss M. Manet’s Christ or the Poor Miner pulled out of a peat bog, painted for M. Renan” (151). Manet inscribes the scriptural reference on the stone located in the lower right hand corner of the canvas, which in part reads, “And she [Mary Magdalen] saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain” (John 22:12). If Manet had chosen to depict Renan’s Christ, the painting, Roos explains, “would be wholly impossible as a subject: according to the Life of Jesus, there had been no angels and there had been no resurrecting Christ” (87). She further maintains that rather than following the prescripts of the Academy which insisted on beautiful, idealistic representations of Christ, Manet was painting a tormented, suffering Christ as Counter-Reformation artists had been instructed to do (88). Michael Paul Driskel points out that in December 1864, Pope Pius IX formally condemns the naturalistic representation of Christ (49). While Manet’s Christ of ’63, though darkened by his thick application of black paint, has an idealized physique with muscular legs and well-defined arms, his Christ of ’65, following the Pope’s decree, is weak with slack muscles of a defeated man.
Viewed beside The Dead Toreador in the Salon of ‘64, Roos reminds us Manet’s Christ reassures his audience that in Christ’s death we have the promise of resurrection. Although he cut apart the canvas following the harsh criticism it received, we can see from what remains of The Torreador that Manet could have been influenced by Il Correvagio’s The Death of the Virgin, which has hung in the Louvre since 1671 where he frequently copied as a student in Couture’s studio. Since Manet frequently drew his subject matter from other masters, it is possible he would have derived his work from Il Correvagio’s Virgin since, like so many of Manet’s paintings, it had met with such criticism that it now hangs in the Louvre after being rejected by the Church of Santa Maria della Scala at Trastevere because it was deemed indecent (Gowing 290). Typically, the Virgin is depicted as a young woman who, according to Catholic tradition, would have not been victim of the aging process which has been part of the curse since Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden. In addition, the Madonna, rather than being depicted as a dead mortal, is usually represented at the moment of ascension where she is to be seated beside the throne of God. Salon visitors, who would have been familiar with The Dead Virgin, would have at least subconsciously recognized the transverse angle, the hand flung across the lifeless chest, the outstretched arm, and the red hue of the toreador’s muleta which mirrors Il Correvagio’s Virgin in her red robe, a subtle reminder of Christ’s resurrecting power. Although Théoph Thoré’s 1864 defense of Manet’s Christ didn’t include a comparison with Il Correvagio’s Virgin, Roos points out Thoré was critical of his peers’ inability to detect Manet’s spirituality as he offered “a sort of gibe at the bashful admirers of discreet and tidy painting” who was “making fun of Parisian Pharisees” (Thore rpt in Roos 89).
Driskel in “Naturalism and the Politics of Christian Art” likewise argues that the spirituality of Manet’s paintings cannot be overlooked and that his Christ Scourged and Olympia, like The Dead Christ with Angels and The Dead Toreador, must be viewed as pendant pieces to be fully appreciated, stating critics “tend to relegate the religious half of this visual dyad to the position of a footnote,” noting that Manet’s Christ more closely resembles what was identified as the Republican Christ (14). Le Christ Républicain, a pamphlet issued in June of 1848 describes him thusly: “The republican Christ is the God of the poor and of the worker, the God of the oppressed…the God of this new class that one denies, that one steals from, that one calumnies atrociously and calls vulgar or plebian” (rpt in Driskel 51). Manet’s Christ, covered with what had been identified as soot, would have been a “God of the oppressed,” a figure which, led by a prostitute, would have been likely to have joined in a revolution against the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Although Driskel argues that the pieces are pendant, he spends little time analyzing the secondary work of this visual dyad.
How could a prostitute be considered a figure of Revolution? In order to better understand the discourse of politics surrounding the prostitute, one must look at the history of prostitution from the beginning of the nineteenth century. If we look towards Delacroix’ Liberty Leading the People, we can see artistically how the prostitute was an important figure of revolution. An idealistic figure with her left breast exposed, she evokes Medieval and Early Renaissance Madonna figures, yet rather than nurturing a single child, she leads an angry mob which represents all classes of society through the street of Paris. In later Salon representation, this commingling of modern setting with nudity was scorned, but in 1831 when exhibited at the Salon, the public embraced the image which allegorically depicts the riot in Paris on July 28, 1830 in which the people tried to reestablish the Republic; following the riot, Charles X abdicated and Louise Philippe assumed power. Delacroix’ canvas represented the revolutionary ideal of “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and the French public embraced the promise of renewed freedom from the July Monarchy. Jann Matlock in Scenes of Seduction: Prostitution, Hysteria, and Reading Difference in Nineteenth-Century France explains that Parisian prostitutes played an important role in the 1830 revolution following the April 14th decree by the Police Prefect who proclaimed that “Prostitutes are expressly prohibited from appearing in public,” and it was in the very same area in which they had once practiced their trade that the riots a few months later began (60). Pamphlets from the time of the edict through the July Revolution lifted up the prostitute as an example of the oppressed people, inciting rebellion against the tyrannical Bourbon regime. In fact, preceding the revolution, the pamphlets represented four percent of all printed material from April through July, and every pamphlet printed during the ten weeks prior all address the plight of the prostitute (79). The July Revolution promised not only to free the prostitute from the restrictive measures, but to also free art and literature from censorship (62-3).
The decree, issued by Bourbon Regent Charles X, followed on the heels of the dissolution of Parliament on the 18th of March and reflected the discourse surrounding prostitution from the first part of the nineteenth century. Matlock notes that following the restoration of the monarchy, the prostitute became intense object of study by physicians. Many declared prostitution to be an asset to society, an expression whereby it could be cured of the dangerous repression of sexual desire both for the male who frequented the prostitutes as well as for the young woman who became a prostitute herself, whereas another camp argued that sexual indulgence lead to insanity and hysteria (5). Since Mary Magdalene is identified as a prostitute according to Catholic tradition, Renan’s 1863 publication identifying Christ’s resurrection as a result of hysteria serves to remind the reader of the association between censorship, revolution, and the increasing, all-encompassing restrictions of the July Monarchy. One French physician, Pierre Briquet, suggested that rather than the sexual expression itself leading to hysteria, it was the living conditions which forced women into prostitution that drove them insane, placing the onerous onto the wealthy, exploitative bourgeoisie. Yet another group suggested that the wonton behavior of the prostitute was a result of inherent degeneracy (6). The policing of literature, censorship which had become increasingly more controlling, was in part a result of these studies since, as Matlock explains, sexually charged novels “allegedly awakened affection and sensitized the overly impressionable female nature to the world of sexual experience” (9).
Following the July Revolution, authors like Dumas and Hugo flourished immediately, but the prostitute wasn’t as fortunate. When Hugo was able to produce his play Marion de Lorme in 1831 which told the story of a prostitute, he was criticized by Menche de Loisne because de Lorme was not a reformed woman: “But what has this woman in fact done to redeem her past? Does she feel remorse?” he wonders. “Does she drag herself, a repentant Madgalen crying to the foot of the cross?” he asks (rpt in Matlock 66). Hugo’s play was not re-formed from its previously rejected form to receive license for publication under the July Monarchy, but the prostitute, unlike the literature which continues to represent her as a sympathetic character, must change to be acceptable under the new regime. She must recant her wonton ways and become a moral member of society to no longer experience public censure. Within months following the revolution which they had helped fight, prostitutes are placed under increasingly restrictive measures as Louis-Philip settles into his reign.
Following the abdication of Louis-Philip on February 24, 1848, Tuileries and the palace became what would later be described as “an immense orgy” (rpt in Matlock 92). Flaubert twenty years later would describe the scene: “In the waiting room, upright on a pile of clothing, stood a fille publique posed as a statue of Liberty—immobile, wide-eyed, terrifying” (rpt in Matlock 92-3). The prostitute figuratively once again led the people toward freedom as she had done in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Recounting the night of revelry between 1850-53, historian Daniel Stern associates the figure of the prostitute, the one who had been lifted up as a statute of Liberty, as representative of all impoverished, struggling Parisians: “It was a fille de joie. They march past her with all the signs of profound respect.” The passersby venerate the figure as they would a sacred relic. “Sad image of the capricious laws of fate: the prostitute is the living sign of the degradation of the poor and the corruption of the rich.” She has taken upon herself the burden of the masses. Stern adds, “Insulted by [the rich]…she has the right to her hour of triumph in all of our revolutionary saturnalia” (rpt in Matlock 91-2).
While the number of registered prostitutes in Paris in the mid 1860’s was 5,000, the unregistered number was much higher. By 1830, the estimated nine thousand clandestine prostitutes a decade earlier had increased to as many as twenty-two thousand, and within twenty years, had increased to an estimated thirty-four thousand, the same years in which Manet began exploring his new style which was rife with images of reclining women, including the prostitute Meurent (CITATION). Since suspected prostitutes were denied legal recourse, women were subject to imprisonment without a trial: an accusation was enough for arrest, and often the women would languish in prison for years (Matlock 22). The prostitute for Manet, like his artistic progenitors, was a natural choice to represent the 118,000 people who were, according to Theodore Reff, listed as Parisian indigents, especially since an additional 10,000 Parisians were arrested for homelessness (171).
By 1843, Saint-Lazare Prison held between 1,250 and 1,300 women, including those who had been arrested for prostitution (97). Increasingly restrictive measures were put in place in part because of the work by Alexandere Parent-Duchâtelet who began an extensive study of prostitution in 1829. His endeavors initially were to redeem “those prostitutes whose hearts were not yet entirely perverted,” those, who like Magdalen, could find redemption in Christ (rpt in Matlock 23). Parent argued for increased regulation of the trade, encouraging the government to establish houses where the women could be protected, regulated, and reformed. The sense of fear expressed by Du Camp in his review of the Salon of 1861 regarding integration of prostitutes into daily Parisian life echoes Parent’s concerns as well: “They return to society,” Parent complains, “they surround us…they insinuate themselves into our houses and gain access to our homes” (rpt in Matlock 27). In 1863, Jules de Goncourt is wary of the penitent prostitute: “In my opinion, none of them escapes from the class of prostitutes. They offer you nothing but a woman of the brothel. Whether they emerge from it or not, it seems to me that they smell of it for ever” (rpt in Clark 110). According to de Goncourt, prostitutes are irredeemable.
This same sense of fear was reiterated when Olympia and Christ were exhibited in the Salon. In his May 4,1865 review, Alfred Sensier wrote: “These two canvases are the two victims of the salon; nothing can convey the spectator’s initial astonishment, then their anger or fear” (rpt in Clark 143). To protect the moral Parisian from the source of this “anger or fear,” like a book being censored by the prefect, Parent proposed that the prostitute be required to wear distinct clothing to aid in the Restoration’s policing of their bodies, thereby allowing women and children to be protected from exposure to their corrupting influence (26, 29). While Parent’s study was written for the purpose of policing and rehabilitating prostitutes, Du Camp’s discussion of prostitution which was included in his review of the Salon, reflects how prostitution was not just a social issue but an artistic one as well. Delacroix’ depiction of Liberty had introduced the strong prostitute into the Salon, but the next generation of critics fought to remove her presence. Manet, by reintroducing an identifiable Parisian prostitute into the Salon after he had been criticized so sharply for doing so only a few years before, likewise fought to keep the prostitute as a symbol ever before the eyes of the public. Moreover, he placed her alongside a Christ whose resurrection, according Renan, was a product of a passionate, “hallucinating woman” (rpt in Brombert 151). Manet’s depiction of Victorine Meurent in ’63 and ‘65, naked on both canvases, frees her of the restrictive, identifying signs Parent proposed. She is liberated from the mark of her position, thereby regaining her individual, distinct identity. And she defies us with her direct stare to dare place her back into the confines of this demarcating attire.
While advocating additional policing of the prostitute, Parent abjures the male’s responsibility: “The administration,” he states, “cannot make men virtuous; it cannot correct their judgment and repress the impetuosity of the passions, which speak too loudly to leave men conscious of their duty” (rpt in Matlock 30). Not only are men unable to be policed by the government, compelled to be “virtuous” members of society through external administrative forces; according to Parent, they are led astray by the wonton passions of the prostitute to abandon “their duty.” Just like Adam in the Garden of Eden, the Parisian man who wishes not to be held accountable for his own actions, pointing to the woman as the cause of his fall: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat” (Genesis 3:12). Yet Manet’s prostitute looks defiantly at the 23,000 daily Salon viewers, daring each one to take their own measure of responsibility in her plight. The viewer’s gaze is neither specifically male nor female, but those who would normally had been protected from her presence by the demarcating garments which she had to wear, those which Du Camp complained she had been allowed to set aside as she easily interacted with the moral Parisian men, women and children. Parent appeals for policing by playing upon a society’s worst fear of rape, yet oddly it is not an external marauder who is threatening, but the Parisian man himself. If denied his sexual expression in the arms of a prostitute, Parent writes; “He will not appeal to courtesans, indeed, but will instead pervert your daughters and your servants,” adding that “the most innocent and the most virtuous will be the ones he will choose to besiege and against whom he will use every imaginable means of seduction” (rpt in Matlock 30). Thus, Parent ironically lifts up the body of the prostitute as Christ was lifted up for “the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). Yet on Manet’s canvases, she is stripped just as Christ had been as he was mocked by the soldiers. We look upon the prostitute, alongside a dirty Christ, and the question remains: Is he “a fairy, a god?”
Chat séraphique, chat étrange,
En qui tout est, comme en un ange,
Aussi subtil qu'harmonieux!
Seraphic cat, singular cat,
In whom, as in angels, all is
As subtle as harmonious!
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