Crude and Careful Caresses

Objects of desire and disgust, courtesans function as fleshy pawns. The body of a courtesan becomes a commodity, such lustrous voluptuous flesh a currency. Kowtowing to the patriarchal system and brothel hierarchies, the courtesan is subject to societal manipulation. Existing at the margins of society, the courtesan, ironically, procures clients by fronting the illusion of an acceptable woman of society. Subtle gestures—revealing her racy black boot, alluringly lifting her dress hem or sipping absinth, among others—signal her availability. Such courtesan is a composite of promiscuity and propriety. Her public image is carefully crafted, designed to simultaneously conform to and rebel against societal norms.

Artists over centuries have sought to capture via pigment the realities and fantasies implied by a courtesan’s explicit figuration. I have previously written on the dichotomies of courtesanship in 16th century Venetian courtesan portraits and 18th century Japanese hanging scrolls. Such investigations fixated on the role reversal of courtesans, charting how imaging proprietary leads to the materialization of propriety, as seen in society’s gradual acceptance of past-prostitutes or “actors.” Continuing my exploration into the subject, I visited Splendor and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Exploring the social and cultural dimensions of prostitution, the exhibit illuminated the methods and pictorial means of representing the painful and pleasurable profession. Presenting a series of well-known compositions—Manet’s Olympia, Degas’ Absinthe, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s brothel studies—the comprehensive exhibit additionally showcased lesser known, but equally striking works.

One such, Anquetin’s Femme a la voilette (1891), captures the dichotomies of courtesanship. Viewing the courtesan by third degree, the spectator observes the veiled protagonist through a glass divide. The act of viewing the canvas marks the third level of separation; the spectator observes a beautiful commodity that has been further commoditized through painting. Light refracts off the glass screen, the courtesan’s turquoise garment, and, finally, her paper-white face. Illuminated in flesh, the courtesan outwardly emotes sexual volatility and vitality; yet, her eyes lack luster. Such courtesan may escape her station, ascending the social ladder by marketing her flesh to well-curated pursuers. On the inverse, the depicted may be reserved to her marginalized reality, retreating to absinth to escape her present. As little concrete information is know about Anquetin’s work, the spectator is left to theorize on the mental state of the beautiful prositute.

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