The Rue des Moulins dates back to 1624 and is located in the first arrondissement of the city. Two windmills once stood on the hill – hence Rue des Moulins and nearby Rue Saint-Honoré which is dedicated to the patron saint (Honorius of Amiens) of millers, bakers, pastry chefs, and confectioners. One of the windmills, the Moulin Radet was dismantled and rebuilt at the junction of Rue Lepic and Rue Girardon in Monmartre. The notoriety of the street was established during the last decade of the nineteenth century. That was largely due to the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a post-Impressionist painter and illustrator whose immersion in the theatrical life of Paris yielded a series of provocative images of the extravagant 1890s life-style of the capital. Prostitution is central to his oeuvre.
Prostitutes play a central role in the European novel of the nineteenth-century century. There are Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Dickens’s Nancy, Collins’s Mercy Merrick, Gaskell’s Ruth, Hugo’s Fantine, Dumas’s Marguerite Gautier, De Maupassant’s Elisabeth Rousset, Zola’s Nana, Fontane’s Effi Briest, Wedekind’s Lulu, to mention but a few of the ‘fallen women’ that appear in realistic and naturalistic novels of the age. Prostitutes inspired many negative stereotypes. However, as victims of a culture that marginalized her, the prostitute offered a perfect vehicle for writers to criticize bourgeois hypocrisy. The interest in the world of brothels and courtisanes extends well into the twentieth century and is not limited to literature.
Hungarian photographer and filmmaker George Brassaï (real name: Gyula Halász) published photographs of brothels in his 1935 book Voluptés de Paris. In 1952, Robert Miquet (using the pseudonym Romi) published a voluminous illustrated work on Maisons closes: l’histoire, l’art, la littérature, les moeurs. Released in 2002, the Parisian Musée de l’Érotisme exhibits Polissons et galipettes (Rascals and somersaults), Michel Reilhac’s compilation of film clips from silent pornographic films made between 1905 and 1930 in France that were intended to be shown in brothels.
Ever since the works of Titian and Giorgione, paintings of brothels and prostitutes appear frequently over the centuries. In many cases the bond between artist and sitter was a close one. Margaret Lemans was of Flemish descent and had settled in London some time in 1629. Little is known of her life, even the spelling of her name is in doubt – but her image will last. She was probably still in her teens and working as a prostitute when Anthony van Dyck made Margaret his mistress allowing her to preside over his grand properties in Blackfriars and Eltham where he entertained Charles I and many noble patrons.
Van Dyck has been the most successful immigrant artist ever to arrive on British soil. The English were so overwhelmed by his talent that they were willing to forgive his Catholicism. In fact, most of his clients were Puritans and nobody more so than Philip, Lord Wharton, who bought no less than twenty paintings of the master. While noble women were queuing up to have their portrait painted by Van Dyck, the master himself was completely taken in by an ordinary Flemish girl who had been forced to make a living out of prostitution. He painted her image over and again. Twelve of the paintings for which she posed survive, five of which are portraits. It is not the subject matter that is relevant in this context, but the intimacy between artist and model. It appears that such a caring relationship is in no way exceptional. Artists identify with prostitutes because the creative mind tends to be abused by society in a similarly exploitative and disposable fashion. There is an element of mutual recognition, the artist realizing that Anch’io sono [una] puttana.
Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864 into the provincial interbred aristocracy of Albi, in south-western France. At the age of thirteen, he broke his left femur, and a year later, he broke his right, after which his legs stopped growing (possibly a consequence of pyknodysostosis, a genetic disease of the bone, related to his family’s consanguineous marriages). During his long convalescence, he spent much of his time drawing and painting. He persuaded his parents to allow him to go to Paris. In 1882 he entered the atelier of Léon Bonnat, transferring later to Fernand Cormon’s studio where he met his lifelong friends Louis Anquetin, Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh.
His first illustrations were published in 1886 in the Montmartrois journals Le Courrier français and Le Mirliton. His subsequent work is intimately connected to this lively Parisian district where he focused on the life of the dance halls, cafés and concert halls. He created his first lithograph, the famous poster ‘La Goulue’, for the Moulin Rouge in December 1891 and went on to design a further twenty-nine posters as well as hundreds of prints, drawings and paintings.
Catalan-born bookmaker Joseph Oller (inventor of ‘Parimutuel’ betting which spread across most race tracks around the world) lived in Paris for most of his life. From 1876 onwards, he focused his attention on the entertainment industry. He opened various venues such as Fantaisies Oller, La Bombonnière, Théâtre des Nouveautés, Nouveau Cirque, Montagnes Russes, and Olympia (the first music-hall in Paris). In 1889 he inaugurated the famous Moulin Rouge. He also managed Le Jardin de Paris, a café-concert on the Champs Élysées, which was the summer outpost of the Moulin Rouge. Both establishments are associated with Jane Avril and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Lautrec portrayed Jane’s debut at the Jardin. A beautiful and extremely thin girl with pale skin and tresses of red gold hair, Jane Avril soon became infamous for performing the cancan at the Jardin. Lautrec had been employed to produce an advertising illustration. The couple, in spite of their different backgrounds, soon became close friends. Jane (originally named Jeanne) was said to be the daughter of a courtesan, with an absent father rumoured to have been a foreign aristocrat. Her youth was an unhappy and abusive one. She left home when she was thirteen years old, soon afterwards ending up in the care of the Salpêtrière psychiatric hospital in Paris, a desperate place where many ‘bad’ women were imprisoned without trial or sent by their families. Throughout her life she suffered from nervous disorders. These however did not interrupt a glittering career.
Lautrec painted her time and again, and in various moods and poses, glamorous, graceful, melancholic, tired, or nervous. It is doubtful that the two ever became lovers. Lautrec had his own inhibitions and insecurities. In 1899, suffering from the effects of alcoholism and syphilis, he was institutionalized for several months at an asylum near Paris but he returned to drinking soon after his release. On 9 September 1901, he suffered a stroke and died at his mother’s estate, the Château de Malromé, aged thirty-six.
For a period Lautrec resided at no. 24 Rue des Moulins. This was the address of a luxurious brothel, a ‘grande tolérance’ consisting of ornate rooms including a Chinese salon, a Gothic chamber, and a domed Moorish Hall. It was a well-run business, operated to strict rules of conduct, and proper schedules. Despite his aristocratic upbringing, Toulouse-Lautrec found a way to accept and feel accepted by the entertainment industry. Sex workers were his friends, and he treated them as equals.
He produced more than forty paintings and drawings of the inhabitants of Rue des Moulins. It must be the most famous brothel in the world.
By the end of the nineteenth century, there were some 34,000 professional ‘filles à numéro’ (prostitutes) registered in Paris. The brothels were licensed and monitored by the police, while sex workers were subject to routine medical inspections by the ‘dispensaire de salubrité’. The majority of women were forced into prostitution in order to look after themselves and/or family. Job prospects were scarce. Alexandre Parent-Duchatlet noted in his famous 1836 study De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris that few professions were open to women. For many, prostitution was sheer survivalism. Prostitution was a profitable trade by which women improved their circumstances, helped to educate siblings and often saved enough to open a shop or lodging house.
At one time, a job as a seamstress was a respected position. Honour was an important draw as it could help to better marriage prospects. More often than not, seamstresses worked out of their own homes, choosing which assignments to take or leave. The down sides to becoming a seamstress were poor pay and a two year apprenticeship. Many families who needed their daughters to work could not afford two years of lost wages. Hence, the job of a seamstress was reserved to the relatively well-to-do. All that changed after the (belated) industrialization of France. Mechanization and foreign competition led the demise of the skilled artisans who were previously employed in those trades. This change occurred first and most dramatically in the textile industry in centres such as Normandy and Rouen. The skilled and gentle seamstress of former days now became a low class factory worker often with questionable morals. For many decades, the seamstress had been romanticized as a paragon of female virtue. The idealized image would soon be shattered. Hardship took its toll. Prostitution offered a far more profitable trade which took considerable moral strength to resist. The figure of the whore hovered behind the poverty-stricken seamstress, and they ultimately represented two halves of the same whole.
The connection is highlighted by Guy de Maupassant in La Maison Tellier (1881). The brothel is located in the small town of Fécamp, Normandy. Madame herself came of a respectable peasant family. The town accepts her business without moral condemnation. Locals simply say: ‘It is a paying profession’. The irony of the story is located in the interplay between the notion of ‘a good job’ and the conventional accusation of immorality. The revealing remark is that Madame had accepted her position as a bordello-keeper without prejudice, as if she might have taken up that of a milliner or a seamstress. The association of the profession with prostitution is also suggested by Jean Béraud in his delightful (undated) Impressionist painting ‘La modiste sur Les Champs Élysées’.
Toulouse Lautrec’s painting‘L’inspection médicale, Rue des Moulins’ dates from 1894. He created this scene from personal observations. In a room richly decorated with autumnal colours and Chinese patterns, two women stand in line. One is blonde and more mature than her smaller red-haired colleague. Both have lifted their chemises above their knee-length stockings to reveal naked buttocks and thighs. With her dress gathered in front to preserve what remains of her dignity, the blonde looks tired and resigned. The younger woman is more assertive. With bright red hair and rouged cheeks she approaches her assignation without inhibition. A third woman in a turquoise kimono walks away from them towards a group of people below a large window through which can be seen a clock tower (perhaps the nearby Bibliothèque Nationale!).
Lautrec paints these women without moralism, sentimentality, or contempt. Despite his personal carnal pursuits as a paying client in the house, there is no erotic exploitation, no sensationalism. He simply records the medical routine to which these women were submitted. Physical examinations served to protect upright citizens from the physical and mental ravages of syphilis, one of the blessings Columbus had brought back to Europe from the New World. The first written records of an outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494/5 in Naples during a French invasion. The disease may have been transmitted to the French via Spanish mercenaries serving under King Charles during that siege. During the Renaissance syphilis, generally known as the ‘French disease’, was a major cause of death in Europe. The term was first applied in 1530 by physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro in his epic poem Syphilis sive morbus gallicus. There, the shepherd Syphilis is punished by Apollo with the disease for his defiant attitude. From this character the poet derived the medical term which he introduced in his medical study on contagious diseases De contagionibus. Other names in circulation were great pox, lues venereal, or Cupid’s disease. It was not until 1905 that the causative organism was first identified which led to more effective forms of treatment. Until the advent of penicillin in 1943, ‘cures’ for syphilis were based on the use of heavy metals such as mercury or, as the saying goes, ‘a night in the arms of Venus leads to a lifetime on Mercury’.
In Europe during the nineteenth century syphilis took on epidemic forms. More than fifteen per cent of the adult population and seventy per cent of sex workers were estimated to have been infected with the disease. In Britain, this led to moral panic during the 1850s and 1860s. The response was a sustained campaign to drive ‘fallen women’ from the streets by representing them as a depraved element in society, doomed to disease and death. Refuges were opened and men like future Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone patrolled at night to persuade girls to leave their life of ‘vice’. The introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts whereby prostitute women were medically examined and detained if deemed to suffer from venereal disease gave rise to a notable reform campaign. Josephine Butler’s anti-contagious diseases movement argued that enforced medical examinations effectively encouraged prostitution and did not prevent the curse of syphilis. In the nineteenth century syphilis was known as the artist’s disease. A whole alphabet of outstanding creators and thinkers suffered or died from the affliction, Baudelaire, Beau Brummell, Delius, Donizetti, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Heine, Keats, Manet, De Maupassant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Schubert, Smetana, Tolstoy, Vrubel, Wilde, Wolf, and many others. Toulouse-Lautrec painted this world which prompted Edgar Degas to make the crude observation that some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s female portraits ‘stank of syphilis’.