I find it strangely comforting to look back on paintings and pictures of sex workers from days long gone.
Sex workers have always in some way or another been an ostracised group within society and so it’s interesting to see these faces of unknown women from a completely different time and know that they likely went through somewhat similar experiences as you and felt somewhat similar emotions as you.
Whilst a lot of these classic artworks (all by male artists) are criticised today for possibly glorifying sex work and objectifying the workers, I choose to take a different angle on it and appreciate the paintings for the women in them, regardless of the artist’s intentions.
I can still appreciate the work as beautiful art that moves me. Here are some of my favourite iconic artists and some of their work portraying sex workers.
If any painting of sex workers is celebrated today rather than criticised, it’s ‘Olympia’ by Édouard Manet.
Described as one of the most controversial pieces of 19th century art, society was not disturbed by the nudity or the fact that Manet’s subject was a sex worker (identifiable through the garments like the neck ribbon, the flower and the cat at the foot of the bed), but because of the way the sex worker is portrayed in the painting: bold, confrontational, unashamed.
Before this point, sex workers had not been depicted in this way in paintings, meaning that Olympia marked a turning point in the world of art.
The second painting ‘Nana’ was also controversial for depicting what seems to be a high class prostitute. Nana was a common name for prostitutes at the time, and was also the title name of Émile Zola’s 1880 novel about a high class prostitute. The painting was refused at the Salon of Paris being deemed against the morality of the time.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Toulouse-Lautrec was a sex worker lover. Imagine your keen and jauntly regular client at the strip club. That was Lautrec back in the 19th century. He frequented The Moulin Rouge , and loved to paint scenes of it. ‘La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge’ immortalises La Goulue- the most famous can-can dancer in Paris at the time.
The second painting depicts the stuff usually kept behind the scenes- the medical inspection, in other words, the STI check, in other words, your average trip to 56 Dean Street.
The third painting is at a Parisian brothel, also places that Lautrec visited regularly. Finally, ‘The Sofa’ depicts two sex workers, unposed and lounging. Lautrec started to bring sex workers to his studio due to the poor light in places like The Moulin Rouge, so this is where this painting could potentially be set.
I love how Lautrec’s paintings really give a fly on the wall insight to a scene at places like The Moulin Rouge or old Parisian brothels. I also think his gaudy and slightly outlandish style suits the strange flamboyance of sex work.
Vincent van Gogh
Picture your average shy and desperately lonely client who visits sex workers frequently and eventually takes it a step too far, chopping his ear off and posting it through the brothel door. Yep. Van Gogh.
On a more serious note, Van Gogh struggled with relationships throughout his life and his longest romantic relationship was with Sien, a pregnant and homeless prostitute. He took her and her child in, and she became the subject of many of his portraits with a series titled ‘Sien’.
I like Van Gogh’s portraits of Sien because they are intimate and depict her often in a state of sombreness and sorrow, indicating a relationship more emotionally heavy than many other artworks depicting sex workers of the time. I feel that through these sketches, I really get a picture of Sien’s character- I feel as though I know her.
Whilst they both considered marrying each other, Van Gogh eventually left Sien, and she married another man. Fourteen years after Van Gogh’s death, Sien threw herself into a river and drowned, fulfilling a prediction she had made to Van Gogh in 1883: “what the bad moods are is still more desperate … it’s bound to end up with me jumping into the water”.
We don’t know how many Christmases Edvard Munch spent in brothels, but it was at least one. I love the painting depicting the Christmas scene in a brothel.
There’s a sense of calm but a sense of loneliness, and I like the notion of it- Christmas can be a strange time for sex workers and I feel as though back then and today, everybody in the brothel during that period of Christmas (workers and clients both) feel like an outcast from society in some form or another.
Again like Lautrec, Munch focuses less on the individual sex worker but more on the scenes themselves, which are just as interesting. We get more of a sense of an atmosphere, rather than a sense of an individual person.
His style and use of colours creates an effect of softness and warmth, especially in the first picture- I feel as though there’s a serenity between the women that really captures the sisterhood of sex work.