Prostitutes, Drunkards and Drug-Addicts in Fin de Siecle Art

7 Dec

“Shamelessness is really a virtue, like the lack of respect for many respectable things.”

(Kees van Dongen)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Sofa, 1894-96, Oil on cardboard

The idea for this post came to me spontaneously. I just happen to have noticed a few recurring motives in the art of the late nineteenth century; the motif of prostitutes, people drinking or being drunk, and drug-addicts. The fact that these motives are recurring motives is a reflection of the spirit of the times but it also shows that the artists had gained freedom from the restrictions of society. Fin de siecle or “end of century” in English is a term which simply describes a time period, that is, the end of the nineteenth century, but in a deeper, cultural, literary and artistic sense, it implies a certain mood, a spirit of the times. Fin de siecle is a strong scented nocturnal flower that is quickly rotting. The spirit of the era is a spirit of ennui, pessimism, cynicism, decadence and also, especially connected to the topic of this post, it is seen as an era of degeneracy.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Woman Pulling up her Stockings, 1893, oil on cardboard

The themes of prostitution, alcoholism, drug usage that the fin de siecle painters explored so readily and with such inspiration, have all existed before, but for some reason in fin de siecle they took the centre stage. Perhaps, in some sense, there is a parallel between the degeneracy of the fin de siecle and our times; I mean, just take a look at the pink or green haired gender non-conforming weirdos on Tik Tok and such stuff. And if Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec wanted to paint female body today, he would not need to visit the brothel and hang out with the prostitutes, he could just hop on Instagram to feast his eyes on bosoms and behinds. But I digress. Point is that the element of social degeneracy in relation to fin de siecle is an important element for this post. The question is; did the artists suddenly a surge of bravery when they decided to capture these themes, or were these phenomenons such as alcoholism and prostitutions, just so pervading that it was impossible to ignore them?

Edgar Degas, Waiting for a Client, 1879, charcoal and pastel over monotype on paper

Courtesans and female nudes have been present throughout the art history but never was the ugliness of flesh and ugliness of desire captured so vividly than in the artworks of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted between 1892 and 1896. The pioneer of the motif was Edgar Degas in his wonderful but little less known charcoal and pastel drawings of brothel scenes such as the pastel here called “Waiting for a Client.” Women, naked save for their garish stockings and perhaps a ribbon in their hair, occupy the canvases of Degas and Lautrec, lounging on sofas, chatting with one another or just relaxing in between the visit of the clients. Thick thighs, saggin breast and stomach, morbidly pale complexions, tired eyes and faces ladden with disappointment or apathy, these are Odalisques stripped of the aura of Romantic glamour of the past eras. What you see is what you get with these women. There are no carefully thought-of poses, coy looks over the shoulder while the derriere is being shown in full view, as was the case with nudes from the previous eras. These women don’t look like they are posing. Even though Lautrec often painted them in his studio rather than in the real brothel where the light was bad, the appearance is that of spontaneity and honesty.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Prostitutes, 1895

Drunkards

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Hangover (Portrait de Suzanne Valadon), 1888

In both of these portraits by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec he paints his sitters in the setting of a pub and seen from the profile. It is fascinating to imagine Lautrec sitting in the cafe or wherever with these people, such as Van Gogh himself, and just casually capturing them. Just wow. Painting “The Hangover” is actually a portrait of Suzanne Valadon and it brings to mind Edgar Degas’ painting “The Absinthe Drinkers” painted in 1876. Both paintings ooze a sense of desperation and halloweness, the true hangover mood. In the portrait of Vincent van Gogh, shown bellow, the mood is a that of fun, vibrancy and frenzy. The colours are exciting and warm; red, yellow, orange, electric blue. This is the excitement of the night one, the excitement of absinthe coloured Parisian nights when everything can happen. But after the excitement, hangover follows, as the previous painting shows.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1887

James Ensor, The Drunkards, 1883

Now, we have two interesting examples of drunkards in fin de siecle art, James Ensor’s “The Drunkards” from 1883 and Kees van Dongen’s “Absinthe Drinker in the Street” from 1901. The latter is a year too late for the end of the century and the former a tad too early, but time periods are not as strict and it is the spirit of the times that matters. In Ensor’s painting two men are sitting at the table. One is looking at us with a crazy-eyed expression while the other burried his head on his hands. One bottle of alcohol on the table. Empty glasses. Crazy eyes and a drab interior. This place reeks of desperation.


Kees van Dongen, Absinthe Drinker on the Street, 1902

I have always loved Kees van Dongen’s painting “Absinthe Drinker in the Street”. There is just something so playful about the lady falling down in the street and a skull with a black top hat. I mean, what a combination!? Skeletons and skulls are a recurring motif in Kees van Dongen’s art, and there is always something a bit comical about it, at least to me. The crimson colour of the woman’s hat and dress are a gorgeous pop of colour in the otherwise drab, grey setting. What is the skull really? A product of the woman’s drunken imagination? Or is it a real living and talking skull whose main goal is to be a devil on the woman’s shoulder and force her to drink? This really makes my imagination go wild.

Drug Addicts

Eugène Grasset, La Morphinomane [The Morphine Addict], 1897, color lithograph

When it comes to the topic of drug addiction in the late nineteenth century art, Eugene Grasset’s painting “The Morphine Addict”, painted in 1897, is the first that comes to mind. I have indeed already written a longer post devoted to that painting alone, here. There are so many things that I love about that painting but let me name a few; firstly the Japanese influence which can be seen in the woman’s face expression, the grimace which accurately captures the pain that she is experiencing, the intimate setting of a bedroom further emphasised by the fact that she is dressed in a nightgown and also the closely cropped composition. Soon the pain will turn into a sweet state and this transition is beautifully captured by the Spanish painter Santiago Rusinol in his two paintings, “Before the Morphine” (1890) and “La Morphinomane” (1894) painted, interestingly, fours years apart even though the theme is the same. Both paintings shows a bedroom interior with a black haired woman in her nightgown; in the first paintings she is about to take morphine while in the second painting she is lying as though lifeless, enjoying the sweet ecstasies of the state.

Santiago Rusinol, Before the Morphine, 1890

Santiago Rusiñol, La Morphinomane, 1894

2 Responses to “Prostitutes, Drunkards and Drug-Addicts in Fin de Siecle Art”

  1. Arjun Shivaji Jain 7th Dec 2022 at 4:16 pm #

    Every single time, with every single post, you outdo yourself! It’s hard to keep up with you! — Oh, to visit a picture gallery with you! How fabulous that would be! I shouldn’t utter a word – so rapt, I reckon, I’d be in what you’d be saying!

    Like

    • Byron's Muse 7th Dec 2022 at 8:43 pm #

      Well thank you! I sure would have plenty of comments but I feel they would be more funny than intellectual hehe.

      Liked by 1 person

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