Filthy logo

Brothels in Art

As brothels grew in popularity, they penetrated the work of artists all over the world for centuries.

By Filthy StaffPublished 8 years ago 15 min read

Prostitution and art got a similar start. They both went hand in hand with religion. While painters and sculptors were portraying the gods, prostitutes were serving the gods in religious sanctuaries. The oldest recorded brothel was attached to the temple of the Sumerian deity Anu. The inmates, watched over by a Sumerian madame, were dedicated to the cult of Anu's lustful daughter, Ishtar, and the proceeds from their “holy” activities went to the priests of the temple. This would seem like the perfect setup for artists, merging two of their most popular themes: sex and religion. But the Sumerians stuck chiefly to religion and left sex and the servants of Ishtar out of their art.

With the rise of the Greeks, prostitutes came into art and into their own. No longer attached to temples, they were set up in state brothels established by the great lawmaker Solon, who confined them to certain quarters of Athens. In addition, there were independent courtesans, the hetaerae, who held an enviable place in society. Admired for their intellect as well as for their physical charms, they became the celebrated companions of the great. One of them, the beauteous Phryne, was elevated to the realm of the gods by none other than Praxiteles, who used her as the model for his renowned statue of Aphrodite. On a humbler level, artists portrayed the delights of sex and the lure of courtesans on vases, mirrors, wine cups, even children’s bowls.

To the practical Romans the prostitute was strictly a necessity, a means of keeping men from preying on other men's wives. Rome had a large section for brothels and every provincial city had at least one lupanar (she-wolf's den). One of the most luxurious still stands in Pompeii, the House of the Vettii, on whose walls artists immortalized the passionate pursuits of the establishment.

Prostitution and religion formed an unholy alliance in the Middle Ages. St. Augustine himself had warned: “If you put down prostitution, license and pleasure will corrupt society.” As a result, the Church not only condoned the establishment of public houses, but allowed them to be owned by members of the clergy. An archbishop of Mainz was said to have had as many prostitutes in his houses as books in his library.

Sex Becomes Art

Such a flourishing institution could not elude the eye of the artist. The beguilements of the brothel enlivened illuminated manuscripts, church carvings, woodcuts and engravings. But these images display an awkward, childlike innocence. Long out of the habit of depicting nudes, the Medieval artist was ill at ease in rendering the scenes where ease most reigned.

Such inhibitions vanished with the Renaissance. Focused more on earth than on heaven, the artists of the 16th and 17th centuries relished representing the rough-and-tumble life of the brothel; the flirtations, the fondlings, the filchings and the fights. They rejoiced in the bathhouse, that bordello of the tub, which gave them elaborate opportunities to portray the nude and pay their respects to the unclad art of antiquity. Even the Bible provided them with a brothel. Painters from Bosch to Rembrandt portrayed the Prodigal Son living it up in a pleasure house.

In the 18th century, the prostitute turned up in widely divergent roles on opposite sides of the globe. The ins and outs of harlotry were lampooned by English satirists like Hogarth and Rowlandson, who viewed the wenches as tenacious, if sometimes pathetic, performers in the human comedy. In Japan, by contrast, the courtesans of the Yoshiwara district were idols of fashion and beauty, idealized in the prints of Utamaro and his colleagues of the color woodcut.

Less than a hundred years later, the brothel and its denizens emerged in a new and devastating light. The jovial, zesty scenes of the past gave way to degradation and gloom. With psychological insight appropriate to the age of Freud, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas observed the warped life of the prostitutes and portrayed them as they were—listless, ungainly, and dejected amid their garish settings. The prostitute had become for the artist a symbol of the human condition–lost to human love, bereft of divine grace. For Van Gogh, it was not enough to portray these hapless humans. On Christmas night of 1888, he sliced off his ear and carried it, carefully wrapped, as a present to a prostitute in Arles, a demented gesture not only of loneliness but of his desire to give to that loveless species something more personal than money.

This sympathy for the prostitute was carried over into the 20th century by painters like Rouault, who conjured up grotesque images of bulbous whores as an indictment of society. But the pictorial days of the prostitute were numbered. In 1907, Picasso shattered her into a pattern of planes; thereafter abstractionists abandoned her. In art, the fille de joie is a thing of the past—at least for the present.

The Middle Ages

Encouraged by the leniency of town and gown authorities in the Middle Ages, the brothel prospered. Often located on a side street near a church, it was known to the neighborhood without benefit of a sign. Occasionally it combined the sale of liquor with its chief order of business. But a bigger attraction—and a major innovation—was the bath. Countless brothels centered around a huge tub in which the girls and their clients consorted in liquid leisure.

Painting by Anonymous Painter

Such establishments—30 existed in Paris around 1400—appealed to artists, like the 15th century anonymous Frenchman who managed to work the Medieval bathhouse shown in the first image in the gallery above into his illuminations for a book of writings by the first century Roman historian, Valerius Maximus. In this scene, naked gentlemen and ladies sup as they soak or demurely withdraw to drier, more intimate chambers.

Artwork by Master of the Banderoles

Occasionally a brothel existed side by side with a gymnasium. This sporting arrangement was illustrated by a 15th century Netherlandish engraver known as the Master of the Banderoles, who depicted a trio of prostitutes enticing a man away from the athletic diversions going on next door.

Painting by Vittore Carpaccio

Nowhere did prostitutes abound more than in Venice. Almost 12,000 (out of a population of 300,000) were registered there in the late Middle Ages. Many of them migrated from Rome, refugees from periodic purges by the popes. In addition to the run-of-the-mill brothels, there were numerous salons presided over by cultivated courtesans who charged customers a fee merely to pass through the portals; for within, the patron could enjoy music, dancing, and philosophical conversations, as well as more amorous pursuits. But life was not a bed of roses for all Venetian courtesans, as Vittore Carpaccio revealed in his portrait of two of them painted around 1510. Blondined and bedizened, they sit lethargically upon their balcony, idling away long hours of boredom with their pets and a page. For the first time in the annals of art, Carpaccio caught the cheerless, stifled life of the prostitute—an insight that was not to reappear until the 19th century.

Moving Forward

The shy naiveté that prevails in bathhouse scenes of the 15th century gives way to nonchalant nudity and leisurely lust in sixteenth century works like the engraving by the German artist Virgil Solis (first image in the above gallery). Here courtesans and clientele mingle freely amid babies, basins, and sponges. Yet their statuesque proportions and poses—some of which appear to be lifted from Michelangelo—give an air of formality to the informal establishment.

An earthier cast of characters turns of in 17th century art, frequently in illustrations of the Bible. A French engraver, Abraham Bosse, depicted the Prodigal Son as a fop whose valuables are adroitly stolen by employees of a brothel (second image in the gallery). Rembrandt drew a more wanton version of The Prodigal amid loose women, one of whom stands in the nude strumming a ute (third image in the gallery). In a secular scene, another Dutchman, Crispin de Passe, portrayed an elegant gentleman enjoying a pipe while a madame shows him a gallery of portraits from which he can choose his bedmate (fourth image in the gallery).

Such pictures reflect the laissez-faire attitude toward prostitution that was generally maintained on the Continent. In England, however, prudish authorities started a crackdown on civic “impurities" toward the end of the 18th century. Around 1816, the British caricaturist, C. Williams, lampooned one such "clean-up,” in which the Lord Mayor of London participated in pitching a prostitute into a wagon that would transport her straight to the Magdalen and Female Penitentiary Asylum.

Portraying Payment

The business of please was grist for artists. They particularly took to the procuress, the wily go between in the prostitution trade. An early work of Jan Vermeer, painted in 1656 when he was 24, focuses on one of these canny creatures as she observes a young dandy paying for a prostitute (first image in the gallery). From the shadows, a musician casts a sardonic smile, a clue that the dandy is going to be taken from more than a few pieces of gold. A thriving business was recoded by a 16th century Dutchman, Jan van Hemessen, who showed the local bloods warming up to the evening’s pleasures with tankards of ale (second and third images in the gallery).

In the background, a prostitute readies the bed for her next customer while another leads a client up the stairs to more secluded quarters. On the walls are scribbled souvenirs from bygone Kilroys who enjoyed the brothel’s business. Two centuries later the English satirist William Hogarth depicted some indecorous aspects of the profession. In a scene from his Rakes Progress, an angry prostitute spits liquor at one of her colleagues across the table (fourth image in the gallery). Such competitive conflicts were frequent in brothels but prostitutes often cooperated with one another. In the same painting by Hogarth, one entices the rake by doing a strip tease while two others relieve him of his belongings.

And in a print by Thomas Rowlandson, which was published in 1814, three prostitutes gang up on a Quaker and try to bulldoze him into their quarters (last image in the gallery). Once inside the brothel, the prostitute’s victim ran the risk of disaster, as well as disease. An example of the first calamity: Around the year 1820, a fire attacked a “notorious hotel” in the heart of London, routing all of the occupants and sending the once-prosperous business up in smoke.

William Hograth

When William Hogarth undertook to illustrate the life of “a common harlot,” he had no moralizing motives. His aim was to emulate the theater—"my picture is my stage," he declared—and in the ups and downs of a prostitute’s career, he found a plot that was suitably dramatic, midway “between the sublime and the grotesque.”

In 1731, Hogarth completed a series of six paintings entitled A Harlot’s Progress (featured in the above gallery). The following year he produced engravings of the paintings, which he offered for sale for a complete set. Ostensibly fictional, the Harlot was filled with familiar London faces and places and was quickly a smash success. Writers composed stories and plays on the theme, hack artists pirated copies of the original engravings, and Hogarth himself became highly prosperous.

The drama of A Harlot's Progress begins with the arrival in London of a young country girl named Moll Hackabout. As her father, an old clergyman, is about to depart on his nag, Moll is accosted by a madame known as “pious Neeham.” She lures the girl into the custody of an infamous old lecher named Colonel Chartres, who leers at his new acquisition from the doorway of a tavern.

Moll quickly learns the tricks of the trade. She graduates from the Colonel to a Jewish merchant who sets her up in high style. She also takes on a young lover, with the inevitable complications. When the merchant arrives unexpectedly, Moll cleverly tips over the tea table to distract him while her lover is hustled out the door.

Such tricks are Moll’s undoing. Before long she has sunk to the life of a lowly prostitute and is soon nabbed by a harlot-hunting magistrate, Sir John Gonson. Hauled off to Bridewell, the house of correction in Tothill Fields, Moll is put to work pounding hemp while the jailer stands by with the whip.

A few years later, out of Bridewell but now the destitute mother of a son, Moll succumbs to syphilis in the presence of two quacks who busily debate their respective treatments for the disease. At her funeral, a motley group of whores carry on with tears and gin while the attending preacher fumbles under the skirts of his companion. Below the coffin is the harlot’s child, a figure of innocence in a cold, cheerless world.

Japanese Brothel Art

In contrast with her average Western counterpart, the courtesan of Japan was a model of refinement, culture and elegance. Though her profession was not considered noble, it was neither morally nor socially condemned. The courtesans, wrote an 18th century Japanese, “are just like princesses educated at the Palace--then why look askance at an outlay of 1000 ryos?”

Artwork by Kitao Masonobu

The most celebrated courtesans, thanks to the printmakers of the 18th and 19th centuries, resided in the Yoshiwara district of Edo. Established in 1617, the Yoshiwara had 153 brothels and by 1869, with more than 3000 courtesans of all classes—from the top ranking tairu and oiran, dressed in gold and silver brocades, their lips gilded, their teeth blacked, and their throats and bosoms powder-white, down to the lowly shinzo, “a white toothed woman, who rots her life away in the common stews.” These women and the lives they led in the “Green Houses” fascinated the Japanese, commoners and nobles alike, who envied—if they did not in fact pursue—the “gay life.” Cashing in on the wide interest, artists of the Ukiyo-e school (art of everyday life) frequented the Yoshiwara and turned out a flood of woodcuts, which were reproduced in quantity and then sold at modest prices.

Artwork by Kitao Masonobu

Many of the prints served primarily as fashion plates, for both men and women were enthralled by the refinements of dress. One of the most elegant fashion albums was created in 1783 by Kitao Masonobu, who portrayed the reigning beauties of the Yoshiwara (above) parading their flowered robes and fancy hairdos. To the small, often stocky Japanese, their attenuated, willowy forms were paragons of beauty.

Artwork by Kitao Masonobu

The “Green Houses” were a second home for Utamaro, who was at work in the decades around 1800. In and out of his legendary debauches he found time to create scores of prints showing the courtesans at their daily routine: waiting in the “cages” from which they lured customers off the street; participating in a sake party, which was often a convivial prelude to “full knowledge.”

Though suggestive and seductive, the Ukiyo-e prints rarely revealed the more intimate activities of the Yoshiwara. This would have been a profanation of the world that provided not only gracious pleasure but timely refuge to the artists who, caught up in the political strife of the times, often escaped from their foes by hiding in the hospitable “Green Houses.”

Jules Pascin

For Jules Pascin, the brothel was a lifetime studio. In 1901, at the age of 16, he became the protégé of the local madame in his hometown in Bulgaria. In her house, he whiled away his days and nights, drawing the girls as they tolled and lounged or received their customers. These sketches of casual intimacy he sent to the German paper Simplicissimus, which immediately published them and asked for more. Before he was 20, Pascin had made so much money on his whorehouse vignettes that he was able to take off for Paris. There he settled across from La Maison Rouge, a celebrated bordello which he frequented both for pleasure and for art. During the next two decades, Pascin continued to sketch and paint prostitutes. In their pale, languid bodies and wistful faces, he conveyed his own feelings of futility and sadness and a hint of the despair which would lead him to commit suicide at the age of 45.

The Theme of Waiting

Waiting—the professional occupation of the prostitute—became a recurrent theme in art from the time of the post impressionists. Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the first to memorialize it. He had established himself at No. 24 Rue des Moulins, a luxurious house of international renown. There he dined, slept, and ruled the roost. The girls pampered him and he in turn showered them with bouquets, took them to the opera, and joined them at dice on dull Sundays. As one of the “family,” he was free to roam the house at will, sketching or painting whatever he liked. The record he left, ranging from the mundane to the perverted, includes a sharp and timeless image of the tedium of waiting (first and second images in the gallery). A classic of brothel art, it presents the tawdry reception room as it appeared in 1894 with his friends, the aging, henna-haired whores, passing the hours in dispirited company.

In the decades after Lautrec, other artists took up the theme. Mexico's José Clemente Orozco observed the mercurial moods of the brothel, the girlish frolicking and the feverish fights that broke up the boredom (third image in the gallery). In France, Georges Rouault tackled the subject with passionate indignation. For him, the prostitutes were martyrs of society. To brand their image on the public conscience, he presented them as monstrous idols of flesh, at once repulsive and pathetic as they wait to be used and rejected (fourth image in the gallery).

No such moralistic approach concerned Picasso when he began his painting of prostitutes-in-waiting. As the picture evolved, the ladies took on the appearance of African sculpture, their faces distorted, their bodies transformed into tilting planes and angles. In 1907, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, (last image in the gallery), the first cubist painting, was unveiled. It threw the art world into a state of shock—not because of its subject but because of its destruction of the subject. Picasso had taken such liberties with the girls that their shapes and identities were almost lost. Yet even in the drastic transformation, they displayed a solemn and monumental presence.


About the Creator

Filthy Staff

A group of inappropriate, unconventional & disruptive professionals. Some are women, some are men, some are straight, some are gay. All are Filthy.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.