The French poet Charles Baudelaire once declared: “What is art? Prostitution.” Throughout history, artists have used prostitutes as models and muses for their artwork. While this long practice has in the past been an ignored fact, some artists choose to imply or even outright declare who the subject of their work is. From Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s colourful pastels to Egon Schiele’s erotically charged sketches, we present a pick of the eight most famous artworks featuring prostitutes.
‘Olympia’ (1863) – Édouard Manet
Manet wasn’t shy about Olympia’s profession. Olympia is explicitly a prostitute; the orchid in her hair, her black neck ribbon and the black cat at her bed are all implicit symbols of her status – even her name was associated with prostitutes. When first shown in 1865 at the Paris Salon, it caused an uproar. Parisians weren’t fazed by the nudity – it was Olympia’s cold, brazenly direct stare, the apathy set in her face, her un-voluptuous body and her disregard to the bouquet held by her servant that scandalised them. An antithesis to Titian’s sensual and enticing Venus of Urbino (1538), Manet’s Olympia confronts us with the stark reality of a woman prostituting herself. In a twist on Manet’s part, the model for Olympia wasn’t a prostitute at all – she was Victorine-Louise Meurent, a painter in her own right and a model favoured by many artists of the time.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
‘La Toilette’ (1889) – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by prostitutes. He frequented the Moulin Rouge and the brothels in and about Montmartre, and he never forgot to bring his paper and materials with him. Much like Manet, he neither sexualises nor condemns prostitutes, and instead gives a rare glimpse into their everyday lives. Toulouse-Lautrec produced a whole series of pastels on the relationships he witnessed between prostitutes, sympathetically portraying their companionship – and implied lesbianism – without fetishising their intimate moments. La Toilette was painted sometime after his pastel series; the woman, Carmen Gaudin, was a favourite model of his. Carmen was a laundress but she prostituted herself to make ends meet. Lautrec makes allusions to this and her activities, with her overall lack of clothes apart from one loose black stocking. Like in many of Lautrec’s pieces, he captures the quiet intimacy of her routine, an almost vulnerable ‘keyhole’ peek into her life.
‘Sien’ series – Vincent van Gogh
When you think of Vincent van Gogh, prostitutes are probably the furthest subjects that pop into mind. His infamous self-portraits, the sunflowers or even a starry night sky are iconic to his oeuvre, yet Van Gogh did paint prostitutes. (Indeed, after his now infamous ear-chopping incident, he handed the wrapped up severed remains of his ear to a prostitute.) As a young man, he produced a series of sketches on Clasina Maria Hoornik, or Sien. When he first met her, Sien was pregnant and destitute. He took her in – much to the shock of his family – and sketched her, her daughter and later the baby boy she had over the two years or so they spent together. Sien is unabashed under Van Gogh’s scrutiny, either in her nakedness, feeding her child or even just smoking. It’s no wonder then that Van Gogh’s personal favourite was a sketch called Sorrow (1882), which remains popular to this day. Sien’s sombreness is well documented in these very early drawings.
‘Rolla’ (1878) – Henri Gervex
Much of Gervex’s early work was based on myth and stories, which were more often than not just an excuse to paint nude women. Rolla is no exception. He was well liked by the Salon de Paris, but they savagely rejected Rolla on the grounds of it being “immoral”. However, the resulting scandal meant that when the painting was finally exhibited a short while later, crowds rushed to see it. Gervex’s inspiration for the painting was a poem by Alfred de Musset – in this scene, the young hedonist Rolla is implied to have had sex with the teenage prostitute, Marie. Like many paintings of the late 19th century, her status as a prostitute is strongly alluded to with her undone corset and clothes, while in probably the best innuendo and allusion to sex in art history, Rolla’s cane emerges out from her discarded clothes.
‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) – Pablo Picasso
Allegedly, when Picasso first heard about the shocked reaction of the public to Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905), with its then avant-garde aesthetic, his first thought was to outdo his rival. In 1907, he did just that. Even before the public saw it (years later, in 1916), not many of Picasso’s fellow artists liked it. Matisse, apparently, was enraged by it and called it “a bad joke”. Much like Lautrec and Manet before him, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was less about titillation, but unlike their work, Les Demoiselles is so aggressively confrontational. The women are stripped down into 2D disjointed shapes, uncomfortably angular and devoid of traditional associations of femininity and beauty that it’s almost uncomfortable to look at them. Stylistically, Les Demosielles was influenced by Picasso’s interest in ‘Primitive’ art; three of the women’s faces are likely to be inspired by Iberian and African masks exhibited in Paris at the time.
‘Grande Odalisque’ (1814) – Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Odalisque is actually a loanword – it came from the Turkish word odalık, originally meaning a chambermaid. In the West, the word has come to solely mean a harem concubine. In a running theme for this list, Grande Odalisque by Ingres wasn’t received very well when it was first shown. But less so for its subject and more because of the exaggerated and anatomically wrong proportions of the concubine. Her long limbs and neck, small head, tiny waist but large torso were widely criticised; her pose has since been proven to be completely impossible for any real woman to do. Ingres’ purposeful disregard of anatomy was meant to show sensuality through her ‘curviness’, further propped up by her plush and opulent surroundings.
‘Caroline/Carolina’ series – Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti came to define the existential post-war years of art with his thin, stick-like statues of men and women. Their whittled-down appearance made them seem far away and distant, but still human. There were many women who sat as models for Giacometti and his statues. For a long time, his favourite model was his wife, Annette. Then Giacometti met Caroline – real name Yvonne Poiraudeau – a Parisian prostitute who he may or may not have been completely infatuated with. (Annette wasn’t happy, either way). Infatuation or not, Giacometti was fascinated by Caroline and her life, and he often funded her lifestyle. In his last years, all his work focused solely on depicting her. A draftsman as well, Giacometti made a few paintings of Caroline. In all three of them, he paints her in his usual simple, sketch-like style but her face is detailed, drawing the viewer’s attention. In particular, her eyes are wide and gaze out at the spectator as if returning their own open stare. Famously, on one of them, Caroline stubbed out her cigarette while Giacometti was still painting it. The burn stain is still there to this day.
‘Black-Haired Girls’ series – Egon Schiele
Egon Schiele loved women. If Lautrec depicted prostitutes in their quiet, intimate moments, then Schiele drew all manner of women at their most erotic and open moments. But like Lautrec, Schiele viewed these women not through the male gaze but as they were, and so much of his work comes out as empowering: women are shown confident in their sexuality and desires. He was also not shy about this love. It got him into trouble on one or more occasion when he showed his sketches to pretty much anyone he could – including young girls. One of his many scandals was the Black-Haired Girls – a pair of teenage prostitutes. In most of the paintings and sketches of the pair, Schiele is explicit in the both their nudity and age; neither girls, for example, are drawn without much pubic hair, if at all. In Black-Haired Girl With Lifted Skirt (1911), he draws our attention to her exposed crotch with a bright burst of red colour – typical in many of his explicit artworks – forcing us to acknowledge her exposed nakedness. Her pose and expressions are almost grotesque in how contorted they are. If such drawings can today be considered straddling the line between art and pornography, you can imagine the scandal they caused back in the early 20th century.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.