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date: 18 October 2017

Cultural Representations of Nineteenth-Century Prostitution

Summary and Keywords

Paradoxically, in the 19th century, an era very concerned with public virtue, prostitutes were increasing being represented in Western European cultural expressions. Prostitution was a prevalent social phenomenon due to the rapid urbanization of Western Europe. People were on the move as both urban and rural areas underwent considerable material and normative change; the majority of Western European cities grew rapidly and were marked by harsh working and living conditions, as well as unemployment and poverty. A seeming rise in prostitution was one of the results of these developments, but its centrality in culture cannot be explained by this fact alone. Prostitution also came to epitomize broader social ills associated with industrialization and urbanization: “the prostitute” became the discursive embodiment of the discontent of modernity.

The surge in cultural representation of prostitutes may also be seen as an expression of changing norms and a driver for change in the public perception of prostitution. In particular, artists came to employ the prostitute as a motif, revealing contemporary hypocrisy about gender and class.

Keywords: prostitution, art, historical criminology, gender, urbanization, modernity


This article examines how prostitution was presented in Western Europe in the 19th century.1 We identify central tropes and discuss how they relate to the materiality of 19th-century prostitution and to contemporary discourses. We investigate cultural representations of the figure of the prostitute and the social phenomena of prostitution in the 19th century. We pay particular attention to the relationship between how prostitution was represented and broader cultural and historical dynamics in the period often termed modernity (Wolff, 1985).

Prostitution has been a theme in criminological research since the birth of the discipline. Studies by early criminologists at the fin de siècle, such as Ferrero and Lombroso (1893/2004) in Italy, Tarnowsky (1889) in Russia, and de Quiros (1901) in Spain, testify to how criminology contributed to solving what was seen as a central problem for the modern European state: to establish a clearer definition and categorization of prostitution and the prostitute (see also Garcia, 2016). Contemporary criminology scholars have also looked at prostitution, or sex work, and have engaged contemporary state interests in finding ways of regulating prostitution. The topic is a recurring one in journals, such as European Journal of Criminology, Crime & Delinquency, and British Journal of Criminology.

The focus here is neither establishing categories and examining the phenomenon of prostitution, nor contributing to contemporary debates on how prostitution should be regulated. We instead align with the interest in representations that cultural and visual criminology share, both representations in their own right and as something that has social outcomes (see Ferrell, Hayward, Morrison, & Presdee, 2004; Rafter, 2014). Cultural and visual criminological studies of prostitution also exist, although they have focused mainly on present-day prostitution (O’Neill, 2010).

Our aim is to identify and analyze central tropes—the ways “the prostitute” was configured and developed as a literary and visual theme. We examine some particularly important cultural representations, either because they were perceived as particularly expressive or were controversial at the time, based on the assumption that both accolade and critique express cultural meaning. They are not selected to be representative of all 19th-century representations of the prostitute. We have selected examples from different cultural outlets that were directed at different audiences, ranging from fine art displayed in private exhibitions to novels printed as pamphlets intended for a broad popular audience.

We have treated these representations as signs or groups of signs that can be analyzed in terms of their content, format, and context (Valverde, 2006, p. 28). We are interested in how meaning is conveyed through representations of prostitution and prostitutes, looking for both representations that were acceptable and those that were controversial. The logic of cultural production is one that rewards both representations that align with contemporary understandings and give the audience what they want and representations that challenge contemporary “truth regimes” (Foucault, 1980, p. 131) and are able to stir and shock audiences. Our starting assumption is that how “she”─because the prostitute was almost exclusively presented as a woman─was represented is a window into broader developments and norms of gender and sexuality (Pheterson, 1996). We argue that the meaning of prostitution is not fixed and that we need to look outside of the phenomenon itself (the signifier) and the expressed intentions of producers of cultural representations if we are to understand what these representations express (Hall, 1997).

Art historians have also taken on the topic of how prostitution has been represented in different eras. In looking at the 19th century, Clayson’s (2003) contribution is particularly important. Our purpose is distinctly different from Clayson’s, in that her main purpose was to show how the modernist project of the 1870s and 1880s was a gendered one and one in dialogue with research in art history, particularly the Impressionist era. Our article is a contribution to the feminist criminological tradition of examining the gendered aspects of crime, criminology, and modernity (Naffine, 1997; Smart, 1992). By engaging scholarship from history, museum studies, and cultural studies and reframing them within a criminological context, we hope to shed light on the complex relationships between the political, legal, scientific, and moral regulations of prostitution in modernity.

Cultural Representations of 19th-Century Prostitution

While the prostitute and prostitution were somewhat taboo motifs in Western Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, starting especially in the 1880s and up to the dawn of the 20th century, images of prostitution became common. As Clayson (2003) noted, by the 1890s and 1900s, the prostitute had “become a mainstay, if not a cliché, of the avant-garde” (p. 5). One reason for the importance the prostitute had for 19th-century artists was due to the prevalence of prostitution in urban life. Corbin (1990) estimated that in the second half of the 19th century, 120,000 women worked as prostitutes and/or were involved in venal love for monetary gain in Paris. Paris, Berlin, London, Copenhagen, Oslo, and other European capitals came to be seen as cities of pleasures and “dreadful delights” (Walkowitz, 1992).

“The city” itself became to be seen as the Whore of Babylon, a dangerous and exotic space, a jungle with predators after prey (Walkowitz, 1992). Urbanization and the rise of capitalism were, and still are, seen as one of the causes of prostitution. For writers like George Simmel (1858–1907) and Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), the prostitute embodied the wrongs of modernity and the alienation felt by modern society in an ever more capitalist and industrialized society. As Simmel (1971) wrote:

Only transactions for money have that character of a purely momentary relationship which leaves no traces, as is the case with prostitution…. Only money is an appropriate equivalent to the momentary peaking and the equally momentary satisfaction of the desire served by prostitutes, for money establishes no ties, it is always at hand, and it is always welcomed…. Of all human relationships, it is perhaps the most significant case of the mutual reduction of two persons to the status of mere means. This may be the most salient and profound factor underlying the very close historic tie between the prostitute and the money economy—the economy of means.

(pp. 21–22; see also Clayson, 2004; Smith, 2013)

The prostitute was for a time perhaps the most typical and dominant figure signifying urban modernity. As Clayson (2003) showed in her pioneering study, the prostitute came to embody a “contradictory dialectic of disgust and fascination” (p. xviii) in the 19th-century mind and imagination. While representations of modernity often reflect a male-centric point of view, this is mainly because public arenas were taking central stage in what was deemed typical of the time, and respectable women had not yet gained access to the public arenas (Wolff, 1985, p. 37). The “public woman” was the antithesis of respectable womanhood; while “the respectable woman” constituted a subject position that eventually would secure women the right to vote and participate in public life, the “public woman” stood in the way of the same.

Cultural Representations of Nineteenth-Century ProstitutionClick to view larger

Figure 1. Thomas Couture’s (1815–1879) painting Romains de la Decadence (Romans of the Decadence).

As in later depictions of prostitution in movies (Campbell, 2006), the story of the fallen woman of the 19th century warns viewers of what awaits women who stray from the narrow path. In addition to serving as a cautionary tale for individuals, this trope verifies the value and importance of central norms, and thus it offers what Katz (1987) has called a “daily moral routine.” In this trope, poverty is no excuse for morally reprehensible acts; prostitution becomes the responsibility of the individuals involved, the women who sell sex and the men who exploit them. It is not the responsibility of the privileged or society at large, and the solution is punishment or rescue, not redistribution (Bartley, 2000). When the fallen woman either suffers a terrible fate or is redeemed by religion or marriage, order is restored, and patriarchal, classist society can continue unabated. The strength of the trope of the fallen woman can be interpreted as an expression of the need in Western modernity to reinstate order by controlling those who represent chaos and who evidence ambivalence (Bauman, 1991).

Depicting prostitution in a sensational way was also a way to shake and grab the attention of a bourgeois audience. Throughout the 19th century, prostitutes were cast in multiple symbolic roles in public discourse. They were living embodiments of the Whore of Babylon and Mary Magdalene. They were streetwalkers, harbingers of death and disease, primitive degenerates, and ghosts from the past. They were also victims of morally unsound men, of capitalist systems, of poverty, of the city itself—commodities and fetishes. They were represented as demimondaines, femmes fatales, coquettes, courtesans, goddesses, sexual revolutionaries, and champions of the new woman. As Smith (2013) put it, “the prostitute became a visual and poetic allegory … used by artists and writers to express their discontent with metropolitan modernity” (p. 7).2

The fact that prostitution is both a metaphor and a complex social relationship associated with taboos, mystery, and the unknown means that it can serve as an “inspiring void” for artists (Bernheimer, 1997, p. 1). Bernheimer noted that 19th-century male artists’ “relation to the prostitute was complex, involving both identification and repulsion” (p. 1). Prostitutes could at once be represented as objects of sexual desire and also as the reason for the fall of humankind. They could be portrayed as filth or as a vision of purity and beauty, sometimes both (Bernheimer, 1997).

Artists’ interest in the prostitute as topoi cannot be solely attributed to their sharing the same urban space. The contact between artists and the world of prostitution was in many cases more direct. Edouard Manet (1832–1883), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) frequented brothels, paid prostitutes as nude models, and had them as lovers who shared their apartments.

Prostitution thus served as an inspiration to central artists at the time, and through their personal relations they got to know the prostitutes’ world intimately. A move toward more direct depictions of prostitution and prostitutes came at the same time that 19th-century museums were becoming more open to contemporary art, including works depicting or inspired by prostitutes. However, the topic was still contentious, provoking moral outcry.

The Prostitute, the Fall of Rome and the Rise of Modern Art

Cultural Representations of Nineteenth-Century ProstitutionClick to view larger

Figure 2. The client (1878) by Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931).

The late 18th-century discovery and excavation of the Roman city of Pompeii had a significant effect on the discussion not only of what could be showcased in public but also more broadly how the Roman Empire functioned as the historical antecedent to Western civilization (Kendrick, 1987). The Roman depictions of sexual acts uncovered in Pompeii and Herculaneum were so shocking that King Francis I of Naples (1777–1830) ordered these artifacts to be locked away in a “secret museum.” (It was not until 2000 that these ancient objects were made available for public viewing.) The discovery of the sexually explicit artifacts was instrumental in shaping the view that the Roman Empire’s sexual depravity and gluttony were the cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, as Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) demonstrated in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). Some artists drew a direct line from Rome’s innate social depravity, evinced in the loss of civic virtue and lax sexual mores, to the ills of 19th-century society. Thomas Couture’s (1815–1879) painting Romains de la Decadence (Romans of the Decadence), exhibited at the Salons in 1847 and now found at Musée d’Orsay in Paris, is one example of ancient Rome’s being used to address what the artist saw as the decline of French culture, its moral corruption, and the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. In Couture’s painting, classic Roman statues are contrasted to the voluptuous, arabesque bodies of naked women partaking in an orgy. The painting was modern in the sense that it was more than a classical, historical representation, it commented on present social and political realities. Couture’s painting is but one example of a painting that used prostitution allegorically as a critique of sociopolitical reality and the perceived decadence of the bourgeoisie and ruling classes. Another example, which also created a scandal, was Edouard Manet’s Olympia, first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865. As Pludermacher (2016) put it:

The scandal was itself partly brought about by the fact that the painting belonged to a diptych held to be both morally offensive and in very poor taste. Olympia, immediately construed as the depiction of a naked prostitute, was indeed put on public show along with a Christ being taunted…. This blasphemous association came on top of the pictorial treatment, which the critics described as coarse…. Why his contemporaries found Olympia so disconcerting is most of all because, despite the possible contradiction to the contrary in the title, it does not need the mythological connection to evoke a contemporary prostitute at her “workplace.”

(pp. 52, 54)

In Olympia Manet broke from the traditional forms and composition of the nude, which also caused discomfort among his contemporaries (Bernheimer, 1997). Although it is uncertain whether Victorine Meurent (1844–1927), Manet’s model, ever worked as a prostitute, the frank portrayal of a woman lying on a rumpled bed with worn shoes (a sign that she may have been walking the streets) and being handed flowers by a black maid (showing that she may be a courtesan) caused a public outcry.

Cultural Representations of Nineteenth-Century ProstitutionClick to view larger

Figure 3. Edouard Manet’s (1832–1883) Olympia (1863).

Meurent may not have been a prostitute, but the model for Auguste Clésinger’s (1814–1883) statue Femme piquée par un serpent (Woman Bitten by a Serpent), unveiled in 1847, was the famous courtesan Apollonie Sabatier (1822–1890). She became the lover and muse of artists like Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867) and Gustave Courbet (1819–1877).

Depicting contemporary prostitution was still considered unseemly, not only in art destined for museums, but also at other cultural events, such as the opera.3 In 1853, when Guiseppe Verdi (1813–1901) first planned to stage La Traviata, Venetian authorities insisted the story be set in the distant past, as the plot (based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camélias [The Lady of the Camellias], about the life of a French courtesan) was deemed too risqué. Verdi’s original plan to have a contemporary scenography was not possible until the fin de siècle (Weiss, 2015).

In the early 19th century, prostitutes were primarily cast in the roles of classical figures, such as Cleopatra, Greek goddesses, nymphs, Eve, and Mary Magdalene, whereas in the second half of the 19th century, with the advent of realism, naturalism, and impressionism, more “real life” depictions of prostitutes on the streets and in brothels began appearing. This was in part a reflection of changes in artistic ideals. In the second half of the 19th century, with the introduction of realism, came a shift in subject matter. Now artists painted scenes of modern life, “to create an artistic world that is continuously involved in an interaction with the present rather than the past” (Brettell, 1999, p. 6). Whereas the motif of the prostitute was used allegorically in the early 19th century to address the moral wrongs of society, whether based on religious sensitivities or other ethical mores, the new avant-garde used the prostitute as prostitute in their quest to invent new forms of artistic representations and visions. By entering brothels and depicting scenes from a prostitute’s life, they were breaking barriers of intimacy and challenging what had been considered appropriate to showcase to the public.

Cultural Representations of Nineteenth-Century ProstitutionClick to view larger

Figure 4. Jean Béraud (1849–1935), La Madeleine chez le Pharisien (The Magdalen at the House of the Pharisees) (1891).

King Francis I of Naples, who prohibited the public viewing of the secret museum, was not the only European ruler concerned with modern vice and the affronts to modern morality. In early 19th-century France, Napoleon I mandated the registration and health inspection of prostitutes (Corbin, 1990). Brothels were put under state control as maisons de tolerance (for the bourgeoisie) and maisons d’abattage (for the lower classes).

The architect of the French system was Alexandre Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet (1790–1835), an early sanitary engineer and a “veritable Linnaeus of prostitution” (Gilfoyle, 1999, p. 121). Literally “a man of the Paris drains and refuse dumps” (p. 121), Parent-Duchatelet was haunted by the transiency of prostitutes and their ability to reintegrate into society. Prostitutes formed a subterranean counter-society, an explicit moral, social, sanitary, and political threat. They symbolized disorder, excess, pleasure, and improvidence. Parent-Duchatelet thus “enclosed” prostitution by constructing a carceral system organized around the legal and regulated brothel (maison de tolerance), the hospital, the prison, and the reformatory. With his Augustinian perspective, Parent-Duchatelet envisioned prostitution as a “seminal drain” and ultimately defined much of the modern discourse on the subject (Gilfoyle, 1999, p. 121).

The rise of venereal diseases, especially syphilis, in part motivated this regulatory system, which was widely implemented throughout Europe, but the regulation also reflected attitudes toward sexual morality and social order. By placing prostitutes out of sight, many European governments also hoped to keep prostitution out of mind.

The nascent women’s movement also supported such action, as women were grappling with the question occupying the 19th-century mind—what was the difference between “normal” women walking the streets (i.e., participating in public space), a sign of achieved freedom, and “fallen” women, or streetwalkers? The need to keep respectable and disreputable women apart largely framed how prostitution was regulated throughout Western Europe at the time. Prostitutes were tolerated only insofar as they conducted their trade in a way that did not constitute a danger to public safety and respectable society. The 19th-century state regulation of prostitution would become a motif for the realist artists.

Literature, Changing Portrayals and Social Reform—Albertine and the Realist Critique of State Surveillance

Covering an entire wall in the National Gallery in Oslo is Christian Krohg’s (1852–1925) Albertine i politilægens venteværelse (Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room) (1885–1887). It depicts a group of women waiting in front of the door of the politilæge (police doctor), being guarded by a police officer. The women have pale skin and dirty hemlines, but one women stands out—she is wearing a head scarf, her clothes are plainer than the other women’s, and she is about to enter and encounter whatever awaits her behind the closed door.

Krohg was inspired by French realist painters, and his famous painting of prostitutes was accompanied by the publication of his novel Albertine (1886).4 The book tells the story of a young girl in Oslo (then called Christiania) who ended up as a street prostitute (gatetøs) after having been morally corrupted and seduced by a police officer. Published on December 20, 1886, the book was banned the following day. Although he appealed all the way to the Norwegian supreme court, Krohg was sentenced for public indecency and violating public morals (krænkelse af sædelighed og blufærdighed). One part of the novel that was deemed criminal and indecent by the Norwegian courts was the description of the medical inspection Albertine underwent at the politilæge. In this central scene, the inspection is described as even more brutal than Albertine’s first sexual encounter, and it is what pushes her over the edge. She is no longer pure, but a woman damaged beyond redemption who embraces life as a prostitute. At the novel’s end, Albertine stands outside on the street yelling to men passing by: “Å, jeg er så kåt, jente så du veit det ikke, svarte Albertine og vendte seg mot de unge herrene. Kom inn til meg gutter! Ropte hun igjen. Kom inn til meg! En for en … alle sammen…. Dere skal ikke betale” (Krohg, 1886/1967, p. 110; “‘Oh, I’m so horny, girl, you wouldn’t believe it,’ Albertine said and turned to the young gentlemen. ‘Come in boys!’ She called again, ‘Come in boys! Each and every one of you … all of you … you do not have to pay.’”).

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Figure 5. Christian Krohg (1852–1925), Albertine i politilægens venteværelse (Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room).

Albertine was written in a naturalistic style, and it is a Norwegian example of a genre of fictional and nonfictional works about prostitution in which the central character—a prostitute—is tragically portrayed.5 In many ways Krohg’s novel can be compared to Nana (1880) by the French naturalist author Emile Zola (1840–1902).6 Both Albertine and Nana portray the prostitute as a doomed, tragic figure in a city that destroys purity. Tragic depictions of prostitutes are also found in earlier 19th-century literature, most famous perhaps is La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), by Alexandre Dumas, fils, published in 1848. But, unlike the doomed heroine of the Dumas work, neither Albertine nor Nana is seen through the romantic lens of a story concerned with purity and love lost, but instead they are viewed through the naturalist penchant for focusing on the cruder, perceived as more real, aspects of a prostitute’s life. Camille, on the other hand, recants her life as a “whore with a heart of gold” (a stereotype also found in John Cleland’s [1709–1789] Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, popularly known as Fanny Hill, published in 1748).

Both Krohg and Zola were highly critical of the brothel system and used their novels to advocate for social reform. Zola saw the state system of brothels as a form of white slavery, which at the end of the 19th century was becoming a topic of concern (and calls for closing down brothels were increasing). Girls and women working in brothels were often forbidden to leave and were financially dependent on the madams who ran the brothels. Prostitutes with syphilis were interned in hospitals (often former prison wings) and were forced to undergo various “treatments.” Zola not only called attention to brothel conditions, but also castigated the system of regulating and treating women for syphilis. In Oslo, prostitution had been regulated by police bylaws based on the Parent-Duchatelet system since the 1840s, and Krohg’s novel and painting have been cited as contributing to the demise of the regulation system and brothels in Oslo in 1888. As such, Albertine might be said to be as much a criticism of governmental control, state censorship, and abuse of power, as symbolized by the police officer, as it is a critique of the regulation of the brothel system.

As art became a central vehicle for social critique toward the end of the 19th century (Tilghman, 2011), artists also used the motif of the prostitute to showcase gender and class hypocrisy. The political and social criticism that art and literature promulgated certainly added to the momentum to reform the system of regulation devised in Paris, or to abolish it altogether, whether reformers called for stricter control of brothels or ending legal prostitution. However, the reforms and changes were also the result of changes in the prostitution market. The French regulatory system was unsuccessful in its stated aim of keeping prostitution off the streets and diminishing the spread of disease. This may in part also have been a result of city planning, as many of the maisons de tolerance were demolished to make way for urban development, forcing the poorer brothels to move to the suburbs, while the more luxurious brothels were left intact (Bernheimer, 1997). By the 1880s, unregistered itinerant Parisian prostitutes were found virtually everywhere: railway stations, bus depots, wine shops, vaudeville theaters, clothing shops, tobacco stores, dance halls, public gardens, flower stalls, large and small parks, the grand boulevards, and even public lavatories. The failures of regulation stimulated abolitionist and neo-regulationist movements. The former sought the elimination of legalized, regulated, or tolerated forms of prostitution. Abolitionists, while influenced by Josephine Butler’s anti-regulationist campaign to repeal Britain’s Contagious Diseases Acts, promoted a new sexual order based on individual responsibility, internalized sexual repression, and self-control. Outside the Anglo-American world, however, few were persuaded. By contrast, French neo-regulation represented a new strategy of surveillance. Neo-regulationists feared “white slavery,” venereal disease, and “racial degeneracy” (Gilfoyle, 1999, p. 121).

In addition, because prostitutes and prostitution were hardly homogeneous, abolitionists, regulationists, and anti-regulationists developed classification strategies to tackle prostitution. The 19th century was also a time of grand engineering schemes in city planning—sewer systems were created and public sanitation was prioritized to ensure greater public (physical and mental) health. Brothels were affected by such plans, and prostitutes were likened to human waste disposal stations. As the inventor of the French regulatory system Alexandre Parent-Duchatelet (quoted in Bernheimer, 1997, p. 16) put it:

Prostitutes are as inevitable in agglomeration of men as sewers, cesspits and garbage dumps; civil authority should conduct itself in the same manner in regard to one as to the other: its duty is to survey them, to attenuate by every possible means the detriments inherent to them, and for that purpose to hide them, to relegate them to the most obscure corner, in a word to render their presence as inconspicuous as possible.

In the latter part of the century, medical scientists, building on the research of Parent-Duchatelet, were starting to perceive prostitution not so much as a sign of moral decay as a medical question. These scientists, floating on the wave of Darwinism and the rise of natural science, inspired authors and artists like Zola (see Pick, 1993) and Degas (see Hersey, 1996) in their representation of prostitutes, and would also create museum representations and exhibits of prostitution of their own.

The Meaning of Representations of Prostitution in the 19th Century

Late 19th-century scientists more than suggested that, under the thin veneer of civilization, every woman was by design and nature a whore. Ferrero and Lombroso (1893/2004) made this clear as they began their study:

At the present time, the moral sciences are interwoven or, rather fused with the natural sciences. Thus it is impossible to undertake the study of the criminal woman without first analyzing the normal woman and also the female’s place in the hierarchy of animal life…. Primitive woman was rarely a murderer; but she was always a prostitute.

(pp. 1, 148)

Museum representations of prostitution in the 19th century not only cast the prostitute in a multitude of symbolic roles, but also cast women in these roles as well. When considering 19th-century representations of prostitution, one would be amiss in not mentioning that they also evinced misogyny and fear of the rise of the new woman. Representations of the prostitute expressed social fears of the blurring of moral, sexual, and social boundaries, and the advent of changing gender relations. Urbanization and industrialization also caused the entrance of women into what had previously been a predominantly male sphere. The latter half of the 19th century saw the first wave of the women’s movement claiming parity for women with men and therefore access to privileges, such as the right to inherit, education, a paid profession, and the vote. Access to public space and rights for middle-class women mandated protection from being identified as public women, and in many European countries, the regulation of prostitution included not only health controls, but also rules for when, where, and how prostitutes could access public space. A strict demarcation between middle-class women and public women was necessary in order for the first group to appropriate public space and to claim citizenship rights. To ensure that respectable women in public space were not confused with indecent women in public space, they had to be easily differentiable (Sennett, 1974). This was achieved by making sure fallen women were identifiable by what they wore and their spatial and temporal location (Bland, 1995). The way museums and other cultural venues represented prostitution as being in some sense integrated into femininity was a threat to this bifurcation. However, despite the fact that prostitutes were at times painted with a sympathetic brush, they still they remained instruments and pawns in male political and, at times, psychosexual plots.


Major shifts and motifs characterized cultural representations of prostitution in 19th-century Western Europe. The focus on prostitution was an expression of wider anxieties about urbanization and modernity. Examples of influential 19th-century voices from different European contexts show that the prostitute became the discursive embodiment of the discontent of modernity. European societies increasingly valued rationality and order and therefore established institutions designed to regulate the population. Thus it is no coincidence that in this period the whole of Northern and Western Europe was concerned with delineating prostitutes from respectable women. Societies were concerned with curbing chaos, particularly the uncontrollable spread of syphilis. The background to this concern was industrialization as a development that raised concerns about class social unrest, gender roles, and sexual promiscuity, and thus, in the long run, the establishment of the working class as dangerous.

In interpreting cultural representations of prostitution and the prostitute, the relationship between cultural representations and the phenomena they portray is complex. In the 19th century, prostitution was a subject used by many artists throughout Europe. This could be taken to be a response to how widespread and visible the phenomenon was becoming and/or as a sign that it was becoming more acceptable. Clayson (2003) claimed that (the cultural representations of) prostitution reached it pinnacle at the fin de siècle, while in the 1900s, with women being allowed into the workforce and more favorable working conditions in place, prostitution declined. This claim is difficult to substantiate. The regulatory system that was in place in most of Western Europe throughout the 19th century means that we have an abundance of registry information of “public women” for this time period. Never before or after has there existed so complete a record of women who sold sex. So while prostitution “disappeared” from police and health records in the 20th century, numbers have not necessarily declined; instead, the regulation of prostitution has. Similarly, when the prostitute disappeared from the center of cultural representations in the 20th century, she may have done so for reasons other than that the demand for prostitution had diminished. An equally valid interpretation of the prevalence of representations of prostitution in the 19th century is that the representations expressed a heightened awareness of the problematic character of the phenomenon, and prostitution became so important in the Victorian era because it exemplified, expressed, and symbolized concerns about how society was developing. Campbell (2006) argued that while the fallen women was a central trope in early films about prostitution, decreased moral discomfort with the phenomenon and changing labor market opportunities for women throughout the 20th century meant that other tropes became prevalent, tropes that more explicitly integrated female agency, such as the happy hooker trope.

The modern representations of prostitutes and prostitution that informed much of 20th-century discourse were in many respects already found in, and a product of, the 19th century. One can find in the 19th century the origins of the differing, idiosyncratic, and at times antithetical images and representations of prostitutes that appear in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Investigating cultural representations of social phenomena like prostitution sheds light on the context that produces them. They are not only products of social values, but also something that acts in the world, in the sense that they have social effects (Valverde, 2006, p. 34). While not as central as in the 19th century, prostitution and the figure of the prostitute are recurring themes in popular culture, art, and media accounts in the 20th and 21st centuries (Campbell, 2006). As mentioned, the fallen woman trope became less important as the 19th century progressed, but the figure of the prostitute continued to be marked as a significant “other” to respectable, “normal” women, but in different ways (Campbell, 2006). This polarization contributed to “the whore stigma,” which not only affects women who sell sex but also disciplines all women (Pheterson, 1996). Cultural representation both reifies and challenges what can be thought and said about a phenomenon at any given time (Hall, 1997, p. 44), and this, in turn, guides what regulatory measures are considered appropriate. The fallen woman and the happy hooker tropes invite very different policies.

Further Reading

For general studies on representations of European prostitution in the 19th century, see:

Bernheimer, C. (1997). Figures of ill repute: Representing prostitution in nineteenth-century France. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Walkowitz, J. (1992). City of dreadful delight: Narratives of sexual danger in late-Victorian London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

For the United States, see:

Gilfoyle, T. (1992). City of eros: New York City, prostitution and the commercialization of sex, 1790–1920. London: W.W. Norton.Find this resource:

For Asia, see:

Hershatter, G. (1997). Dangerous pleasures: Prostitution and modernity in twentieth-century Shanghai. Los Angeles: University of California Press. Although Hershatter focuses mainly on the early 20th century, she also provides valuable information on the 19th century.Find this resource:


Bartley, P. (2000). Prostitution: Prevention and reform in England, 1860–1914. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

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(1.) While today museums are associated with publicly accessible exhibitions, we have chosen to also include salon exhibitions, crime/police museums, and World’s Fair representations, to better reflect available public representations of prostitution at the time.

(2.) We take modernity to be a term for a particular social ordering whereby, among other things, what is considered public and civil shifts in its boundaries and content.

(3.) Examples of famous late 18th- and 19th-century operas in which prostitutes have central roles are Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) Manon Lescaut (1893), La bohéme (1896), and La rondine (1917); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756–1791) Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782); Jacques Offenbach’s (1819–1880) The Tales of Hoffman (1881); Georges Bizet’s (1838–1875) Carmen (1875); Jules Massanet’s (1842–1912) Thais (1894); and Franz Lehar’s (1870–1948) Die lustige Witwe (1905).

(4.) Though Albertine i politilægens venteværelse is Krohg’s most famous painting, he painted a series of pictures depicting prostitutes and prostitution.

(5.) Albertine is written in the third person, but also in this genre are first-person narratives that in the 1890s became very popular in Northern Europe. According to Smith (2013), in Germany so-called true confessional stories by prostitutes were most in fact written by feminist reformers. Twentieth-century examples of this genre are Halvorsen (1982) and Edel (1979).

(6.) The opulent bedchamber of the courtesan Valtesse de La Bigne (1848–1910), who was made a countess by Napoleon III, has been said to have inspired Zola’s description in Nana. Valtesse was also a friend of Manet and posed for many of his drawings. She is also known to have been the lover and/or muse of several famous painters and writers.