The Affective Weight of Representing Sex Workers in the Context of Modernity: Toulouse Lautrec, Humor, Shock, and La Rue Moulins

Written by Brianne Chapelle
Edited by Miray Eroglu

As life became increasingly modern in the nineteenth century, rapid changes took place with industrialization, advancing technologies, and increased knowledge in the medical sphere – especially with regards to venereal diseases. There was an overarching feeling that things were changing. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s body of work historicizes these concerns, addressing thematically and with nuance the different emotive capacities of distinctive historical situations and subjects, particularly those occupying space within a bohemian milieu. Beheld retrospectively by the modern viewer, Lautrec’s representations of the can-can dancers, cabaret singers, and sex workers of Montmartre have been lifted into the “high art” realm. While his works now enjoy this elevated status in world class museum collections, they did not necessarily achieve this status in Lautrec’s lifetime, nor were they perhaps intended to do so. This fact is not in any way meant to contest these works’ status as high art, but rather serves to question the ways in which their content may have been glossed over for such highly public spaces. How these works’ affective subject matter is perceived differently in private versus public spaces and different time periods must also be addressed. Lautrec’s paintings often depict transgressive subjects in the Belle Époque moment. They have been canonized in modern art history and popularized for members of so-called polite society. The varying ways in which viewers have understood the visual language of Lautrec’s works depicting sex workers reveal the subject matter’s affective weight amidst the modern context of medicinal discourses and anxieties concerning the “femme fatale.” In particular, they explain the resulting failures to understand the works’ content and the concerns over their commercially viability.

Medical knowledge in this period, especially that related to venereal diseases, had a discursive impact on perceptions of art. The practice and advancement of medicine contributed to anxieties related to ostensible sexual deviants, a category in which sex workers were included. In her book, The Face of Medicine: Visualising Medical Masculinities in Late Nineteenth Century Paris, Mary Hunter discusses the negative ways in which people perceived “medical men” and sex workers. Lautrec is implicated in these discourses due to his art touching on themes related to this ideology and containing narratives that addressed the affective capacity medical knowledge had on people of the period. His 1896 lithograph L’Artisan Moderne (fig. 1) invoked modern and biting social commentary on medical men and demonstrated the public’s disdain for their perceived lechery, perverseness, and deviancy. In the lithograph, Lautrec depicts a decorator, holding a hammer and a toolkit reminiscent of a doctor’s bag. His gaze towards the woman, reclining in bed, under the covers, as he enters the space additionally implies how he is to be read as a doctor doing a house call to inspect the woman’s body. The inspection was one of the main tasks of doctors that disturbed the modern public.[1] This was a discourse of which Lautrec was aware and of which he had an opinion, shared through this type of biting social commentary that seems to call into question the concerns of the upper class.

Figure 1 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, L’Artisan Moderne, 1896, lithograph poster on tan wove paper, laid down on fabric, The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved from:

During this period, France enforced by law regulatory medical examinations of sex workers; these examinations were an apparatus of disciplinary power employed for the purpose of social control. Hunter points out that the same was not required of the sex workers’ customers. As such, though these customers would play a role in spreading the venereal diseases cited as cause for enforcing the examinations, they were not required by law to be examined in the same invasive way that the women were.[2] This all substantiates a bias in medical discourse, and the affective power of “medical men” as well as the knowledge they created about venereal diseases. This, in turn, was cause for negative affective responses to subjects perceived as sexually deviant in art and in life.

Related to this medical discourse are the depictions of the “femme fatale” trope in anxiety-ridden representations of deviant and transgressive women, a specific form of fear-mongering aimed at dismantling the position of women. Patricia Murphy discusses this newly modern trope as the “immutable female type.”[3] Art historian Reinhold Heller also discusses the phenomenon, in that deviant women were described as “grim ladies” before the term femme fatale was popularized, suggesting their capacity to create affective response.[4] On the rise during the same period of the works discussed herein was the notion that the femme fatale’s purpose was to be “a symbol of womanhood.”[5] Murphy expounds on the gendered relationship between art and history whereby women become immortalized subjects that represent the identity category of “woman” and not themselves as individuals. The male artist maintains his individuality and specific temporality within a history that represents an “explicitly masculinist perspective of female essence.”[6] Heller reinforces this notion that “the image of woman, obsessively rendered by the predominantly male artists, thus visualized the subjective realm, not of women actually experienced, but of subconscious desires, fears and anxieties that become self-perpetuating.”[7] That Lautrec was known to have acquired the company of sex workers could add complexity to his representation of them, in contrast to the many other representations of women not “actually experienced.”[8] Murphy draws on Julia Kristeva’s concept of “women’s time” and, in doing so, places importance on the way different subjects are seen throughout history.[9] In a similar vein, John Berger in his text, Ways of Seeing, expands upon how “the social presence of women is different in kind from that of a man” and is, thus, read by viewers as such.[10] In this manner, the way Lautrec’s oeuvre on sex workers would have been viewed in their time would have consequently impacted how they were promoted for sale.

Within this historical context then, it seems pointed to represent sex workers in a way that deviates from visual language of fear and anxiety towards the subject matter. In contrast with those popular tropes, Lautrec’s portrayals of sex workers humanized the women by showing them as themselves and not as symbols of danger. Reactions that are centered on these negative, fearful emotions, then, are related to the subject matter (ostensibly, sexually deviant sex workers) and the context in which they existed. People in the period were afraid of aberrant women, in part due to emerging modern medical discourses that bred anxiety about the spread of venereal diseases. Reactions to Lautrec’s works were connected to these fears, rather than necessarily reflexive of a message threaded into the painting by the artist. Some scholars have argued that Lautrec occupied the specific type of masculinist perspective that Murphy discusses, one that eroticized his female subjects. While this has been a compelling argument for some, there is evidence that suggests otherwise, including the visual language of Au Salon de la Rue Moulins (fig. 2) as it would have been understood during his time.

Figure 2 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Au Salon de la Rue Moulins, black chalk and oil on canvas, 1894-95, Musée Toulouse Lautrec, Albi, France.

Lautrec’s large-scale painting, Au Salon de la Rue Moulins, depicts of scene that has an implicit normality: sex workers looking bored and waiting possibly for a medical exam. Taking place in a lavish, opulent space, this scene is painted as quotidian, asordinary to the women inhabiting it; the women’s faces are expressionless and their body language comfortable, one woman even lifting up her skirt. With the exception of the lifted skirt, if these poses were all maintained, this could conceivably be regarded as a scene in a waiting room. This same bored and waiting narrative is used in Lautrec’s other representations of sex workers, a body of work created during the latter part of his artistic career.[11] An example from this catalogue of representations is The Sofa (fig. 3) from 1894-6 in which two prostitutes sit comfortably on a sofa having a discussion. They are relaxed and do not return the viewer’s gaze, implying their absorption in the conversation at hand as well as the documentary, observational quality of the painting, something further supported by the visibility of the brushstrokes.

Figure 3 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Sofa, oil on cardboard, ca. 1894–96, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

They way in which Lautrec’s representations of sex workers embody the affective subject position of the bored and waiting modern woman is reflexive of the works’ production during a time when conceptions of boredom and ennui were nascent.[12] Much has been expounded on the topic of boredom and art, a discussion very much informed by philosophical debates concerned with aesthetics and subjectivity and how people related to art. As Julian Haladyn argues,

The succession of art in modernity, especially within and following avant-garde approaches, marks a critical envisioning of the world based within the relation of the visual to the constitution of modern subjective experience. The crisis of meaning that boredom embodies is in this way manifestly related to the development of modern art and visuality as experiential categories that allow for a re-envisioning of the world from a definitively subjective or human perspective – with aesthetics as the critical language for defining such a visual impulse. Because of its relation to will, boredom becomes the possibility of an affective aesthetics that is intimately related to the development of subjective meaning within modernity.[13]

In other words, there is a newly affective (read also: bored) aesthetic born in the modern period in which viewers, I would contend, are visually confronted with their own reality by subjects embodying the “modern subjective experience.”[14] In Au Salon de la Rue Moulins, The Sofa, and Elles Lautrec sympathetically expresses his subjects’ boredom and affect in relation to the explicit realities of their context, a manifestation of Haladyn’s claim. Boredom seems an expression of normalcy within the painting, which disrupts accepted narratives regarding sex workers as dangerous and also disturbs those who would expect a demonization or eroticization of prostitution. There are several further signifiers situating Au Salon de la Rue Moulins in these contemporaneous discourses and their moment of artistic production; these signifiers “outed” the subjects as sex workers to viewers that possessed Michael Baxandall’s notion of the “period eye.”[15] The contemporary dress and black stockings were considered signs of promiscuity,[16] and, along with the opulent setting, place the narrative within a contemporary moment rather than in some fictive, unnamed, or allegorical space. When viewers were confronted with art of this kind, it proved to be unsettling and anxiety inducing, as was famously the case with Edouard Manet’s Olympia. Although none of the figures are nude and in fact almost the opposite, with the buttoned-up figure in the middle, they might as well have been, sine nudity was not what was necessarily controversial or all that was controversial. John Berger concludes that modern artists broke the “ideal” of the academic nudes by painting sex workers, subjects people recognized as such, citing Manet’s Olympia and its notorious reception as an example.[17] Further, the air of boredom, waiting, and ennui, a uniquely modern motif, seemingly born from both the new way in which artists were turning towards the “reality” of lived experience from the increasingly modern life that people found themselves living, lives fraught with issues caused by industrialization and modernization. In the case of sex workers, these were lives burdened with the very real impact of medical discourses, and likely by the discursive impact of society’s view of women living their kind of lifestyle.

In M.G. Dortu and Philippe Huisman’s text Lautrec on Lautrec, the reading of Lautrec’s use of sex workers as subject matter is more nuanced. It is framed by a quote from a biographer that interpreted Lautrec’s affinity for sex workers psychoanalytically, presuming that he was taken by sex workers because all other women held nothing but disdain for him due to his disability and appearance. This is a seemingly common reading of Lautrec’s psyche that Huisman and Dortu deconstruct and argue against. Huisman and Dortu discuss Lautrec’s ribald sense of humor as one that took pleasure in “turning the tables” on the so-called polite society of Paris, which he believed and witnessed to be just as “perverse” as the bohemian milieu. Seeing these members of “polite society” stumble out of brothels in the morning, Lautrec was “[greatly amused by] the formal bourgeois propriety of the brothels…on account of its marked contrast with the concept of vice and debauchery engendered in the minds of the uninitiated.”[18] Considering that Lautrec had the unique position of fitting into both of these worlds due to his aristocratic birth and acceptance within the bohemian locale, his sense of humor was one that poked fun at this contradiction within the bourgeois mindset, a humor that was sometimes lost on its targets.[19] Huisman and Dortu conclude that although “[n]o sordid or vile implications enter into Lautrec’s works on the theme of prostitution…He was nevertheless quite undismayed when people fell into the trap of accepting superficial appearances, of seeing nothing beyond the mask which hid his true personality.”[20] This clarifies how, while Lautrec did not need people to understand his humor, it was nevertheless there, authored into his work and life.

Au Salon de la Rue Moulins was painted at Lautrec’s studio from earlier studies at the eponymous brothel where he had taken up temporary residence. Heller discusses his temporary residence and frequent visits to “fashionable brothels” as an “analogous withdrawal into a public privacy.”[21] Sex workers, who he knew from the brothel, would come to model at his studio and felt him to be a trusted confidant.[22] It is important to mention that often models were also sex workers due to the infeasibility of making a livable wage from only one of these lines of work.[23] A photograph of Lautrec showing one of the models the painting in his studio (fig. 4) gives a sense of the painting being partially for these women with whom Lautrec had developed a kinship and historicizing them, rather than serving the male gaze or the possibility of commercial profit. The photograph, according to Dortu and Huisman, is a reflection of Lautrec’s ribald sense of humor, a joke for Lautrec’s friends, and presumably the model as well, as she holds a lance while he shows her the work.[24] It is a little witticism, one the model is in on, that may poke fun at this perception that femme fatales (which sex workers and models were seen as) were “dangerous.”

Figure 4 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with model holding a lance circa 1895. Image reproduced from Dortu and Huisman, page 121.

Also evident in other interpretations of the work is an affective response to the content, which speaks to this subject matter’s inherent ability to evoke an emotional response whether contemptuous, eroticizing, or otherwise. This is highly evident in the strategic ways the works were marketed to Parisian audiences. Attention was given to what should be private versus public; different precautions were taken and narratives were purified, in regard to both the works and Lautrec’s own life. Reinhold Heller, who has written extensively on Lautrec with particular attention to the sale of his works and their exhibition histories, views Lautrec’s works, including those that portray sex workers, as “[t]itillating voyeuristic scenes…probably made for his own and his male friends’ personal amusement;”[25] Heller thus suggests that Lautrec was either eroticizing or making a mockery of the subjects, a point with which I disagree. Heller further argues, in a chapter titled “Adieu Montmartre,” that there is sense that Lautrec was leaving the community of Montmartre and its bohemian culture behind because of a new marketing ideology for his works and a focus on sex workers as a new subject matter.[26] Heller advances this point, saying that Lautrec “inaugurated the purification and de-demonization of his art in the process of withdrawal from Montmartre and its ideologies”[27] and that after the painting of Au Moulin Rouge in 1895, both the Montmartrois and Montmartre “play only minor roles in his work.”[28] Crucially, Heller notes the commercial influence on such a project, saying: “Marketed by Joyant, celebrated above all for his lithographs, [Lautrec] withdrew from significantly controversial subjects, translated them into more neutral formulations, or accented technical refinements in their presentation.”[29] This pointedly suggests a concern with the marketability of these works, on the parts of both Lautrec, who was said to “inaugurate” such purification of his own work, and gallery owner Maurice Joyant. It seems that in some ways, Lautrec may have participated in keeping some works private and allowing others to be more public, but that he did not himself seek to “purify” his work and biography.

In a paper on Au Moulin Rouge, Heller argued that this kind of purification of Lautrec’s biography and oeuvre for commercial reasons was carried out by those who owned the paintings after his death in 1901.[30] This purification took quite a literal dimension, through the cut vandalism of the canvas (fig. 5) to remove the controversial Montmartrois figure of May Milton on the bottom right.[31] Heller focused particularly on Galerie Manzi-Joyant; co-owner Joyant was one of Lautrec’s main biographers, though he was likely very biased in his writing due to the monetary stake he had in Lautrec’s works. Some of the works that Heller discusses in relation to the theme of prostitution, including Au Moulin Rouge in particular, had a “function [that] was private, not public.”[32] That painting, Heller asserts, was notably vandalized to make it salable much after Lautrec’s death.[33] While it is critical that Heller discusses the market context of Lautrec’s works, they also served other roles and functions.

Figure 5 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Au Moulin Rouge, oil on canvas, ca. 1892-95, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Notable is the fact that Lautrec’s works even needed to be made marketable and were not already considered as such, due to their supposed lack of “purity” in the public sphere. This view concretizes the extant affective response audiences had to these works. The suggestion that Lautrec withdrew from controversial subjects,[34] such as sex workers, during the time when he prolifically depicted them as subjects, is questionable. Heller justifies this, saying that the sex workers were formally rendered differently than subjects of his earlier body of work and were more naturalistic[35] (though I would argue they retained a legibility to their contemporary viewers). With regards to the theme of prostitution, Dortu and Huisman contextualize its perception as scandalous, noting that, while painted nudes were in vogue at the Salon and in bourgeois homes at the time, prostitution was considered a “moral problem.”[36] The scandal in Lautrec’s works depicting prostitutes was therefore not their nudity but rather their legibility as sex workers. Beyond that and at the crux of Lautrec’s status as scandalous, was that “it was permissible to comment on any topic but not to call to account the accepted viewpoint.”[37] Lautrec’s rendering of prostitutes was controversial not because it was sensual or erotic, but because it was humanizing and, in that way, scandalous in its contestation of the accepted view of sex workers.

Other scholars, such as Richard Thompson, focus on public versus private spaces and how Lautrec’s works lived different lives, had different narratives, and had different affective impacts in each space. Such was the case with Au Salon de la Rue Moulins; in the studio, the work could afford humor with a model, but in other realms the work garnered diverse reactions from art historians and other viewers. Thompson discusses how Manzi-Joyant had a separate room for “the more risqué paintings” to which access was limited,[38] creating an in-between to the private sphere of the studio and the public one of the rest of the gallery. Only trusted friends (whose reactions could be predetermined as anything but offended) were allowed in the room. It is not known, however, which specific works were in that space. This suggests both an awareness of the sensitivity of certain subject matter and that Lautrec was not necessarily complicit in editing narrative aspects of his paintings, instead preferring to control who could see what – even if, as Heller notes, other people were interested in that kind of editing.

This specific commercial history of Lautrec’s works and how it displays particular affective responses of the time is present and evident in other works as well. The Museum of Modern Art owns the frontispiece of Elles (fig. 6), Lautrec’s 1896 lithograph series in which “carefully observed brothel scenes thwarts the expectation of the titillating or the tawdry, instead presenting quiet moments of mundane intimacy between a lesbian couple, possibly the Moulin Rouge clown Cha-U-Kao and her partner Gabrielle, who both appear in other works by Lautrec.”[39] MoMA further states that the work’s humanization of sex workers was commercially unsuccessful, as the specialist in erotica who commissioned it was dissatisfied with the finished work.[40] This is a case that demonstrates Lautrec’s disinterest in compromising his artistic vision – one that was compassionate towards sex workers –  for commercial benefit. In this way, it seems that his so-called abandonment of Montmartrois ideologies is only part of a marketing strategy and not necessarily a reality. What seems more probable is that Montmartre simply was not the same during the latter half of the decade, as prominent figures in his beloved bohemian community left the Moulin Rouge.[41] In a letter to his mother, Lautrec spoke highly of a family friend, saying: “Indeed, he was so agreeable as to go and look at my pictures at the Goupil Gallery and to show no sign of being appalled.”[42] This comment references the kind of audience experience he expected in the commercial gallery spaces featuring his work, i.e. one of shock.

Figure 6 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Frontispiece from Elles, lithograph, ca. 1896, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The very fact that whether or not Lautrec was objectifying or humanizing his subjects cannot be agreed upon suggests that there is an affective response to the subject matter which seems to reveal itself as subjective across different social groups and time periods. Bound up in what would have been relevant to those with the “period eye” regarding advancing medical discourses, the meaning of the “femme fatale,” and the meaning of boredom and ennui, Lautrec’s works depicting sex workers and other deviant subjects received a particular kind of affective response. This affective response was visible in Lautrec’s own sympathetic position on the matter, as opposed to other interpretations contemporary to and since Lautrec’s time, that he himself seemed to poke fun at, and was secondarily evident in the works’ commercial lives.




[1] Mary Hunter, The Face of Medicine: Visualising Medical Masculinities in Late

Nineteenth-Century Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 125-126.

[2] Hunter, The Face of Medicine, 126-127.

[3] Patricia Murphy, Time is of the Essence: Temporality, Gender, and the New Woman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 90.

[4] Reinhold Heller, “The Earthly Chimera and the Femme Fatale: Fear of Woman” in

Nineteenth-Century Art: An Exhibition (Chicago: David and Alfred Smart Gallery, 1981), 11.

[5] Murphy, Time is of the Essence, 91.

[6] Murphy, Time is of the Essence, 91.

[7] Heller, “The Earthly Chimera,” 5.

[8] Heller, “The Earthly Chimera,” 5.

[9] Patricia Murphy, Time is of the Essence: Temporality, Gender, and the New Woman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 90-92.

[10] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 45.

[11] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Sofa” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History,

[12] Elizabeth S. Goodstein, Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2005), 107.

[13] Julian Jason Haladyn, Boredom and Art: Passions of the Will to Boredom (Winchester, UK : Zero Books, 2015), 32-33.

[14] Haladyn, Boredom and Art, 32.

[15] Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy; A Primer in The Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 27.

[16] Catherine Bradley, “Victorian II: 1869-1899,” McGill University, Montreal, QC, September 20, 2016. This bit about black stockings was gleaned from this lecture on fashion by Catherine Bradley.

[17] Berger, Ways of Seeing,63.

[18] Philippe Huisman and M. G. Dortu, Lautrec by Lautrec (New York: Galahad Books, 1964), 134.

[19] Huisman and Dortu, Lautrec by Lautrec, 120.

[20] Huisman and Dortu, Lautrec by Lautrec,  121-122.

[21] Reinhold Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec: The Soul of Montmartre (Munich: Prestel, 1997), 94-95.

[22] Huisman and Dortu, Lautrec by Lautrec, 137.

[23] Hunter,The Face of Medicine, 125.

[24] Hunter,The Face of Medicine, 125.

[25] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 98.

[26] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 100-101.

[27] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 100-101.

[28] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 100-101.

[29] Reinhold Heller, “Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘At the Moulin Rouge,’” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 12, no. 2 (1986).

[30] Heller, “Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘At the Moulin Rouge.’”

[31] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 90.

[32] Heller, “Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘At the Moulin Rouge.’”

[33] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 98.

[34] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 98.

[35] Huisman and Dortu, 134.

[36] Huisman and Dortu, 134.

[37] Richard Thompson, The Troubled Republic: Visual Culture and Social Debate in France, 1889-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 2.

[38] Thompson, The Troubled Republic, 2.

[39] Museum of Modern Art, “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Frontispiece from Elles 1896,”

[40] Museum of Modern Art, “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Frontispiece from Elles 1896.”

[41] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 90.

[42] Heller, Toulouse-Lautrec, 123.

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