This painting, depicting a scene not so different from one we could find today in the same location, has a cheeky hidden context.
Clutch your pearls and grab your smelling salts respectable folks!
WE’RE TALKIN’ PROSTITUTION
A reproduction of the lost original and first shown in salons in the early 19th century, artist Louis Léopold Boilly barely escaped the Reign of Terror thanks to his habit of pushing the boundaries of propriety with his “morbidly obscene” yet realistic style of painting. He continued to scandalize the slightly less rigid standards of a post-Revolutionary Paris with this scene of a seemingly normal moment in the day to day Bourgoise life of Parisian men, women, and children at the Palais Royal.
However, on further inspection there are a few clues that show this is anything but an appropriate family afternoon outing.
To start, we got a few ladies of leisure, who can be identified by their scandalously bare arms, naked ankles, and flimsy dresses. Accompanying them are upper middle class men whose reputations are high enough to afford a little afternoon delight without risking their honor or position.
On the far left, there seems to be a minor dispute. Monsieur clutches the railing, perhaps he feels the price tag of this ménage à trois is too high. Beside them we see the round rump of a girl lifting her skirts, probably giving potential buyers a taste of the goods before they commit to buy. The woman above her seems to say “for fecks sake Constance, you are giving it all away! I can see the outline of your knee through those five layers of petticoats!”
To the right, a satisfied customer grasps the waist of a visibly annoyed lady, who is probably thinking “Hell no we will not be Facebook friends. Pay up and back off, I got things to do.”
Moving along, a women is batting her eyes at potential customers, maybe trying to sweeten the deal. “You want me to put that cane up your bum? Ok but there’s a 15% added charge for sodomy”. A child looks up beside her, is it a decoy to make this scene more PG?
On the far right we have a Mademoiselle stroking a dog in a basket, held by a man who appears to be translating for his turbaned master who stands behind them looking on. The woman between them is the Pimp; her arms around them both while negotiating the price.
The garden and galleries of the Palais Royal were well known for their more libertine activities, and this was a popular hotspot for working ladies of all classes who came here to “faire leur palais”. This was even where pre-Emperor Napoleon picked up a lady who he lost his V-card with! (see related post below!)
As many as 600-800 women lived and worked at the Palais Royal until Louis-Philippe forbid prostitution there in 1830.