When we stare up at a painting in a museum or gallery, we often just try to take it in, right? What is the subject? Who are the people in the painting — the real life muses or the people they’re supposed to represent? It often takes us a while to really get the painting, sometimes needing a manual or guide to understand what the artist intended with their brush. Sometimes it takes a lot of time for us to come up with a personal reaction or connection to the piece. Sometimes we feel something in an instant.
For centuries and millennia, the female form has been captured on canvas in so many lights: the devoted mother, the heartbroken sister, the scorned mistress, the awaiting lover. Artists have never been shy to honestly capture the world around them, and in doing so they are some of our greatest sources at understanding how escorting has been viewed at throughout the ages.
In ancient Greece (about 500 BC) there were three levels of companionship: slave-born prostitutes, free-born prostitutes and hetaerae — educated, refined women who entertained clients the way today’s escorts do. Along with being some of the only educated women in Greece, they were taxpayers, a female class amongst themselves. The artwork of the time shows them in respectful ways — relaxing in luxurious environments, welcoming their clients and lovers while decked in beautiful clothing. They were looked upon as business associates, and while not politically equal to men, were in some ways in higher social standing than even married women at the time. We know of at least one hetaera who attained the highest social status through association with key political figures.
Centuries later, prostitution and escorting faced major challenges as Christianity swept Europe, reflected in the extremely religious artwork of the period. But beginning with XIV century Italy, prostitution was never quite completely swept under the rug again.
In this painting we once again see the talents of a European escort. Though infatuation with the naked female form did mean the subjects would be painted a bit more exposed in general, the artist took great pains to show a woman playing on a lyre, while men drunkenly slept around her. This is not the scene of a dirty brothel, but one of enjoyment, warmth and comfort. In part this is because the government funded brothels of all sorts, realizing that prostitution was vital to a healthy social atmosphere. As in many countries today, government-regulated prostitution not only meant that the sex-for-hire trade was legal, but also that the women involved in it had real rights and protection.
While it went through massive cycles of condemnation and acceptance through the next few hundred years, escorting found a welcome home with the impressionist painters of the late XIX and early XX century in Europe. These artists brought the female form on canvas with passion and respect, protecting their anonymity, honoring their bodies and reserving judgment for their profession.
In this painting, Manet depicts a high-class escort waiting for a client, attended to by a servant. It was both condemned for its “vulgarity” by some while being hailed as a masterpiece by others. The French writer Emile Zola remarked
When other artists correct nature by painting Venus they lie. Manet asked himself why he should lie. Why not tell the truth?
The other artists had replicated painter Titian’s Venus of Urbino with similar depictions of goddesses and more wholesome women, and included the original presence of a dog, which represented fidelity. Instead, Manet included a black cat, which represented prostitution. The woman’s steady and direct gaze looks directly at the spectator, and the orchid in her hair and black ribbon on her neck show signs of her wealth and style. He purposely gives his subject power over men in her confidence, with her left hand guarding access to the source of her power.
Similarly, Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon shows his subjects blatantly looking at the viewer while protecting their identities by making their faces completely unrecognizable and almost ugly. He honors their image and sexuality by exaggerating their features, making their profession known by the extremely provocative way they carry their bodies. The fruit at the bottom of the painting is also incredibly lush and sexual.
In impressionist painter Jean-Loius Forain’s Le Client ou Maison we get a very Parisian feel that brings to mind the excitement of the Moulin Rouge and bawdy nightlife scene. His subjects flirt with their potential client, exposing their gorgeous parts with sensuality. The John is dressed in high-class style with top hat and cane, and leisurely takes his time selecting his partner for the evening. The bright, warm colors are sensual and provocative, and the short brush strokes give an air of action and excitement.
The subject continued in the post-impressionist era and found a home in the fascinating painter Pan Yuliang. Yuliang herself was orphaned from a young age and sold into prostitution by her uncle. She excelled in the profession, and used her wages to help her move into other work and then eventually to study painting in Shanghai and Paris, developing her own modernist technique.
In her native China, Yuliang’s works were stigmatized for their “vulgarity”. She moved to Paris where she continued to paint and teach.
Her female subjects range incredibly, but her respect for them and their sexuality is constant. Here the model sits with breasts exposed, at a table of liquor and cigarettes, a pleased smile and daydreaming eyes permeating her face. We’re not sure if Yuliang’s subjects themselves are escorts, but their open sexuality and confidence lend themselves to the idea. Once again we see vibrant colors and textures that give the canvas an incredible energy and life. Through the roundness of the body we feel strength and satisfaction of a woman who owns her fate and life-choices.
Hundreds of other examples abound of the escort trade from palette to canvas, with varying techniques even within their artistic medium. While these painters received much criticism from those both in and outside of the art world, they held onto their beliefs that the female form and a woman’s right to make her own choices should be celebrated and not reviled.
As is similar to other forms of artistic expression, the artist imbued their work with their own personal opinion — social, political and spiritual — while utilizing the styles, stories and subjects that came before them. When we look at the paintings the muses are protected — they are images on canvas, and we can never know with complete surety who they might have been in real life. Often the subjects were indeed real people, but not necessarily escorts. Picasso used figures of his own family members, obscuring their faces to keep their identities safe while celebrating their bodies as those of the prostitutes. The ancient Greeks often left no note of the sources, instead showing their reverence of the profession of the hetaera.
We obviously have many things to learn from these pieces, and much that we could question. But what may be most important are the connections we make ourselves when looking at them. What we see in the subjects — how they are looking at us, who they might have been, and what they might have thought of the world.
Which is what we should be wondering in the women of the escorting profession now. Looking at the woman for the woman. Not judging her for her profession, but taking it in as a part of who she is and how she views the life she lives. Adoring her beauty.