Critics’ Picks

Édouard Manet, Plum Brandy, ca. 1877, oil on canvas, 29 x 20".


“Easy Virtue”

Van Gogh Museum
Museumplein 6
February 19–June 19

These days, the Van Gogh Museum is full of whores. “Easy Virtue,” which focuses on prostitution in nineteenth- to early twentieth-century French painting, is a historical exploration of a trade under scrutiny. The subject of Édouard Manet’s Plum Brandy, ca.1877, rests her head in her hand at a café table, the full glass before her suggesting she has just sat down. In her left hand dangles an unlit cigarette, awaiting a light from a potential client. Her skin is the same shade of pale, withered pink as her dress, but it is her tired, blank eyes that draw us in.

Learning how to read the signs of an available woman became an exercise of intrigue, for prostitutes often dressed the same as so-called respectable women in order to protect themselves. Certain professions, however, gave it all away; Jean Béraud’s Backstage at the Opera, 1889, depicts a crowd of older gentlemen in top hats sleazing among the ballet dancers after a performance. It was widely known among upper-class milieus that holding a season ticket to the ballet also entitled one to post-show favors from the dancers, who were poorly paid and needed supplemental income.

This extensive exhibition investigates the rich diversity of artists’ relationships to the subject; Degas, Van Gogh, Munch, Picasso, and Toulouse-Lautrec are but some of the big names represented, alongside fascinating historical relics, such as a prostitution map of nineteenth-century Paris. It’s particularly relevant as the city has recently been attempting to eradicate its famous Red Light District via contemporary art; former brothels are being handed over for free use to art students and other young creatives. To find out how misguided such a move is, one need only turn to Charles Baudelaire, who once asked rhetorically, “What is art?” His answer: “Prostitution.”