Oct. 19th, 2010

men_in_full: (opera goers)

Artist Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931) liked to draw scenes from the late nineteenth century Paris demi-monde.

As individuals mingled in public places of amusement it became more difficult to pigeonhole their places in the social hierarchy. [Forain was] among the first to investigate the beer halls, cabarets, cafe-concerts and dance halls where women and children went out at night, sometimes without being properly escorted by men ...

I like the sly, half-concealed expression on the woman's face as she glances over to the man on her right. It's as if the artist captured her in the middle of one of those fleeting expressions which reveal underlying feelings.

And who is she, anyway, and what's the significance of that sideways glance? We could assume she's a prostitute or courtesan, but maybe not. As stated above, one of the features of Parisian life at this time was how social categories became increasingly blurred, especially for women. Because a woman sat alone in a restaurant didn't necessarily mean she was a "working woman." Middle-class, "respectable" women in Paris might have assignations at the maisons des rendezvous, or pursue affairs on their own. On the other hand, the man is probably exactly what he seems to be - a prosperous middle-class man hanging out in a Montmartre cafe, most likely open to the attentions of the woman to his side. The difference, though, is the "female gaze" to which she subjects him. And in capturing that brief moment, Forain documents a whole sea-change in cultural history.


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