Working Women

Edouard Manet
Le Bar aux Folies-Bergere (The Bar at the Folies-Bergere) 1881

Manet's bar maid is represented in such a way that she is visually pleasing to the male viewer.  Manet wanted to show this woman as a working woman not just serving drinks to men, but also as a part of the entertainment of the bar itself.  Although this painting was exhibited in the Salon in 1882 and very successful, it is still a very modern picture. Critics today question the participation of the viewer in this painting--on the one hand, the viewer would be reflected on the wide mirror in the back, however, since this is a painting, no such reflection occurs...

Edgar Degas

Woman Ironing 1869

After painting ballet dancers, Degas turned his interest briefly to laundresses.  It is believed that many of these pictures were finished with the help of photographs that he took of these women working.

As in Le Bar aux Folies Bergere, the woman is placed frontally, facing the viewer, as if asking whether the client needs tending to.

This theme of urban working women was a break from the usual Salon portrayal of women.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec
Elles, The Seated Clown (Mlle. Chao-U-Kao)

Lautrec as a post impressionist, shocked many of his contemporaries with his studies of women "of the night".  This included women performers, dancers (such as Jane Avril, Loie Fuller, and La Goulue--famous for her can can dances), singers (such as Yvette Guilbert), clowns such as the woman we see in this litograph, Elles,The Seated Clown (Mlle. Cha-U-Kao), and several prostitutes.

Mlle. Chao-U-Kao, as she was called, was photographed doing the splits on a decorated trunk chest. In this piece, she opens her legs with her folded hands suggesting her sex.  This type of pose was perhaps never explored in the history of painting until Lautrec had the gumption to portray women in these poses. It is not clear whether Mlle. Chao-U-Kao performed on stage as well as off-stage for money. Here she seems tired and dejected, on her own, as in the background a gentleman and his escort walk off into a brightly lit room. Lautrec did a series of lithographs of "women performers of the night" called Elles--this is one in that series.

The color used by Lautrec is strident.  The bright yet dirty yellows, the jaded pinks.  The faded colors of worn-off make up on the clown's face.The black emphasizing the wide open stance of the woman.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Yvette Guilbert Greeting the Public 1894

Although the woman portrayed in this piece seems to be at least middle-aged, this was in fact a portrayal of the young Yvette Guilbert, a renowned cabaret performer and singer. What Lautrec drew was the dramatic insight that this performer brought to her songs. Without a prop, she would create drama or comedy from her short poems or songs. She could impersonate old bag ladies, prostitutes, men on the scaffold, and cynical gentlemen with her impressive vocal range and stage presence. Sigmund Freud, a friend of Guilbert, tried to analyse her technique but admitted it was a mystery as to how she could vividly impersonate such a wide variety of characters--and how the audience would unanimously answer "yes" to the question she threw on stage Dites-moi si je suis belle? or Say yes if I am beautiful?

Lautrec could have been influenced by Japanese prints on this particular piece. The starkness of the composition, the coloring, and the flat perspective, show traits of the "floating world" of Japanese artists. 

Many critics of the time considered Lautrec's work "filth" because of its frank subject matter. He had no compunction about depicting the night life in which he was completely immersed. At one time in his life, he lived in a room in a Paris whorehouse.