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Fallen Women

Page history last edited by Michael Evitts 11 years, 3 months ago

by Michael Evitts


Une Odalisque (1814) by Auguste Dominique Ingre


Olympia (1863) by Edouard Manet



Thoughts of the Past (1859) by John Rodham Spencer



               Commentary on the Images



            The term “fallen” women has a rather negative implication towards women who had sex with a men outside of marriage. The term is especially negative when applied to prostitutes during the Victorian era. W.R. Greg’s article Prostitution certainly confirms this negative attitude when he says, “We look upon fornication…as the worst and lowest form of sexual irregularity, the most revolting to the unpolluted feelings, the most indicative of a low nature,” (W. R. Greg 239). Greg continues discussing prostitutes, describing them as “outcasts, Pariahs, lepers” (239). In fitting with this image of “outcast” and “low nature” applied to fallen women, I looked at John Rodham Spencer Stanhope’s painting Thoughts of the Past made in 1859. The image depicts a prostitute in living at her home by the docks. The expression on her face is clearly a look of dissatisfaction. The way she clasps tightly onto her hair with her right hand and holds onto her brush with her left to me shows her lack of confidence or satisfaction. Going back to Greg’s comments on prostitution, it’s as if the woman in Stanhope’s painting internalizes the role of “outcast, Pariah, and leper” and they are becoming too much to handle for her. If we look through the window we see the docks outside of her home, busy with activity as we can see boats floating in the water. Since Stanhope has the woman inside, it does seem as if she truly is an outcast from what is considered normal society. Greg continues to discuss the prostitute’s life, “Passing over all the agonies of grief and terror she must have endured before she reached her present degradation” (W.R. Greg 240). The title itself Thoughts of the Past represents the agonies that Greg discusses. Looking again at the woman as she holds tightly onto her hair, it’s hard to argue that she’s doing anything but agonizing over her past.

            In contrast, not all views on fallen women are negative. In her article The Rise of the Fallen Woman Nina Auerbach discusses the possibility that woman turned to prostitution “as a part-time job on the path to eventual marriage and respectability” (Auerbach 32). Auerbach continues to argue that “In the works of Egg, Brown, and Hawthorne the woman’s fall transfigures her, making her the God of her world” (36). Two paintings that I feel transfigure the fallen woman into a god of her world are Jean Auguste Dominique Ingre’s Une Odalisque made in 1814 and Edouard Manet’s Olympia made in 1863. The title on Ingre’s painting means “Harem Woman” (Vergnette “Une Odalisque”, par 2). This title is fitting to the idea of a fallen woman. It would be hard to label the woman in the painting as a fallen woman without the translation of the title due to the elegant setting she is in. The curtains in the background and the fan she holds in her fan almost gives one the impression that she is someone of royalty. Unlike Stanhope’s painting of his fallen woman, Ingres’ fallen woman doesn’t seem to have any regret or agony over her current situation. If anything she looks content in her position. What I also find interesting is that while Stanhope’s woman seems unconfident and ashamed of her status, Ingres’ woman does not look ashamed despite the fact that she is nude and Stanhope’s woman is clothed. Une Odalisque to me is a perfect portrayal of a fallen woman becoming the God of her world. The position in which the woman is laying does not come off as submissive to me because if it was I would think she’d be lying perfectly on her back with her front facing the person in the room. Because her back is facing, it is as if the woman is only allowing the person to see what she wants them to see and the confidence in her face only adds to the status she has. Despite depicting a “fallen woman” in such a favorable view, the only critique met with the painting was the lack of anatomical reality to the body of the prostitute (par 1). This lack of anatomical reality could be due to the fact that Ingre favored long sinuous lines and that is how the woman’s back is drawn (par 4).

            The other painting, “Olympia”, is similar in portraying a fallen woman as “God of her world”. In this painting we see another prostitute, identified by the lace around her neck the slippers on her feet (Jones “Olympia, Edouard Manet (1863)” par 3). “Olympia” was exhibited in the Paris Salon and it caused a scandal regarding decency (Williams 1). In her analysis of the painting, Mary Williams suggests that despite the woman being a prostitute it’s as if Manet is worshipping her (1). One critic responded by writing, “What's this yellow-bellied Odalisque, this vile model picked up who knows where, and who represents Olympia?” (2). She is lying on a bed with almost a similar look as the woman in Une Odalisque. Also in this picture we see a Black maid at the side of her bed with a pillow in her hand. What is interesting here is that it looks as if the maid is applying her service to the prostitute. The presence of the maid adds to the definition of a fallen woman becoming a “God” and it also contradict’s Greg’s idea of a fallen woman being an “outcast”. In Ingres and Manet’s paintings, these women do not look like outcasts. Especially in Manet’s painting, the woman in Olympia has higher status than the maid because it is the prostitute laying comfortably on the bed while the maid works. This painting not only contradicts Greg’s negative comments about prostitution but it also raises the question over the status between women and women of color in the nineteenth century. It’s hard to view the prostitute as an outcast when she has someone working for her. She may not have the same exact status as a man and may be looked down upon for how she makes a living, but she may not always be subordinate as Manet’s painting would show.

            The dominate view of “fallen” women in the nineteenth century was mostly negative. Prostitutes were seen as being “low in nature” as Greg would put it. It would be easy for fallen women to internalize these negative stereotypes like the woman in Stanhope’s painting. It is also possible that the women were able to ignore the shame of their current lives and instead claimed a higher status for themselves, a status that didn’t see themselves as fallen and instead saw them as “a power transcending the retrieval of respectability” (Auerbach 51-52). I liked Ingres and Manet’s paintings because they do portray fallen women as women rising beyond their negative stigma, rising high enough to look down upon the men that labeled them in the first place.



                Works Cited


Auerbach, Nina. The Rise of the Fallen Woman. Ninteenth-Century Fiction, 1980

Greg, W.R. Prostitution. Westminster Review. Vol 53. 1850.

Jones, Jonathan. Jones. Olympia, Edouard Manet (1863). 20. Apr. 2002. The Guardian. 19 February 2009 < http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2002/apr/20/art>.

Vergnette, Francois de. Une Odalisque. 2009. Louvre Museum. 19 February 2009 <http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226311&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226311&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500815&fromDept=true&baseIndex=5&bmUID=1189640260361&bmLocale=en>.

Williams, Mary E. Manet’s “Olympia”. 2002. Salon.com. 15 April 15, 2009 <http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/masterpiece/2002/05/13/olympia/index.html>

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