Constantin Guys, "Fleurs du mal," Oct. 8, 2002-Jan. 5, 2003, at the Musée de la Vie romantique, 16 Rue Chaptal, 75009 Paris, France
Near the Place Pigalle in Paris, in the heart of "La Nouvelle Athènes," the neighborhood that once harbored the philhellenic intelligentsia of the romantic era, one can, by venturing into a discreet alley off rue Chaptal, recover hints of that brilliant epoch. The quaint Italianate house flanked by two communicating artists' studios at the end of this alley is now Le Musée de la vie romantique.
This architectural ensemble used to be the home and work place of the 19th-century artist Ary Scheffer. Fiery affairs like those of George Sand and Frederic Chopin took place in the area, and the quiet secrecy of illicit love-making is still palpably there. Revealing without an ounce of vulgarity a far less private form of 19th-century illicit love-making, more than 100 exquisite little sketches in ink and watercolor depicting ladies of easy virtue exercising their trade have been on view this winter in the studio spaces of the museum. They are all by Constantin Guys, a friend of Charles Baudelaire, the one named by his initials C.G. and extolled at length by the critic cum poet in The Painter of Modern Life.
Constantin Guys' "flowers of evil" -- painted between 1860 and 1864, and again between 1880 and 1885 -- look nothing like Degas' naked women awaiting clients in a brothel. His courtesans do not tempt men by displaying their nude bodies entirely. Most of them wear floor-length fluffy dresses pinched at the waist with generously low décolletages. Nor do they convey Toulouse-Lautrec's sexual intimacy with his models. Although some of the women are shown staring at the artist, many more are caught unaware of his presence.
In either situation, the charm that exudes from Guys' small gems has to do with an incisive line that captures each young woman in a different seductive pose: lifting her ample skirts in a graceful gesture of the arms and hands, leaning her nearly bare bosom toward a client, looking over a seated soldier with her hands firmly on her hips, or merely showing off her pretty face, fine neck, soft erogenous shoulders from a box at the Opera.
Also contributing to the seductiveness of the images is the artist's use of watercolor whose bleached hues, indefinite contours and near transparency help to convey the delicate sensuous rustle of the women's gorgeous attire. The informal framing of Guy's compositions further contributes to their liveliness. Particularly successful is the image of two young women, lifting their fluffy skirts and standing on tiptoe against a wall in semi-darkness, while on the far right side of the image, a pair of standing customers are seen through a narrow, partially opened doorway waiting inside a brightly lit anteroom. That this "freeze frame" quality owes something to photography is not a surprise, since Nadar was a friend of Guys'. The archetypal painter of modern life, Edouard Manet, was part of the same group.
Despite Baudelaire's outlandish praise of Constantin Guys, the artist's achievements have not received their due, while Edouard Manet, about whom Baudelaire did not write much, has obviously received his. It has been said that Baudelaire had health and other problems at the time that Manet came into his own. Baudelaire died in 1867. It has also been suggested that Baudelaire had Manet in mind when writing on Guys. However, according to the curators of the "Flowers of Evil" exhibition, Baudelaire collected sketches by Guys with avidity, gave some of Guys watercolors to his mother and even urged his publisher to join him in acquiring a number of these little gems. Over the years, collectors have accumulated them in quantity. In 1945, 24 of Guys' "Parisian women" series, owned by the French playwright Henri Bernstein, were published as colotypes by Pantheon books.
Guys, the son of a diplomat, was a very shy, insecure yet proud individual. He neither signed nor dated his pictorial efforts. He begged Baudelaire not to divulge his name in his writings about him, hence the recurring initials C.G. in the famous text The Painter of Modern Life. Though the artist carried himself with aristocratic bearing, he eked out a meager living as an illustrator for English and French weeklies, traveling and reporting on the wars and revolutions that raged throughout Europe during his lifetime. "Bulgaria, Turkey, Crimea, Spain have been great visual feasts for the eyes of M.G.," Baudelaire tells us. When in Paris, Guys frequented the same hauts lieux de plaisir as did Baudelaire. (The latter's descriptions of women in Le Peintre de la vie moderne bear an uncanny resemblance to Guys' female pictorial types.)
Simply put, Guys' forte was to be where the action was, in Crimea during the Crimean war, in Paris during the 1848 revolution, but also in the Parisian brothels, cafes, gambling houses, theaters and other places where the inveterate bachelor found company as well as material for reporting on "modern life."
The idea of "modern life," Linda Nochlin wrote in her famous text, Realism, created interest in new heroes, the working poor, and in a new anti-heroine, the "fallen woman." What the show at the Musée de la Vie romantique suggests is that the category of "fallen woman" is tough to circumscribe for, to judge by the variety of settings in which Guys places his beautifully clothed ladies of easy virtue, in the 19th century, a "fallen woman" cannot be identified by her dress code alone. The likes of her can be found in cheap brothels for sailors but also hosting elegant Salons. On the other hand, restlessness, a yearning for exotic adventures in and out of bed may well connote the quintessential figure of modern life -- a man in the 19th century, a woman in our own time. The Sexual Life of Catherine M., reviewed in these pages [see "The Vulnerable Sex"], is a case in point.
MICHÈLE CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).