“Immoral”—that is the judgment the Salon jury handed down to this painting by 26-year-old Henri Gervex, firmly rejecting the work from the 1878 show. Surprisingly the offending element was not the slumbering nude blissfully draped across the bed, or rather it was not her alone. Nudes, especially classically beautiful ones like this, had long been an admired tradition in academic French painting. What really shocked the Salon jury—and the hoards of people who flocked to see the scandalous painting in the gallery where it hung after its exclusion from the Salon—was the pile of clothing on the floor next the bed. The pink dress, stiff white petticoat, rose-colored garter, and red (red!) corset—there they were, undeniable evidence of the libidinous speed with which they had been removed, undeniable evidence that the woman stretched across the bed was no classical idealized form, no abstract idea of Woman, no mere artist’s model, but a lusty prostitute in the flesh.
Well, “in the flesh” might be a little much; she and the rest of Gervex’s racy scene were inspired by fiction, an 1833 poem by Alfred de Musset. The poem, perhaps sparked by Musset’s despair over his and novelist George Sand’s fitful love affair, recounts the downward spiral of a bourgeois gentleman, Jacques Rolla, who amid his debaucheries, falls for a teenage prostitute, Marie, and lavishes his every last cent upon her. Gervex’s painting depicts the antihero’s final moments; looking upon his young lover and realizing his utter ruin, he is about to commit suicide by drinking poison. In case viewers were not familiar with the story of Musset’s poem, Edgar Degas reportedly advised Gervex to include “the dress she’s taken off” and “a corset on the floor.” When the Salon jury and everyone else were so outraged by Rolla, Degas was apparently thrilled, proclaiming, “You see… they understood she’s a woman who takes her clothes off.”
Those clothes, in addition to being so hastily thrown to the floor, contain another clue to Marie’s line of work. The corset—splayed open to show its white underside, her lover’s cane suggestively poking out from underneath—is red! Corsets were, of course, a staple of all women’s fashions in the late 19th century, but respectable women wore plain white cotton or linen undergarments. Only the more fashionably adventurous, i.e. courtesans and actresses, ventured into the just blossoming world of erotic undergarments—sensuous fabrics like satin and silk, eye-catching colors like pink, blue, and red, and embellishments of lace and ribbons. Such seductive underattire eventually became more widely popular between the 1890s and the 1910s, but in 1878 when Gervex painted Rolla, these titillating wears were still the reserve of a certain kind of lady, a clear signal that they were meant to be seen—and as Degas suggested, quickly and passionately removed.
—Lauren S., Associate Director of Communications
Image Credit: Henri Gervex. Rolla, 1878. Musée d’Orsay, bequest of M. Béradi, 1926, LUX 1545.