Courtesans In Art History: Who Were These Women? Why Where They So Important?

When we look at art we may ask who is this mysterious subject matter? What may have brought them to become the muse to the artist as well as the face to their master piece. Many artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro and Alphonse Mucha used courtesans as their subject focus in their work. A courtesan is basically a glorified prostitute and these women played major roles for a lot of artist when it came to exploring the worlds of art. These women were even known to be in works that dated back to the Renaissance era in which the term “courtesan” originated. They often helped bring together the vision that artist may have had for their work. A lot of the time the courtesans were the central point to the work that even played in with the details of the actual art itself.

  1. A Pair of Lovers Kitagawa Utamaro Date: 1795 2. Alphonse Mucha

To be more specific the term courtesan came from the fact that these were women of the court, which originated around 1540 (Knight 1). These women weren’t just regular prostitutes but that of high class. They charged a high price to lay with them or seek any one on one time. When the 1800’s rolled around especially in France, being a sex symbol wasn’t that bad of a lifestyle for some women. Especially due to the fact that in a place like France sex sold very easily because of their life style standards already planted in society. Don’t let it be mistaken though, It wasn’t all flowers and sunshine in some places like England in comparison to France. Women did have an opportunity to be very wealthy if they managed to become a successful courtesan. There are women who are still remembered till this day for being famous prostitutes. Nell Gwynne is a very infamous. She was a courtesan to many people of royalty such as the mistress to King Charles II (Cellania 1).

blog-3Courtesan, Nell Gywnne

   Back around the 1750’s and 1900’s prostitution was the norm, possibly even a sense of revolution to art. In Paris courtesans were one of the key subject for artists. These artists found modernity as well as inspiration for these women of the night (Farago 1). Toulouse-Lautrec’s is a good example of a famous artist that admired the use of these fast paced women in his art. He managed to capture them in such a natural, raw environment.


Toulouse-Lautrec’s Rue des Moulins shows the indignity of forced medical inspections that Parisian prostitutes endured

Without these women a lot of artist would not have been able to get into the true exploration that art had to offer during those important mile stones in history. These women weren’t just sex symbols but they allowed artist to venture off into a territory that may have been frowned upon in society. The provocative, lustful side these women added to art created this forced attention from society through art. It opened doors to an abundance of new views on the women body as well as self expression.


Works Cited:

Farago, Jason. “Courtesans and Street Walkers: Prostitutes in Art.” BBC. N.p., 10 Sept. 15. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

“Tag Archives: Nell Gwynne.” LA CONCHIGLIA DI VENERE. N.p., 25 Feb. 11. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

Cellania, Miss. “The Lady’s Not a Tramp: History’s Greatest Courtesans.”Neatorama. N.p., 30 Sept. 14. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

Knight, Eliza. “The Life of a Courtesan.” N.p., 09 Apr. 09. Web. 29 Sept. 16.


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