Figures of Ill Repute

Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France

Figures of Ill Repute

Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 44 illustrations Published: May 1997

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Ubiquitous in the streets and brothels of nineteenth-century Paris, the prostitute was even more so in the novels and paintings of the time. Charles Bernheimer discusses how these representations of the sexually available woman express male ambivalence about desire, money, class, and the body. Interweaving close textual analysis with historical anecdote and theoretical speculation, Bernheimer demonstrates how the formal properties of art can serve strategically to control anxious fantasies about female sexual power. Drawing on methods derived from cultural studies, psychoanalysis, social history, feminist theory, and narrative analysis, this interdisciplinary classic (available now for the first time in paperback) was awarded Honorable Mention in 1990 for the James Russell Lowell prize awarded by the Modern Language Association for the best book of criticism.


"Figures of Ill Repute is no less than a brilliant achievement in the debates on sexuality and representation." — Heather Dawkins , Art History

"[A] fund of insights into the phobias and fantasies that have inspired men to treat women—and to represent female sexuality, commodified or not—as inherently corrupt, rapacious, and full of danger." — Frances Gouda , Women's Review of Books

"A remarkable achievement that can be recommended to anyone interested in nineteenth-century European culture." — Francine du Plessix Gray , New York Review of Books

"Charles Bernheimer explores a broad range of representations of prostitutes in works of art and literature from 1840–1890. In this landmark study on prostitution, Bernheimer asserts that for French writers and artists throughout the nineteenth century, the prostitute epitomizes ‘the obsessive fear of woman’s sexual nature’. . . . The breadth of Bernheimer’s classic study makes it an invaluable contribution to scholarship on prostitution and nineteenth-century art and literature in general. His work will benefit a wide range of students and scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; indeed, whether one studies art history, literature, cultural studies, women’s studies, history, psychoanalysis, or literary criticism, Figures of Ill Repute will stand as a treasured resource to which you return again and again." — , Nineteenth-Century French Studies

"Combining psychoanalysis, narrative theory, new historicism, and the newly minted approaches of ‘men in feminism,’ Bernheimer traces male fantasies of the prostitute from Balzac to Huysmans. An impressive sweep of the nineteenth-century canon is brought into play. . . . [A] pioneering work." — Emily Apter , Novel

Figures of Ill Repute brilliantly explores the prostitute’s embodiment of the threat of female sexuality and her subjection to artistic strategies of containment. [Bernheimer’s] compelling readings of Balzac, Manet, and Zola and his provocative discussions of Flaubert and Degas advance debates about sexuality and representation and refocus the history of modernity.” — Jonathan Culler

“[A]n important work. . . . Shifting nimbly from close textual analysis to biographical or scientific information, from psychoanalytic speculation to anecdotes of social history, this original, exciting study offers . . . a truly liberal view of the seriousness and importance of all our representational activities.” — Leo Bersani


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Charles Bernheimer is Professor of Romance Languages and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Flaubert and Kafka and coeditor of In Dora’s Case.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface to the Duke Edition vii

Acknowledgments xi

List of Illustrations xiii

Abbreviations xvii

Introduction 1

1. Parent-Duchâtelet: Engineer of Abjection 8

2. Cashing in on Hearts of Gold: Balzac and Sue 34

3. Barbey's Dandy Narratives 69

4. Manet's Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal 89

5. The Idea of Prostitution in Flaubert 129

6. Degas's Brothels: Voyeurism and Ideology 157

7. Decomposing Venus: The Corpse of Naturalism 200

8. Huysmans: Syphilis, Hysteria, and Sublimation 234

Conclusion 266

Notes 277

Credits 321

Index 323
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1947-4
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