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Uncertain Interiors: Bourgeois Homes and Brothels Under the Third Republic


By 1890, the French government under the Third Republic seemed on the brink of political and social disaster. Anarchists were planting bombs in Parisian cafes, the birthrate was declining, and Germany—who had won a war against France in 1870—was surpassing her economically. In this time of political and social anxiety, women became increasingly important in the rhetoric of the Third Republic, as the regime determined to actively support the decorative arts in an effort to revive France as the world’s producer of fine feminine luxury goods. This rhetoric relied on a clear social and physical separation between the bourgeois woman (purveyor of the home and mother of France’s future citizens) and the prostitute (society’s necessary receptacle for the dangerous male lust that found no place in the bourgeois home).

Using two paintings of feminine interiors—one of a bourgeois home, the other of a brothel—by contemporary painters Edouard Vuillard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, respectively, this paper explores the ways in which the opposition of the bourgeois woman to the prostitute became increasingly difficult to maintain as the century turned. The boundaries between the bourgeois home and the brothel began to rupture with the migration and mixing of social and class signifiers within these highly charged spaces, and with the threatening emergence of a new, highly independent bourgeois woman (femme nouvelle). The collapse of this rigid distinction between the two spaces reflected more serious social changes and threats as the Third Republic descended into the political turmoil that would lead ultimately to its war with Germany in 1914.

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