Interrelations between the painter and the novelist and their depiction of the Grandes Horizontales
"Come and see sincere works." - Manet, 1867
The intriguing, scandalous and sometimes fascinating stories about woman who consider their body as a commodity and dare to take advantage of it always provokes a lot of speculations and discussions in the society. ‘Loudly’ or ‘quietly’ prostitution has always existed and, as long men and women are on the Earth, it will be so and occur in a variety of forms.
This topic has found distinctive depictions in both the art and literature of the day. In the 19th century, predating Zola’s novel Nana by 20 and 40 years, great novels like Les Miserables (1862) by Hugo and The Lady of the Camellias (1848) by Dumas described prostitution as subject in varying degrees of social response.
Victor Hugo shows how the misery caused by poverty, hunger, loneliness and abandonment creates in society the condition that leads women into prostitution as a form of slavery. Fantine, the main character in Les Miserables, has her soul for sale for a piece of bread. We can read Hugo's sympathetic portrayal of prostitution. He views prostitutes as "fallen women" who though usually unmarried or disgraced are still essentially morally good have been forced into prostitution and frequently excluded from society. There were thousands of women just like Fantine in 19th century Parisian society. 
Alexandre Dumas unlike Victor Hugo was not someone who empathized with the plight of women in the nineteenth century. Although he was known to have affairs he had quite a different view of women and prostitution than Hugo did. Perhaps, from his personal disappointment and heartbreaking affair with famous courtesan Marie Duplessis (fig.1), Dumas came to see life ‘as a battle between the women and men’. ‘Young men in the Second Empire,’ he thought, ‘had become hard; the women provocative.’ In fact the French dramatist went to extreme in blaming the defeat of France by Prussia in 1870 on the prevalence of prostitution in Paris. So prostitution was built into the social system, and the moral obligation was to accept it as a problem and to adapt it. The crack that this causes in the moral code of the society did not appear to Dumas until near the end of his life. 
It is important to remember, however, that there were as many varying categories of prostitutes as there were social classes in Paris at the time. At the opposite end of the spectrum were courtesans, who were kept mistresses of the bourgeoisie and nobility, and often chose this particular lifestyle for its relative freedom and assured luxury.
So called Grandes Horizontales were the most famous courtesans in 19th Century France, Paris (fig.1). Being supported by wealthy men who provided them with anything they could ever want, they lived in a more comfortable way then some of the bourgeoisie. Some of them even played the important social role as very educated ladies, fashion leaders, art and jewelry collectors. Also known as the Grandes Abandonnées they were usually the women of upper class turned to the world of courtesan because they didn’t accept marriage as a business deal rather then an act of true love like it was common in the nineteen century. Getting a great deal of money and jewelry presents given by their admires Grandes Horizontales afforded to live in luxury without confines of a husband.
There were also ladies who came from the lower class and earned their position using their beauty, charm, intellect, and connections and, basically, luck to establish themselves as Grand Horizontales at the top of their career.
That was the case of Nana, the main character of Emile Zola’s novel and Eduard Manet’s (1832-1883) painting, to whom I will come back to in greater detail. For now I would like to show the importance of two of Manet’s related works of art, Le Dejeuner sur l'herb (1863) and Olympia (1863), the predecessors of Nana’s portrait... (Press the link below Read More)
Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l'herd and Olympia, 1863
A new chapter of art was opened in spring 1863 in Paris when Napoleon III allowed the public to judge the rejected works of art in the exhibition Salon Des Refuses, which was the appendix to the established main Salon. That was the Emperor’s response to numerous complains that reached him on subject of works of art which have been refused by the jury of the Official Salon. 
The Salon Des Refuses indented to change all the rules of art, and expose the quintessential art about art. An example of the type of painting exposed was the highly scandalous Le Dejeuner sur l'herb (Luncheon on the Grass) (Fig.2), which revolutionized the depiction of the woman and the message which it indented to deliver. The picture showed four people, two men fully clothed, the woman in the back is in her undergarments while the woman in the foreground is completely nude. The sharp, personified portrayal of naked woman who is staring directly out at the viewer was not considered acceptable. The painting really asks the question what exactly is for ‘lunch’.
When Le Dejeuner sur l'herb, by Edouard Manet was shown it was at the time when although nude portraits were seen they were of mythical or ancient women or goddesses. None have them portrayed women of the time and they certainly did not glorify the courtesan who, though they certainly existed were not discussed or publicly viewed by everyone. It brought the fact that courtesans existed into the public eye in a way that had not been done before. Naturally, the responses to it were not all very favorable, and even Napoleon III claimed, "It offends against modesty." 
Though, Manet was mocked by critics, he found a defender in the person of Emile Zola, who was particularly interested in the artists rejected by the official critics. Zola responded by the following words: "The public was scandalized by this nude, which was all it saw in the painting. 'Good heavens! How indecent! A woman without a stitch on alongside two clothed men.' Such a thing had never been seen before! But that was a gross mistake, for in the Louvre there are more then fifty canvases in which both clothed and nude figures occur.” 
Zola regarded Manet, who was contested by traditionalists, as one of the masters of the future, whose place was in the Louvre. In 1866, he wrote an article on Manet in La Revue du XXe siècle and defended him again in the following year when he organized a private exhibition on the fringes of the Universal Exhibition.
To thank him, Manet offered to paint Zola's portrait (Fig3). This memorialized the start of a loyal friendship between Manet and Zola, both eager for success. The sittings took place in Manet's studio. It was arranged for the occasion with items characteristic of Zola's personality, tastes and occupation. . In 1867, the article was published as a slim brochure with a blue cover, which you see in the painting below in full view on the table (Fig.3).
On the wall is a reproduction of Manet's Olympia, a painting which sparked a fierce scandal at the 1865 Salon but which Zola held to be Manet's best work. [5.1]
In Olympia (Fig.4), painted shortly after the Le Dejeuner sur l'herb in 1863, Eduard Manet again depicted not a popular subject capturing the real life person. The public was confused by such details as a black servant and a black cat but were mainly outraged by the nude courtesan who, with her pale skin almost becomes one with the bed. Victorine Meurent who modeled for the nude was already seen in Le Dejeuner sur l'herb and is depicted as a woman whose body is a commodity. Although middle and bourgeoisie gentlemen were closely familiar and frequently visited courtesans they did not want to be confronted with one in an art gallery. The nude is the most striking focal point of entire scene; it shocks the view with the artificial quality of the figure, although, Zola said that it has “such resplendency of life” because she was so sincere and real. 
Edouard Manet, Nana, 1877
Nana (Fig.5) is an example of one of Manet's later works, which follows Olympia and Le Dejeuner sur l' Herb and remains similar to the these two paintings. At first it seams a less shocking painting compared to its predecessors because the courtesan is clothed. But it is not so in the 19th century reality because Nana is half dressed, in her undergarments and tightly knotted corset, which makes the image rather more provocative with the erotic suggestion. The man's cane is a phallic symbol, which was often employed at the time. 
Standing in front of a mirror, applying make-up, Nana is of course aware of her visitor. The fact that the male who is watching her performance is such an unimportant part of the composition did also cause a stir. The gentlemen visitor is shown only on the very edge of the painting, that makes him less important while the courtesan in the center of the composition. In this way painter has uplifted the status of her character.
Everyone is looking at Nana, the mirror is aimed at her and the caller is looking at her. The bourgeois up-to-date interior with curved sofa seems to encompass and frame Nana's body. She in return stared out from the center of the picture with a slight smile.
Nana scandalously meets the eye of the viewer with the confidence that she was equal to the viewer or at the very least not ashamed. This painting gave a name and a face to another courtesan while no one wanted to be reminded of courtesans as real people; yet with this painting it is hard to remain ignorant. This was a deliberate affront thrown by Manet into the face of the public. Courtesan had a name and it clearly showed everyone that such people existed, although everyone knew they hated to be reminded and pretended that prostitution did not exist.
Manet’s method for capturing modern French life was emphasized by his subject matter treatment in 'all prima' technique. This means that the artist painted 'at once' what he saw in the moment, rather than depend on extensive reworking in the artist's studio of a painting. He established the value of obtaining the true atmosphere.  Nana is the heroine of Zola’s novel of the same name published few years later.
Nana in Zola’s novel
Emile Zola is already a close friend of Manet by the of publishing the novel Nana in 1880 , it was included in the nine volumes of Les Rougon-Macquart series. However, there is no clear evidence of mutual inspiration in the choice of the theme and the title beause the book was published three years later. Perhaps Manet found inspiration in L'Assommoir published in 1877, Zola's previous book, in which the character of Nana appears for the first timeas the daughter of an abusive drunk; in the end, we read about her living in the streets and just beginning a life of prostitution. The novel Nana tells the story of the girl who raised from streetwalker to high-class courtesan during the last three years of the French Second Empire. 
Zola describes in detail the performance of La blonde Vénus, a fictional operetta modeled after Offenbach's La belle Hélène, in which Nana is cast as the lead.  She has never been seen on a stage, but all Paris is talking about her after her debut. When asked to say something about her talents, Bordenave, the manager of the theatre, which fairly could be compared to brothel, explains that a star doesn't have to know how to sing or act:
‘Nana has something else, dammit, and something that takes the place of everything else. I scented it out, and it smells damnably strong in her, or else I lost my sense of smell.’ 
She appears only thinly veiled in the third act and sings with the unpleasant bad voice. When crowd is just about to dismiss her terrible performance, young Georges Hugon at that particular moment shouts: "Très chic!" From then on, she is a star and owns the audience, and Zola writes:
‘All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater. ‘ 
The novel then goes on it develops the story about how Nana was destroying every man who pursues her with their almost masochistic desire to be crushed by the Goddess of Love. In the seventh chapter we can recognize Muffat, the caller of Nana from the Manet’s painting. Admirer’s faithfulness to Nana brings him back for humiliation after humiliation until he finds her in bed with his elderly father-in-law.
The painting is relatively modest if we compare it with the actual scene in the novel: ‘She left everything fall off, then, completely nude, she became lost in thought and looked long at herself. It was a passion for her own body, a rapture with the satin – like skin and supple line of her figure which kept her serious, attentive, absorbed in love of herself.’ 
Nana appears very bright and very explicit; we can see her transformation and compare with a fairy princess. Someone who saw her describes ‘like an image of the Good Lord’. Her vulgar display of sexual vulgarity is gone; she is, as Zola said in his notes, ‘flesh with all its glace … sex on an altar with everybody offering sacrifices to it’.
In the end, Zola’s moral message brings us to brutal reality where ‘Venus’ degrades and decomposing in horrible death from smallpox: her moral corruption is now physical. Perhaps the puritanical Zola implies the symbolic end to what is about to happen with the Second Empire.
The novel was an immediate success. Le Voltaire, the French newspaper launched a great advertising campaign, raising the interest of the reading public to a fever pitch. When publisher finally released book Nana in February 1880, the first edition of 55,000 copies was sold out in one day.  On the other hand, a part of the public, and some critics, reacted to the book with outrage. At the same time, the most influential critics of that time, Flaubert and Edmond de Goncourt, were full of praise for Nana. The novel is a fine example of writing, though it is not especially true to Zola's naturalist philosophy, however, it was a great deal more authentic then his other novels.
As we have learnt from tree mentioned comparable depictions of women by Manet in Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Olympia and Nana, it is their spirit that makes works of art moral or immoral. The scandalous painting Nana is also evidently vicious in spirit and it provokes the prurient curiosity in people. I would like to conclude with suggestion that Nana novel’s tremendous success is driven from this nature of prurient curiosity of the 19th century pervert society, who allowed to satisfy it by reading the book rather than looking at the too obvious painting.
1. Arbiter, Petronius, “An Unethical Work: "Nana" by Manet ”, The Art World, Vol. 2, No. 6, 1917.
2. Brown, Frederick, ‘Zola and the Making of "Nana”,The Hudson Review, Vol. 45, No. 2, 1992.
3. Dumas, Alexandre, translated by Sir Edmund Gosse, Camille: (The Lady of the Camellias). NAL, London, 1984.
4. Graham, Robb, Victor Hugo: a Biography, London, W.W. Norton and Company, 1998
5.1 Hamilton, George Heard, Manet and His Critic, W. W. Norton & Company, 1969
5. Læssøe, Rolf, Édouard Manet's "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" as a Veiled Allegory of Painting, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 26, No. 51, 2005.
6. McCauley, Anne, Sex and the Salon, Defining Art and Immorality in 1863, Cambridge UP, 1998.
7. Seymour Howard, ‘Early Manet and Artful Error: Foundations of Anti-Illusion in Modern Painting’, Art Journal, 37, 1977
8. Steven Adams, The Impressionists, New Jersey, Chartwell books, 1989.
9. Zola, Emile, L’Assommoir, translated by William White, Oxford, 2008.
10. Zola, Emile: Nana, translated with an introduction by George Holden, Penguin Classics, London 1972
11. Zola, Emile, Nana, translated with an introduction by Gouglas Parmee, Oxford, 2009.