‘I don’t really know why the Second Empire – such a rigid affair – has always fascinated me. Emmanuel Berl’s Cent ans d’histoire de France and Le Second Empire nous regarde, were among the first books I spent pocket-money on. These courtesans in seduction and power, so hard to imagine today, had their place then, and sometimes their own police file, too.‘
HIDDEN AGENDAS UNDER FRANCE'S SECOND EMPIRE
Known variously as cocottes, biches, lorettes or demi-mondaines, they were first and foremost wayward women. Living openly off charms that cost their admirers dearly, they were frequently spotlighted by the press for their flashy lifestyles, taste for luxury and titled lovers.
This was a frivolous age. But even so, 1860 saw Emperor Napoleon III set up a vice squad to keep an eye on these intriguers who eluded the ‘carding’ system then used to regulate sexual commerce. The squad’s officers noted their doings in Register BB/1, whose individual files were accompanied by a photograph when one existed. Indeed, photography had very quickly found its place both as a means of identification for the police and an advertising gambit for the ladies in question. The ‘calling card’ – a small photo-portrait passed around in society circles – had just been invented by Eugène Disdéri, and the courtesans flocking to the best-known photographers had their pictures in studio windows and on newspaper stands, where they could be acquired for a few francs by connoisseurs, sugar daddies and the police. The socially acceptable photograph and the mug shot: two different views of the world. This exhibition presents portraits of the most famous courtesans, together with excerpts from their police files.
Exhibition produced by Laure Deratte and presented by Galerie Lumière des Roses.
With the participation of the Prefecture of Police Museum, Paris.
Collections: Laure Deratte, Lumière des roses Gallery (Philippe and Marion Jacquier), Gérard Levy, Bernard Garrett, Collection MD, Jean-Pierre Faur, Marc Sainte-Marie.