Courtesans, royal mistresses, scandalous women of every sort—the walls of the Metropolitan Museum are lined with them, from ancient Greek hetaerae to Sargent’s Madame X.
Isoda Koryusai, Courtesan and Two Attendants on New Year’s Day, 1780s
This oiran (courtesan) is taking her afternoon promenade down the main street of the Yoshiwara, the pleasure district of Edo, today’s Tokyo. Like most oiran, she is vastly overdressed—wearing two kimonos, a pink robe, and several robes beneath it—and sports a complex, non-symetrical hairdo, and her clogs are so high that she must be tottering. The sash (obi) that ties her kimono is not tied behind her in the normal style, but in front—a sure sign of the oiran. Also, she offers a tantalizing glimpse of exposed neck, the body part treated as sexy in traditional Japanese erotica.
Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, 1778
Unlike many courtesans, Grace Dalrymple did not start life as a common prostitute. Instead, she was a bourgeois married lady whose husband divorced her when he found out about her affair with the Marquess of Cholmondeley. Cholmondeley was her principal patron and among other things commissioned this glorious portrait by Gainsborough, in which she seems to be an aristocratic lady, demurely holding the train of her splendid gold dress. Among her other patrons she counted the Prince of Wales (the future George IV)—possibly the father of her daughter—and the Duc d’Orléans, Louis XVI’s famous revolutionary cousin.
Edgar Degas, Dancers, Pink and Green, ca. 1890
Like most working women in 19th-century Paris, ballerinas did not earn enough to live on, and like many, they typically rounded out their income by prostitution. Ballerinas were famously beautiful, however, so this was high-class prostitution: rather than being paid for sex, ballerinas would receive gifts from a patron. Ballerinas were among Degas’ favorite topics, and he sometimes includes the patron in his paintings of them, as he does in this particularly beautiful painting, where the patron is included in silhouette, as if he were casting a shadow on the lives of these bright young girls.