A painter of the people of the streets, workers and the poverty-stricken, Steinlen (1859-1923) continually struggled against injustice through his work. Against the elitism of the fine arts, he favoured the popular art of illustration, published in the press and the street through posters. Originally from Lausanne, he took up residence in Montmartre in 1881 where, as a regular at the Le Chat Noir cabaret, he moved in the circles of the artistic bohemian.
He addressed prostitution through illustrations for activist newspapers, the Gil Blas illustré, the Mirliton and the Chambard socialiste. In 1895, he visited the Saint-Lazare prison, perhaps with the idea of creating a work to attest to the detention conditions. The Musée d'Orsay conserves some twenty of his works produced during this visit, for the most part drawings of the prostitute section. Through the evocation of prisoners and the prison facilities, the artist manages to express the imprisonment, solitude and promiscuity of the prison world in a few succinct strokes. His keen eye, devoid of sentimentalism, portrays a vulnerable population, subject to a merciless clinical and police control. The portraits of prostitutes in particular attest to the illustrator's commitment to the destitute and the marginalised, whose dignity he restored.
In the 19th century, the public authorities considered that although prostitution was to be tolerated, it must be closely monitored. The girls working on the streets were not exempt from the administration's control and had to register for the title "fille soumise" (subjugated). A distinction was thus made between the "filles à numéro", prostitutes with a given number working in a brothel, and "filles à cartes" who worked for a procurer. Health monitoring was required for all prostitutes. The Saint-Lazare prison represented a vital component of this surveillance policy. Between 1896 and 1931, prostitutes without a regulatory card or who committed offences were taken to 107 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, where women were imprisoned since the Revolution. The Lazare prison fed popular imagination with regard to prostitution. Following in the footsteps of Steinlen, many photographic reports were produced, depicting the prison exterior (Eugène Atget) or the accused (Albert Brichaut). Its prisoners also continued to inspire painters, such as Picasso whose work Melancholy Woman, conserved at the Detroit Institute of Arts, is currently on display in the Splendour and Misery exhibition.
With his sharp eye for detail, Eugène Boudin breathed new life into the pictorial genre of marine painting. He produced numerous seaside scenes in different light conditions, animated with people strolling along the beach, fishermen and aristocratic Parisian visitors. With his interpretation of the “modern seascape”, he rethought the traditional shipwrecks, storms, collisions and fires. The son of a sailor, he produced a large number of paintings showing the busy life of the ports where he lived. Having come from a very humble background, Boudin retained a deep compassion for those he called “the poor people” who worked hard, governed by the rhythm of the tides and at the mercy of bad weather. With his images of sailors either at work or resting, scenes of the beach or of everyday activities, Boudin shows us the life of coastal fishermen under the changing light of Normandy.