Such an image is the prostitute – seller and sold in one.
- Walter Benjamin
The maison close (legally-sanctioned brothel) features prominently in the cultural imagination of Belle Époque Paris and indeed in Proust’s life and literature. Versailles, maison close, Petite Place is part of a series of about a dozen photographs Atget produced on commission by the painter André Dignimont (1891-1965) for an unrealized publication.
Idling in the doorway of the establishment to which she is likely indentured, the prostitute in this photograph is the image of contradiction. Her wan smile, nonchalant demeanor and apparent assent to being photographed are at odds with the abject status of her métier. There is a tragicomic disparity between the elegance the fox fur pelt draped about her neck is intended to convey and the vulgarity of her bare legs which advertise her trade in flesh.
A law prohibiting bordellos from using explicit signage forced proprietors to devise elusive promotional techniques, like posting larger than standard address numbers and placing workers out front. Like the wares displayed in the storefront of 69 Quai de la Tournelle, the prostitute is both a commodity and a sign; she stands at the threshold of the spaces of public exhibition and private consumption.
Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (French, 1857-1927)
Versailles, maison close, Petite Place, March 1921
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Dr. Donald Ottenstein in memory of Leah H. Ottenstein 1922-1999, Radcliffe Class of 1943, P2004.8