2. The Sofa

Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in public domain.

Fancy courtesans have been a theme in the high art of many cultures and cultural moments, from ancient Athens to Edo-period Japan to Renaissance Italy and so on. Prostitutes —women paid for specific sex acts, often employed in bordellos — are rare in world art. This painting by Toulouse-Lautrec — called, obscurely, “The Sofa”— is one of the great works on the theme, depicting two fatigued and rumples prostitutes in conversation; one could almost say they are communing with each other.

They are also evidently lovers, as the one on the left is nude from the waist down — and lesbianism is also a huge theme in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, and was generally seen as trendy in French culture of the late 19th century. This is why so many American lesbians, including most famously Gertrude Stein, gravitated to Paris. The fancy courtesans were often said to be having lesbian affairs; at least according to Toulouse-Lautrec, so were the whores in the bordello….