Saturday, August 16, 2014

ROLLA: Gervex's Painting and Musset's Poem About a Teen Prostitute



Henri Gervex (1852-1929) Rolla 1878


Henri Gervex's oil on canvas Rolla was inspired by Alfred de Musset's lengthy poem Rolla (1833). Here's the plot summary of the poem from Paris' museum Musée d'Orsay:

The text recounts the destiny of a young bourgeois, Jacques Rolla, falling into a life of idleness and debauchery. He meets with Marie, a teenager who found in prostitution an escape from misery. Rolla is seen here ruined, standing by the window, his eyes turned to the girl sleeping. He is about to commit suicide by poison.

If the scene was judged indecent [by the Beaux-Arts administration]
, it was not because of Marie's nudity, which in no way differs from the canonic nudes of the time. The attention of contemporaries rather turned to the still life constituted by a gown, a garter, and a hastily undone corset covered with a top hat. Gervex might have been advised by Degas to put "a corset on the floor" so that the spectator may know this woman "is not a model". Indeed, this disposition and the nature of the clothes clearly indicate Marie's consent and her status as a [teen] prostitute. Moreover, the walking stick emerging from the garments acts as a metaphor for sexual intercourse.

I learned about Rolla while preparing a forthcoming post on Baxter's translation of Musset's Two Nights of Excess.

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