Color Inspiration: Women of Easy Virtue in Art

This is a guest post by speakin_colors. You can read the original post here.

It would be wrong to think that only respectable women inspired artists throughout history. The decadent and oppressive reality of prostitutes and brothels has lent its colours to writers, painters and musicians who used them as a source of inspiration for their works.


The obscure world of harlotry inspired the great English painter William Hogarth. In the series of paintings known as A Harlot’s Progress (later published as engravings) he depicts the miserable fate of a country girl who began a prostitution career in town from its starting point to its tragic end: the whore’s death of venereal disease and the following merciless funeral ceremony. The sequel of the series, A Rake’s Progress, shows in eight pictures the reckless life of Tom Rakewell, the son of a rich merchant, who wastes all his money on luxurious living, whoring, and gambling, and ultimately finishes his life in Bedlam.


Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh is said to have had an unrequited love story (which later became an obsession) with a French prostitute, to whom he sent his dismembered ear.


Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio ultimately had to flee Rome for murdering the pimp, Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a botched castration attempt. The dispute evidently revolved around Fillide Melandroni, a coveted prostitute, who posed for many of Caravaggio’s paintings, including Judith Beheading Holofernes and Saint Catherine. Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni were two well-known courtesans who frequented powerful art patrons and who served as models for Caravaggio’s painting Martha and Mary Magdalene.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), was a French postimpressionist painter, lithographer, and illustrator, who documented the bohemian nightlife of late-19th-century Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec is well known for his paintings of prostitutes and courtesans. Lautrec used to hang around the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets of the Montmartre district of Paris . He also frequented the theatre, the circus, Parisian brothels and often dance halls along with prostitutes, who mingled among the clientele in search of business. The dance halls commissioned Lautrec to create advertising posters. After its opening, the Moulin Rouge dance hall reserved a table for Lautrec every night, and displayed his paintings. Prostitutes befriended, supported, and modelled for the unesthetically pleasing, crippled man who would one day be remembered as one of the great artists of 19th-century France. As a purchaser of their services, Toulouse-Lautrec also had more direct dealings with prostitutes. Indeed, sometimes he would pack up and move into a brothel for days or months on end. He enjoyed shocking acquaintances by giving the address of a brothel as his place of residence.

He grew close to his prostitute models; he played games with them, brought them presents, and accompanied them to his studio, restaurants, circuses, or theatres during their time off.

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885) was a French poet, novelist, and playwright. In his very famous novel Les Miserables, French poet Victor Marie Hugo portrays the life of the less fortunate. One of the characters in this book is Fantine, the mother of Cossette, who, in order to support herself and her daughter turns to the only mode of bringing in greater sums of money for women at the time, prostitution.
Alexandre Dumas’ first novel, Camille, is about a courtesan who sacrifices her happiness for her lover’s good. Camille was based on an affair Alexandre had with Marie Duplessis when he was only twenty-one. He described his camellia lady as “one of the last of those rare courtesans who had a heart”. The story was finally immortalized by Giuseppe Verdi in his famous opera La Traviata.

United States

On of the most moving moments in the book The Catcher in the Rye, written by Salinger, is the one describing Holden Caulfield’s encounter with Sunny, a young prostitute girl in a green dress. On seeing she is so young and how innocent she looks, Holden gets extremely depressed. Therefore, Holden lies to Sunny that he just had an operation on his spinal cord and he does not feel like having sex with her. In the end, Holden lets her go and pays five dollars to her while she asks for ten.


Painter Antonio Berni is well-known for two of his stock characters: Juanito Laguna and Ramona Montiel. Ramona Montiel, a very poor girl who grew up in the slums and who later turned to prostitution, is depicted in many of Berni’s works.

Women of ill repute in Rock Music

The hit song “Roxanne” by the rock band The Police was written about a prostitute in Paris. Police lead singer Sting wrote the song, inspired by the prostitutes he saw near the band’s seedy hotel while in Paris, France in October 1977 to perform at the Nashville Club. The name of the song, Roxanne, comes from the name of the character in the play Cyrano de Bergerac, an old poster of which was hanging in the hotel foyer.

“The House of the Rising Sun” is a folk song from the United States whose most successful version was recorded by the English rock group The Animals in 1964. Alan Price of the Animals has claimed that the song was originally a sixteenth-century English folk song about a Soho brothel, and that English emigrants took the song to America where it was adapted to its later New Orleans setting

In 1969 the Beatles recorded “Maggie May”, a traditional Liverpool folk song about a prostitute who robbed a sailor.

Argentine pop-folk music composer León Gieco wrote a song called Love Song for Francisca about a woman who engages in prostitution to raise her daughter. Although the song is about an obscure topic, it contains plenty of visually poweful colourful images (black wine, cinnamon skin, dressed in green, dressed in pink).

From the Library

Courtesan_in_Jade courtesan

Courtesan Courtesan

Courtesans_Boudoir courtesan

Lady_of_the_Night Courtesan

prostitute. easy_virtue

Wench Trollop

trollop trollop

Harlot harlot


harlot Harlot

harlot harlot



Cristina is a discourse analysis researcher and a teacher trainer at the teacher training college. She is currently teaching contemporary History and Literature and English teaching methodology. She has also taught advanced technical English at Kennedy University in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since 2008 she has been making colour-inspired contributions to this blog as a way to share her love for colour and design.