The love merchants of the Palais-Royal

The love merchants of the Palais-Royal

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Title: Fashion of the day n ° 5: the seraglio in the boutique

Author : DESRAIS Claude-Louis (1746 - 1816)

Creation date : XVIIIe century

Date shown: XVIIIe century

Technique and other indications: color print

Storage location: Carnavalet museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN - Grand Palais / Bulloz agency

Picture reference: 01-022055

Fashion of the day n ° 5: the seraglio in the boutique

© Photo RMN - Grand Palais / Bulloz agency

Publication date: January 2016

Historical context

The taste for fashion and gallantry

In the XVIIIe century, engravings featuring costumes, hats and jewelry flourished, reflecting a true culture of fashion in an increasingly refined century. In this context, the artist Claude-Louis Desrais rose to fame as an illustrator of fashion figures, while almanacs, magazines and illustrated books on the subject multiply.

The term seraglio in the title of his engraving Mode of the day no 5: the seraglio in store however, adds an allusion to venal love, harems or brothels, immediately plunging us into the world of prostitution.

Since the Regency and as opposed to the Grand Siècle, libertinism has triumphed among the European elites and permeated the mores of the time, gallantry becoming an identity value for the French. We then see the development of a whole erotic iconography, artists painting ever more scenes of pleasure, seduction, but also works evoking the merchants of charms.

Image Analysis

The love merchants of the Palais-Royal

Made under the Directory, this color print presents a stall with two large windows behind which an erotic scene takes place. The steep lighting seems to project us into the store, as if to invite us to observe what is happening there.

We discover men kissing women covered in hats and dressed in beautiful brightly colored dresses leaving their breasts ostensibly bare, thus revealing their status as maids of joy. One of them, in a pink dress, lures a customer towards the store, pulling him by one hand, with the other stealing a handkerchief from the pocket of one of the suitors. On the doorstep, another man appears to be watching the scene with a certain voyeurism, while perhaps negotiating the price of a pass with one of the girls, in a yellow dress and boa, sitting on a chair.


The proliferation of pretext stores

The artist most likely located his work at the Palais-Royal, which in the XVIIIe century the nerve center of commerce, entertainment, but also sexual consumption. The police archives indeed describe the women of this place as being very active, at the origin of a real market of sex and seduction, wandering under the arcades of the Palais-Royal and openly soliciting, most often in a very agressive. They do so in stores, cafes, restaurants, bookstores, reading rooms, theaters and the Palais-Royal garden.

Claude-Louis Desrais refers here precisely to the shops which animated the galleries of the Palais-Royal, veritable pretexts stores sheltering prostitutes behind a supposedly commercial facade. We can thus read in a police report of August 21, 1794: “Public women more than ever publicly trade their charms by inviting passers-by to come and buy their goods. They appear to be based on the fact that they are merchant and domiciled. "At a time when the big brothels of the Ancien Régime are declining and since the decriminalization of prostitution, girls freely display the trade in their bodies in a conspicuous manner. They appear to be integrated into the services offered at the Palais-Royal, a unique space of tolerance in Paris where commercial sex was fully part of a general system dedicated to commerce and consumption.

Later, under the July Monarchy, Louis-Philippe put an end to the sex trade in the Palais-Royal space by closing shops and gaming houses, thus moving the activity of public girls to a new place. concentrated around the Grands Boulevards. The pretext stores, veritable "prostitution pharmacies", experienced a major development as they advanced in the XIXe century. There are indeed more than three hundred in the capital at the end of the 19th century.e century, marking a phenomenon of commercialization of girls who are made directly accessible and who are consumed as goods.

  • prostitution
  • Paris
  • city
  • popular imagery
  • courtesan
  • Louis Philippe
  • July Monarchy
  • Palais-Royal
  • trade


BENABOU Érica-Marie, Prostitution and the police of morals in the 18th century, Paris, Perrin, 1987.CORBIN Alain, The Wedding Girls: sexual misery and prostitution (19th century), Paris, Flammarion, coll. "Champs: histoire" (no 118), 1982.PLUMAUZILLE Clyde Marlo, "Tolerer and repression: prostitutes, prostitution and civic rights in revolutionary Paris (1789-1799)", doctoral thesis, Paris, University Paris I - Panthéon -Sorbonne, 2013.ROCHELANDET Brigitte, History of prostitution: from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, Yens-sur-Morge / Divonne-les-Bains, Cabedita, coll. “Living Archives”, 2007.

To cite this article

Catherine AUTHIER, "The love merchants of the Palais-Royal"

Video: PARIS WALK. Palais Royal Courtyard and Gardens. France