Trafficking in boards or prostitution at the spectacle

Trafficking in boards or prostitution at the spectacle

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  • Cafe-concert singer.

    DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

  • Emilie Bouchaud known as Polar


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Title: Cafe-concert singer.

Author : DEGAS Edgar (1834 - 1917)

Creation date : 1878

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 47.3 - Width 30.5

Technique and other indications: charcoal, gray paper, heightened with white

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Orsay Museum) / Franck Raux

Picture reference: 10-504509 / RF4648

Cafe-concert singer.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Orsay Museum) / Franck Raux

To close

Title: Emilie Bouchaud known as Polar

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 7.4 - Width 4.2

Technique and other indications: Silver print

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Picture reference: 00-021759 / PHO1983-165-548-429

Emilie Bouchaud known as Polar

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Trafficking in boards or prostitution at the spectacle

The drawing by Edgar Degas and the photograph of the star Polaire attest to the public's tremendous enthusiasm for new café-concert shows in the second half of the 19th century.e century.

We discover here Polaire thanks to the famous “Félix Potin” collection, this pioneering entrepreneur who offered advertising images of contemporary celebrities with the chocolate bars he sold in his store. Arrived in Paris at the age of 15 to join her brother, the comic Dufleuve, she launched in 1893 to La Scala the famous Tha-ma-ra-boom-di-hey, an English song by Henry J. Sayers. Far from the female archetypes of the café-concert, she has a very distinctive physique, thick black hair, dark skin and a "skinny as a nail" body. In particular, she invented the “epileptic” genre, a dance shaken by continuous tremors.

At that time, most female artists were more recruited on their physique, the spectators going more to the café-concert to admire or even enjoy their throat and their legs than to listen to their voice or appreciate their expressive gifts.

Under IIIe Republic, places of pleasure are multiplying. The shows then evolve strongly towards shows, where the body of women is staged with an increasingly ostensible eroticism: a cloudy climate ideal for seduction and soliciting.

Image Analysis

Gummies, darling of Paris

Edgar Degas' charcoal drawing depicts a café-concert singer circa 1878. It is a preparatory work for a color work, in which the artist highlights the strength and expressive intensity of a cabaret singer. The latter is seized in full song, mouth wide open, gloved arm raised; she is wearing a dress with a collar and sleeve adorned with dark fur that contrasts with the brightly lit face.

Among the café-concert artists, those we called the "gummers" more often than not had only their physique and a lot of guts to stand out. They frequently sported an eccentric costume, a short sexy dress, a plunging neckline, an overloaded hat, fake flashy jewelry, high heels and flashy accessories, boas, gloves or fans. Most of the time, they had no artistic talent, but a certain physical presence, a charm and a prettiness which was revealed on stage through a few facial expressions or even grimaces, a mischievous and mischievous tone which made them charming in the eyes of the spectators. ! They specialized in a repertoire of saucy songs which celebrated the virtues of their lovers, with salacious overtones very much to the taste of the clientele.

The model of the genre was undoubtedly the Polar actress. She made a name for herself above all thanks to her extraordinarily thin waist size (33 centimeters), her "epileptic" game and scandalous manners! In this close-up, the singer appears as a pretty, spicy girl staring at us casually, in an evening dress, a choker pearl necklace and a scarf as a headband in her hair. Note that the photographer did not insist on his waist size, which is extremely rare!


Plank milking

Advancing in the XIXe century, we have seen the emergence in France of a new form of prostitution, which corresponds to a different expectation on the part of customers, that of preserving a form of illusion of seduction. They are now more troubled by the charms of a young artist, mediocre though she is, than by the professional prostitute in brothels.

The performing arts, on the other hand, made young girls dream, and was one of the only areas where it was still possible for a woman to make her fortune, become famous and lead her life freely.

In this context, the world of the café-concert provides a particularly raw and violent example of this sordid universe of prostitution to spectacle in the 19th century.e century. Without being able to say anything about Polaire's love affairs and her status as a possible prostitute, the female artists who took part in café-concert shows were most often terribly exploited by the directors of the rooms as by those who claimed to be the recruit with the official title of "lyric agents". They were actually unscrupulous matchmakers who easily turned into pimps.

At a time when society was beginning to speak out against the scourge of the white slave trade, the world of concert cafes and music halls offered a barely disguised version. Girls were underpaid, often condemned to beg for their dinner thanks to the ritual of the basket they presented to customers; the latter were then more or less generous depending on their "availability". Thousands of young aspiring singers thus found themselves violently and very quickly plunged into a world of begging and prostitution.

At the beginning of the XXe century, the situation of performing artists outraged journalists, who invented to describe it the expression "deals with boards" in the issue of the newspaper The Butter Plate published on June 27, 1903. However, it was not until 1908 to witness the creation of the Union Syndicale et Mutuelle des Artistes Lyriques, Café-Concerts and Music Halls, which called for the application of industrial tribunal to artists. show.

  • courtesan
  • city
  • women
  • cabarets
  • café-concert
  • prostitution
  • Felix Potin collection
  • music hall
  • Montmartre


AUTHIER Catherine, Exceptional Women, Women of Influence: A History of 19th Century Courtesans, Paris, Armand Colin, 2015.

CARADEC François, WEILL Alain, The café-concert (1848-1914), Paris, Fayard, 2007.

CONDEMI Concetta, Café-concerts: a story of entertainment (1849-1914), Paris, Quai Voltaire, coll. “Quai Voltaire history”, 1992.

MARTIN-FUGIER Anne, Actress: from Miss Mars to Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, Le Seuil, 2001.

To cite this article

Catherine AUTHIER, "The trade in boards or prostitution at the spectacle"

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