La Demimondaine

After a string of latex-centric, fetish-oriented posts, it’s time for a small departure. For years, I wanted to recreate in Second Life a famous painting by Édouard Manet[1]: Olympia[2], where Victorine Meurent[3] posed as a demimondaine of the time. At its first public appearance at the 1865 Paris Salon, this painting shocked the audience with the model’s confrontational, disdainful gaze, as well as several other details. Below, I’m giving you my take on Manet’s painting, and I’ll discuss the painting, its social and historical context, as well as why I relate to it and became inspired by it.

La Demimondaine
La Demimondaine

Le Demi-monde (The Half-world)

This term was introduced into french discourse with two works by Alexandre Dumas fils[4]: the 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias[5] and his 1855 play Le Demi-monde (The Half-world), These works dealt with the ‘world’ or, perhaps more aptly, subculture, of elite men and the women that, either as prostitutes or as courtesans, were employed to entertain them. The theatrical play expanded upon the novel’s themes and discussed the way prostitution threatened the ‘We’ of marriage.

The ‘demi-monde’ (alternately written ‘demimonde’), whose heyday was the period known in France as La Belle Époque[6] (1871–1914), is described as hedonistic, pleasure-thirsty, dangerous, and full of excesses. These ranged from simple pleasures like attending the theatre and ballet, and extravagant consumption of the finest in food, drink, clothing, and luxury items to serial sexual promiscuity, heavy drinking, gambling, and even drug use, and pretty much everything in between. For obvious reasons, the men that made up the demimonde tended to keep their lifestyle isolated from their wives and families – if they were married, that is.

Accordingly, the term ‘demimondaine‘ became synonymous with prostitutes and courtesans that moved in such circles, and with women of non-trivial social standing who chose to fly in the face of convention and embrace this nocturnal lifestyle. The famous actress Sarah Bernhardt[7], the illegitimate child of a courtesan, was considered a quintessential demimondaine – then again, all actresses had this ‘title’ attached to them.

Regardless of sex and gender, those who embraced this extravagant lifestyle had to contend with several risks: gambling and heavy spending on luxuries and lavish gifts could lead to massive debt; promiscuity could lead to sexually-transmitted diseases. However, there were examples of men and women of the demimonde who exhibited strong social skills and a very sharp business acumen that allowed them to avoid financial ruin and live comfortably in their old age.

A Few Words About Olympia

Édouard Manet - Olympia: Image source: Wikipedia
Olympia, by Édouard Manet. Image source: Wikipedia

Olympia was not entirely original: the painting was modelled after Titian[8]‘s Venus of Urbino[9], which was created around 1534. However, Manet made several changes that completely changed the tone: for starters, the name (or pseudonym) Olympia was commonly associated with prostitutes in Paris at the time. To further drive the point home, Manet changed the placement and pose of his model’s left hand: whereas Venus’ left hand was placed on her pleasure mound, curled as if she was softly pleasuring herself to entice the viewer, Olympia’s hand blocked access to her nether regions, as if to signify that access to her body is granted on a strict quid pro quo basis.

Other elements found in Manet’s painting that associated Olympia with prostitution or – at the very least – the demi-monde were the substitution of the calm, curled-up dog with a black cat: the dog symbolises fidelity, and the fact that it was so calm in Titian’s painting indicated that it knew the viewer well – perhaps the viewer was the husband of the naked lady. On the other hand, in the slang of many countries, the cat is associated with a woman’s genitalia. Manet’s decision to depict a black cat in an aroused stance pointed to a nocturnal, debauched, and promiscuous lifestyle.

The first thing that grabs the audience’s attention, is Olympia’s gaze: confrontational, disdainful, and defiant, it was typical of contemporary prostitutes and demimondaines, as opposed to the sweetly sultry and enticing gaze of Titian’s Venus. Additionally, she’s shown to disdainfully turn away from the flowers – in all likelihood, a gift from a client – that her fully-clothed black maid brings. Olympia’s expression makes one wonder whether a client just barged in unannounced – a major faux pas, even in the context of Olympia’s perceived profession. Even more shockingly, Victorine Meurent, the woman who posed as Olympia, was well-known in Paris as a model and an accomplished painter in her own right; thus, she could be easily recognised by almost any Parisian who viewed the painting.

But what about Olympia’s maid, to whom Laure[10] gave her likeness? To add a little historical context, I’ll mention that slavery had been abolished in France and its colonies only in 1848. Racist attitudes and stereotypes, however, hadn’t gone away – they still haven’t. I’m not sure why Manet chose to include a black maid, but I don’t think he was really out to make a statement against racial prejudice. The maid seems to ‘conveniently’ blend in with the dark-coloured background, her role reduced to basically that of a mere robot. Furthermore, perhaps, as Charles Bernheimer says, the black maid is “an emblem of the dark, threatening, anomalous sexuality lurking just under Olympia’s hand” and thus her presence is intended to further arouse the fantasies of Manet’s contemporaries that were fed by racial stereotypes of the time.

Olympia, the Demimonde, and me

As I’ve written before[11][12], I’ve spent my first years in SL as a virtual sex worker, supplementing my SL budget with my earnings. I’ve already explained[11] rather extensively what drew me to work in SL’s sex industry. However, in light of the overlap between my past as a virtual prostitute and the activities of the Belle Époque’s demimondaines, I realise I actually became, a sort of virtual demimondaine myself – without, of course, having a wealthy lover to support me financially. However, I did indulge in whatever virtual equivalents SL offered; from enjoying simple things like in-world travel, to artistic events like art installations, avatar theatre and ballet, concerts, and poetry / prose readings, all the way to some pretty decadent and extreme sexual experiences. And, of course, the ‘subculture’ I’ve always preferred to be part of has always been a bit… sordid, even after I retired from in-world sex work.

From Olympia to La Demimondaine

Manet’s Olympia was a product of her times; the details of the painting and what they represented were related to the ideas, fantasies, and even stereotypes. Some subverted and challenged them; others played with them. And, of course, the decor and setting were of Manet’s time. For my photograph, several things would need to be changed to reflect my tastes, my fixations, and my sensitivities, while others remained the same.

The demimondaine, like Olympia, disregards the flowers that were sent to her, turning her disdainful, defiant, confrontational gaze to the viewer, as if to face a client who barged in unannounced. The flowers themselves are not presented to her by a maid. Instead, they lay, indifferently placed on the console, out of focus for distance: they’re there; but their importance is subverted and reduced, as they’re placed farther in the background than in Olympia. Similarly, the importance of their sender is reduced.

Omitting the maid was a conscious decision. For one, Laure’s dress made it very difficult to eyeball her pose, so it was very hard for me to recreate it. Second, I was unable to find an appropriately-designed bouquet that would look good when resized and fit the avatar’s hands well. Third, I didn’t like about the connotations of the white seductress / black maid counterpoint.

As to the decor, since I’ve developed a liking for the modernist aesthetic of the 1960s to 1970s, I designed the backdrop accordingly, with appropriate furniture and decor choices, red-orange wallpaper (kindly donated by Huckleberry Hax); a mid-century console; a period-appropriate beige rotary phone; a Chinese painting above the console giving an exotic note; it could very well be a souvenir from one of her own travels, or a gift from a well-travelled client, admirer, friend, or lover. Additionally, a gold-coloured vibrator by her side alludes to her open, shameless sexuality – in tune with the Sexual Revolution; these sexual connotations are further reinforced by the kitsch animal print cushions. Finally, the black cat was replaced by a curious-looking Thai.

Style Credits:

  • Mesh Body: Maitreya Mesh Body – Maitreya Lara v5.3 by Onyx LeShelle
  • Mesh Head:  LAQ Bento – Motion Capture – Gaia 3.07 by Mallory Cowen
  • Skin:
    • Body: LAQ ~ Lina BOM skin (No brows) – tone 3.0
    • Head: LAQ ~ Gaia Skin [3.0]
  • Makeup: Included with the head’s HUD
  • Manicure & Pedicure: alaskametro<3 “Pride” nail art appliers by Alaska Metropolitan
  • Tattoos:
    • Izzie’s – Body Veins light by Izzie Button
    • Izzie’s – Cellulite 2
    • Izzie’s – Crow’s Feet 03 65%
    • Izzie’s – Forehead Lines 07 medium (warm) 65%
    • Izzie’s – Stretch Marks 2 (modified by me)
    • QoS tattoo on right ankle (made by me)
  • Eyes: IKON Perspective Eyes – Coffee (S) by Ikon Innovia
  • Hair: *ARGRACE* RIE – B&W
  • Piercings:
    • PUNCH / Diamond Nose Ring (two of them worn on the left side of my nose) by Celandria Resident
    • (Yummy) Cleopatra Nose Ring – Diamond Flower Nose Ring – Silver by Polyester Partridge
    • EarthStones Belly Gems – Treasure – Maitreya Treasure Pack by Abraxxa Anatine
  • Bangles: Izzie’s – 80’s Rainbow Bangles mesh (l)
  • Anklets:
    • EarthStones Petit Vigne Anklet – Fatpack (R)
    • VOBE – B.Toes Anklets Slut Right (Silver) by Leó Streeter (leoo streeter)
    • ~~Ysoral~~ .:Luxe Anklets Ariel :.(Maitreya)(Left) by fenixdragon Rau
  • Shoes: Ohemo – Vivi midheel clogs by Ale (Aleida Rhode)
  • Breast Deformer: -Pretty Liars- Natural Breast LEVEL 4 by Hattsan Resident
  • Pose: Custom made by me

On Flickr:

On DeviantArt: