In France, sex and art were once inseparable.
From the early 1800s until they were finally closed down at the end of the WWII, the country's legalized brothels -- known as maisons closes, or "shuttered houses" -- were renowned amongst travelers for their lavish paintings, sculptures and décor. In the belle époque, dozens of impecunious French artists helped decorate the most palatial of these bordellos for a little extra cash, including the young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. By the early 1900s, the so-called "fantasy brothels," which offered Disney-style themed rooms along the lines of Versailles, Venice and the Orient, even opened themselves up to tourists by day.
While researching my book on secret history, The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, I was delighted to discover that many of the old brothel buildings survive, although with just fragments of their original artworks. One afternoon in Paris, while hunting for the remains of a sumptuous bordello on the Right Bank, I stumbled on a wonderful boutique that is entirely devoted to historical erotica from the city's most fabulous era, Au Bonheur du Jour. (Located at 11 Rue Chabanais, its name means "afternoon delight," alluding to the pleasures of stolen trysts.) In its discreet location on a quiet back street, the boutique is the perfectly wicked counterpart to the city's famously vast official art museum, the Louvre, which lies just a few hundred yards closer to the Seine.
Its charming owner, Nicole Canet, a former dancer and antique dealer, is currently showing a unique exhibit on brothel décor, which runs until the end of January. This slideshow reveals some of the most intriguing of her discoveries on the luxury bordellos, whose extravagant décor provides an unsung chapter in the history of French art.
New York-based historian and travel writer Tony Perrottet is the author of Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped and The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe.
All images courtesy Nicole Canet, Gallery Au Bonheur du Jour, 11 Rue Chabanais Paris