Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

The Human Comedy: Chronicles of 19th-Century France

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Le Petit Trottin

Le Petit Trottin

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901) Le Petit Trottin (The Dressmaker's Little Errand Girl), late 19th century Lithograph Gift of Mrs. Malcolm L. McBride, 1948.50

Toulouse-Lautrec was often commissioned to create illustrations like this one for the sheet music of popular songs. The print shows a dress-maker's errand girl: a trottin. Like grisettes, cou-turières, shopgirls, and other female workers in the textile and fashion industries, a trottin had to go out and about in Paris by herself and therefore would have been subjected to advances by the many suiveurs, or older men, who followed women workers in the streets and attempted to solicit sexual favors from them. It has been sug-gested that the man’s cane is a phallic symbol and that the urinal in the background is a meta-phor for the degraded sexual encounter this scene implies. Toulouse-Lautrec’s jaunty line suggests, however, a joviality that is at odds with such a sinister interpretation.

URBAN ENCOUNTERS In the 19th century the streets of Paris belonged to men. There was no such thing as a flâneuse—feminine equivalent of the flâneur—the man of the crowd who observes without being observed, enjoying privacy and anonymity in public spaces. Only men could spend time alone in cafés and bars, stroll through parks and city streets, or go to the theater or casino unaccompanied. A man could address a woman he did not know in a park or in the street, but it was considered inappropri-ate for a woman to do the same. Little distinction was made among working women—shop girls, seamstresses, and other textile workers were considered only barely more respectable than prostitutes or courtesans (lorettes). For unchap-eroned, respectable single women, the streets were off-limits. Codes of dress and bearing were key to distin-guishing between proper ladies and loose women. As the century progressed, separating the two categories would become more difficult, as prostitutes and courtesans adopted the cloth-ing, hairstyles, and accessories of respectable women.

In his collections of poems Les Fleurs du mal and Le Spleen de Paris, Baudelaire writes of encoun-ters with women in the modern city—old women, widows, and prostitutes. One of his most famous poems, “À une passante,” or “To a Passerby,” deals with a random but direct encounter be-tween the poet and an unknown woman. Her status as a widow in “majestic grief” positions her as neither a beggar nor a prostitute but as a near equal, authorized by her mourning clothes to move freely about the city and to return the poet’s gaze in a touching tale of love at last sight.