Fed up with newspapers? Buy Père Ubu’s almanac!

Almanach Ubu

Thinking about this post I realised how long I hadn’t written anything about Alfred Jarry. I have been preoccupied with my new project and every since my book on Jarry was published in 2012 (yes, shameless plug) I have unfortunately neglected him a bit. I lived with Jarry for more years than I care to remember (he was the topic of my MA dissertation and my PhD thesis), but I still find myself revisiting his work every now and then. Not always for research related reasons. Whenever I am in need of some humour and creativity to counter the self-important earnestness of certain corners of academia, I turn to the infinite wisdom of Père Ubu and his almanacs. Many copies of the Almanach illustré du Père Ubu, the first one  published in 1899 and the second almanac  in 1901, remained unsold at the time. However, I’d like to think that Jarry would have appreciated that at least one person would be carrying them around religiously more than a century later. That one person being me.

File 14-05-2015 15 00 30What possessed Jarry to create these two Almanacs? Well, almanacs were one of the earliest periodical publications in print history, but they were still being published and widely read around 1900 even though this period was in many ways the golden age of the newspaper. Popular newspapers like Le Petit Parisien issued almanacs every year. Some of these, such as the one below, you can find here on Gallica. They provided an overview of the year, practical information, a calendar, illustrations to the year’s main events. Like the weekly illustrated supplements the almanac was something readers might want to keep and preserve unlike the throwaway daily paper. They were also used as a promotional tool to lure subscribers to the paper. 

Almanach illustré du Peti

Promotion was no doubt one of the reasons Alfred Jarry came up with the idea of creating an Almanach du Père Ubu. After the tumultuous premiere of his play Ubu Roi in 1896 Jarry felt it was probably a good idea to capitalise on the notoriety he and his character Ubu had acquired. Despite the fact that the play had garnered lots of (negative) publicity and controversy, Jarry’s books still didn’t sell well. Jarry was still not a household name, but Ubu’s name was. The tourist guide Paris-Parisien (1899) even mentions Père Ubu among a list of important literary figure visitors to Paris should definitely be familiar with. So Jarry asked two of his friends, the visual artist Pierre Bonnard and composer Claude Terrasse to work with him on the first almanac. They must have thought that the name of Ubu alone would be able to carry such a publication as their own names are not mentioned as authors. They even saw opportunities for a periodical, because the original intention was to publish an Ubu almanac every three months. This never happened. The two publications, like all of Jarry’s work, never became a commercial success. Or a critical success for that matter. They were too absurd, too avant-garde, too marginal, too obscene. Or too bad? Who knows. Who cares. I like them.

In true 1890’s avant-garde style both almanacs are a self-aware mix of literature, art, self-promotion, and a satirical take on news and newspapers. Both almanacs have their own calendar, full of real, obscene and imaginary saints as well as fake advertising or holidays invented by Ubu. Ubu treats us to his enlightened views on current issues such as the Dreyfus Affair, discusses events that haven’t happened yet, presents inventions that already exist, goes on imaginary journeys through the city of Paris, misbehaves himself in the colonies and awards well-known personalities with honorary titles in his own version of the Légion d’honneur. The almanac are absurd, irreverent, obscene, childish and created in the spirit of one Jarry’s heroes, Rabelais. Pierre Bonnard and Claude Terrasse not only contributed illustrations and musical scores, but also texts and ideas. It’s a shame I think that these works are not more widely known, but thanks to digitalisation they are at least available. The second one can be found online here on Gallica and the first almanac can be downloaded here as a pdf from the website of the Société des Amis d’Alfred Jarry. Even if you don’t read French, you can still enjoy the illustrations.

Ubu calendar

Detail from the calendar with real and imaginary Saints – Almanach illustré du Père Ubu pour 1901.

The first almanac was a tiny, pocket-size publication whereas the second one came in a more standard booklet format. The Société des amis d’Alfred Jarry has published a facsimile of the first almanac whereas the second almanac has also been republished by independent publisher Le Castor Astral. Here is a picture of the copies I own of those reproductions just to show  how they differ in size. The first one really is small. It literally fits in one hand.


The first Almanac was written in a short period of time, probably at Claude Terrasse’s house in Montmartre in late 1898. We know for sure that the second one was written in a few days in December 1900 in the basement of the art gallery of Ambroise Vollard, the well-known art dealer. It was Vollard who also published the second one, a much more upscale edition as you can see from the picture above. The paper was of a higher quality, it had colour, larger illustrations and the price was higher too. Vollard was a clever businessman so he added the words ‘second edition’ en ‘for sale everywhere’ to the cover of the 1901 Almanac, even though this was clearly not the case. Vollard’s marketing trick failed. Just like the first one, the second almanac didn’t sell either. Most bookshops even refused to take any copies. But Ubu’s almanac did have admirers in artistic circles, such as Picasso and Apollinaire who both owned copies. Jarry’s work, his self-invented philosophy of ‘pataphysics, have inspired many artists, writers and thinkers to this day, evidenced by the various ‘pataphysical ‘clubs’ around the world. The original one, the Collège de Pataphysique, is also still going strong.

Much of the text of the Almanacs is not easy to comprehend today. A lot of the satire of current events is lost without any knowledge of said events or of how contemporary newspapers reported on them.  Yet there is a lot of political satire in the two works even though Ubu’s language, full of puns, self-invented words and references to other artistic works, can be a challenge. The way Jarry ‘ubused‘ (as I called it in my book, probably thinking back then I was being very clever) the world around him and incorporated it in his  work was nothing if not unique. There are still plenty of insider jokes, cultural and personal references to Jarry, his circle of friends that neither I or anyone else familiar with Jarry’s work have managed to figure out. But don’t be put off by that. Most of Pierre Bonnard’s illustrations are less ambiguous, whether it is Ubu riding in his ‘Omnubu’ through the city of Paris, Ubu standing in front of a kiosk or a praying penis with an aureola doodled in the margins of the calendar above. They speak for themselves. And both Almanacs can be enjoyed even without in-depth knowledge of the cultural-historical context. They certainly made me smile when I was revisiting them again this week.


Ubu and his companion, Monsieur Fourneau, drive the ‘Omnubu’ through the streets of Paris – Almanach du Père Ubu 1899, illustré


Père Ubu and his companion in front of a kiosk  – Almanach du Père Ubu 1899, illustré.

Both almanacs, apart from being a collaborative artistic project and promoting the Ubu works, satirise politics, the news and the way events were reported in newspapers. Among the avant-garde and cabaret culture of Montmartre in the late nineteenth century, parody and satire were en vogue. Mock news and satirical newspapers were a big part of this counter-culture and the humour of the Almanach du Père Ubu is very much indebted to that world. Jarry, Bonnard and Terrasse created their own alternative periodical as a creative, funny and highly necessary antidote to newspapers. This is how Père Ubu sells it anyway in his editorial to the first Almanac of 1899:

Princesses and princes, townsmen, villagers, soldiers, all ye faithful subscribers and buyers of our astrological Almanac, our beloved subjects, men and women, you won’t have to read any newspapers this winter. (…)So buy our Almanac. Our knowledge  (…) renders tomorrow’s newspapers useless in advance.’

And there you have it. Fed up with newspapers? Then simply buy Père Ubu’s Almanac. Better yet, you can just download it for free these days using the sites I mentioned above. I wonder what Jarry would have thought about that? Well at least someone might read them now.

Further reading

If you want to know more about Jarry’s life I highly recommend the brilliant biography in English by Alastair Brotchie, Alfred Jarry: a pataphysical life (MIT Press, 2011). You can also find a nice taster on the wonderful Strange Flowers blog here. A good introduction to ‘pataphysics is Andrew Hugill’s book with the appropriate title Pataphysics: A Useless Guide (MIT Press, 2012).

If you want to learn more about the Almanacs, and yes, I am again embracing Jarry’s spirit of shameless self-promotion:

Dubbelboer, Marieke. The Subversive Poetics of Alfred Jarry. Ubusing Culture in the Almanachs du Père Ubu, Oxford, Legenda, 2012. http://www.legendabooks.com/titles/isbn/9781907747984.html


Béhar, Henri., Dubbelboer, Marieke & Morel, Jean-Paul (Eds.). Commentaires pour servir à la lecture de l’Almanach du Père Ubu illustré 1899, SAAJ & Du Lérot, 2009. ISBN: 9782355480225.

And for a great illustrated introduction to Montmartre’s counter-culture:

Cate, Philip Dennis & Mary Shaw, (Eds.). The Spirit of Montmartre. Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Illustrating the First World War. The year 1915 in Le Petit Journal’s illustrated supplement


“New Year’s Day in the trenches. Little gifts maintain the friendship between officers and soldiers.” Le Petit Journal, Supplément illustré, Sunday 9 January 1915. Source: Gallica/BnF

In January 1915 Colette talked about her visit to the front over Christmas in her column for Le Matin. She described her horror at seeing the soldiers receiving all sorts of presents and luxuries while the children and villagers of the region were left without homes, food and clothes.[1]

Le Petit Journal took a different approach to the soldiers and their holiday gifts. The January cover of their illustrated supplement from 1915 (see above) shows officers sharing gifts with ordinary soldiers on New Year’s Day: friendship among the ranks. It is a scene that is obviously meant to boost moral and offer some holiday spirit and relief. I am not an expert on the First World War – the topic falls outside of the period I usually look at and certainly my expertise – but Colette’s articles led me to some other representations of war in the press around the same period. I decided to take a look at Le Petit Journal‘s illustrated supplement, a newspaper whose covers -like those of Le Petit Parisien – are always a visual treat. Even when reporting on an event that was horrible enough as it was – the war – Le Petit Journal managed to turn it into what they did best: sentimental and brutal melodrama.

 The intimate prose of Colette’s newspaper columns tended to focus very much on the devastating impact of war on ordinary people.[2] By comparison Le Petit Journal’s illustrations are less than subtle and revel in sentimentality, glory, heroism, patriotic flag waving, dramatic scenes of (modern) warfare, royalty and lots of evil Germans. For those familiar with Le Petit Journal’s sensationalist depictions of crime , the lack of subtlety in the paper’s representations of war in the year 1915 should hardly come as a surprise. I’ve made a selection of the ones that struck me the most. Let’s take a look. Covers with evil Germans. EvilGermans

Flag waving everywhere. Even wounded soldiers keep holding on to the flag.

Flag waving

Modern air warfare makes its debut in the war and in the illustrated press.

Modern air warfare

Heroic battle scenes, both on land and at sea. Including singing the Marseillaise while attacking.


And if that isn’t heroic enough, there is always this soldier who keeps on playing the trumpet even though one of his arms has just been blown off. 

Playing the trumpet with one arm

Heart-breaking scenes at home, patriotism, remembrance, courageous dogs and horses. 


Brave royals doing their bit for the war effort. And for the press.


And just look at how bad things are in Germany. They even have to resort to fake news. BadinGermany I always wonder to what extent contemporary readers believed these dramatised images. How did these covers – if they did at all – influence public opinion? Was the average reader able to look at these a bit critically? Did they bring some comfort? Did people even care when there were so many other things to worry about? The propaganda war was fought on both sides. Covers like these in the popular press were – and had to be – all about rallying support,  a government-backed press machine to keep French citizens supportive of a war that was turning into a disaster. If you wanted to know a little bit about what was going on in everyday life or behind the scenes, it was probably better to read Colette’s articles as well.    Notes

[1‘L’automobile emporte, avec nous, des paniers de cadeaux de Noël. Pour les soldats? Non. Les soldats ont tout ce qu’il faut et davantage.’ (Le Matin, ‘Le journal de Colette’, 6 January 1915). See also my previous post on Colette.

[2] Which I discuss in my article in French Cultural Studies. You can find it here as well as draft version here.

A Portrait of Colette as a Journalist

Colette in 1932

Colette in 1932, press photograph. Source: Gallica BnF

Shoddy journalistic stuff. That’s how Colette herself described the newspaper columns she wrote for Le Matin during the First World War. She was being a bit harsh. Perhaps because she preferred to be known for her literary work. Perhaps because she always had a tendency to downplay anything she wrote. But the fact was that she was a journalist. And she was good at it. Whether she liked it or not. I have been wanting to do a post on Colette and journalism for a while now. And since an academic article I wrote on her and the Belle Époque press was published last week this seemed like a good time for it. Somewhere in between her other writing, her theatre career and just living her life, Colette found the time to write an overwhelming amount of journalism. She tackled all sorts of subjects: war, crime, boxing, fashion, film, theatre, dieting. Her journalistic career spanned nearly half a century, starting in the early 1900’s and lasting almost up until her death in 1954. Her articles were published everywhere, cultural and literary periodicals, women’s magazines, fashion magazines, popular daily newspapers. Yet strangely enough very little has been said or written about her journalism.  Shortly before the First World War Colette’s journalistic career received a real boost when she started to work for one of the biggest players in the French newspaper world, Le Matin. By 1913 Le Matin had become the second largest paper in France after Le Petit Parisien, selling almost a million copies a day. Colette was asked to write a weekly column entitled ‘Le journal de Colette.’ Colette’s name is hardly ever mentioned among the names of journalists who documented the war. Yet her articles on the First World War were deemed interesting enough at the time to be published. They appeared in a collection entitled Les Heures longues in 1917. The collection received good reviews, even though Colette herself called it ‘shoddy journalistic stuff.’ [1] During the war she travelled to Verdun, visiting her then husband who was in the army and witnessed the devastation first-hand. It wasn’t her style to write about the strategies or politics of war. Partly because it didn’t fit her writing, partly because it wasn’t very easy for any woman journalist to write about ‘hard news’ to begin with. But Colette wrote about the human cost of war, or the effects it had on those who stayed behind, women, children. Such as in the piece below from January 1915 titled ‘children among the ruins.’

Le Journal de Colette

‘Les enfants dans les ruines’ (Children among the ruins), Le Journal de Colette, Le Matin, 6 January 1915. Source: Gallica/BnF.

In 1914 Colette had said about her employment as a journalist for Le Matin: ‘il faut vivre’ (one has to make a living).[2]  It’s true that she needed the regular income but Colette enjoyed the journalistic world, a world she would often reminisce about in her novels and stories. She loved how she had been one of the very first women to work as a court reporter for example. In 1933, when explaining her recent return to journalism, Colette gave a vivid description of her first impressions of the newspaper world in the 1890’s:

Where does this urge of mine come from. From way back when, when I was in my twenties. From my silent years, when I sat quietly observing Fouquier, Mendès, Courteline and Sarcey. From the former Écho de Paris, the Cocarde, the old Intransigeant…From the Rue du Croissant, the dirty editorial offices, where the gas made it impossible to breath. From the smell of ink, of men, of tobacco, damp mud and beer…[3]

If you would like to read more about Colette in the wider context of the Belle Époque press – and don’t mind academic writing too much- you can find my article in French Cultural Studies here. If you don’t have library access not to worry. A draft uncorrected version of that article can also be found on my Academia page. Follow the link in the About section above.

Better yet, if you want to read Colette’s original articles in Le Matin (provided you can read French), you can search for them here on Gallica. Luckily, digitalisation of newspapers and periodicals means that Colette’s journalistic writing is becoming more easily available. Let’s hope that will also spark a renewed interest in her journalistic work.

Le Matin

The front page of Le Matin on 6 January 1915. Colette’s column can be found on page 4, the last page. Most newspapers only had 4 pages at the time. Source: Gallica/BnF


[1]‘pauvres choses journalistiques’ (letter to Francis Carco, July 1918) [2]Letter to Christiane Mendelys, 20 August 1914, cited in: Colette, Lettres de la vagabonde. Paris, Flammarion,1961, 107. [3]  D’ou me vient cette tentation? De très loin, de ma vingtième année. D’un temps silencieux ou, silencieuse, je contemplai. De l’ancien Écho de Paris, de la Cocarde, du vieil Intransigeant…De la rue du Croissant, des salles de rédaction souillées, irrespirable, du gaz vert. De l’odeur d’encre, d’hommes, de gros tabac, de boue mouillée et de bière..Le Journal de Colette: On ne redevient pas journaliste’, La République, 15 December 1933. Cited in: Gerard Bonal and Frederic Maget (ed.), Colette journaliste. Chroniques et reportages 1893-1955, Seuil, 2010, 35. This book is, apart from articles in the Cahiers Colette, the only recent publication to focus on her journalism. Translation done in haste by me.

Fifty Shades of Queen Victoria. The year 1900 in La Caricature

Yes, we can-can

Yes, we can-can

I wanted to treat you first to this image of Queen Victoria dancing the can-can with three other heads of state, including French president Loubet, and performing a very impressive split. Meanwhile a freakishly tall and very creepy Kaiser Wilhelm peeps over a fence. You’re welcome.

A while ago I looked at how newspaper Le Petit Parisien visualised the year 1900 through the covers of their illustrated supplement. I enjoyed that so much that I have decided to make this a somewhat regular feature. So here is the second post in the series The year 1900 in…This time I have picked the satirical weekly La Caricature (1880-1904). You can find all the issues here on Gallica.

La Caricature had an illustrious predecessor, the first La Caricature (1830-1843), known for its famous political cartoons by Daumier. The second La Caricature was run by Alfred Robida who by the way was also a great science-fiction writer. The weekly periodical had a lot of success in the 1880’s and attracted talented artists. By 1900 weekly however it had switched from colour to black and white, Alfred Robida had left, and with him many of the talent. Nevertheless the now cheaper weekly was still a familiar sight in the kiosks of Paris. And in 1900 readers of La Caricature were treated to fifty shades of Queen Victoria who was a regular guest star on the cover. Victoria JAn Febr Most of La Caricature’s covers deal with the international conflicts headlining in 1900 – the Second Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion. Victoria of course appears on these covers as a symbol of the inescapable dominance of the British Empire. While the caricatures of other heads of state still appear more or less humanly shaped, Queen Victoria looks more like John Tenniel’s Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Probably not a coincidence. In any case, Victoria had become such an iconic figure that she was instantly recognisable to everyone. And sold papers no doubt.

The illustrators of La Caricature clearly enjoyed making her look as comical as possible and placing her in what they saw as humiliating situations. All in an effort to debunk her and the power she symbolised.

28 avril commonVictoria

17 November

Queen Victoria in a very dysfunctional relationship with President Paul Kruger, also starring Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Were there covers without Victoria on it? Yes, of course. Other covers with British figures and symbols for example.

Other British stuff

Chamberlain as a drunk dandy, John Bull as a bully, and the Prince of Wales soon to be King Edward VII visiting one of his many mistresses in Paris. Probably also drunk.

Imperialist football

Imperialist football.

Any covers without anything British then? Well…

Scary stuff in China

Scary things happening in China. But also involving Britain and other imperialist nations.

Some other bad jokes

Some stuff happening in France and some very bad jokes.

But mainly all Britain's fault

But mainly everything was Victoria and Britain’s fault. Even Santa Claus thought so.

La Caricature clearly had some deep unresolved issues with Victoria and Britain. And probably with the fact that France felt it was playing second fiddle in international politics.

Let’s end on a serious note though. These covers do show the volatile geopolitical situation of the time and the imperialist pissing contests – or football matches – that continued to dominate international politics. Power games that would, ultimately, lead to more conflict and war. 

The fact that Wilhelm is made to watch while Victoria and her band of merry men dance the can-can together also takes on an ominous meaning when you know what’s to come. Lesson: invite everyone to your can-can party or there will be trouble.

The many faces of a spy. The death of Mata Hari in French newspapers.

Mata Hari 16 oktober 1917

Mata Hari detail

‘She abused our country’s hospitality for years only to betray us’, Le Petit Parisien, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

On Monday the 15th of October 1917 at six in the morning Margaretha-Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, better known as Mata Hari, faced a firing squad in Vincennes. She was 41 years old. Earlier that year she had been sentenced to death for espionage by French military court. Newspaper Le Petit Parisien, which loved a bit of melodrama, describes how the first shots just wounded her after which a sergeant fired the lethal shot from close range. When her body dropped to the ground ‘her eyes’, according to Le Petit Parisien, ‘seemed to look up to the sky as if asking for forgiveness.’ OK then.

Much has been said and written about the Dutch-Frisian woman who reinvented herself in Paris as a mysterious, Asian dancer/courtesan, who captivated audiences at the Olympia and the Folies-Bergères. Today the consensus is that she was never really the master spy – or double agent – the authorities claimed she was. However, she was a good scapegoat. The execution of an alleged traitor, a foreigner no less, a performance artist with questionable morals, offered a small, symbolic victory at a time when France was facing tremendous losses in the war. This was quite clear in the way her death was reported in most national newspapers on the 16th of October. The papers managed to get her real name more or less right, but she is described as either German or simply ‘foreign’.

Mata Hari fusillée Le Matin 16-10-1917

Le Matin detail Fake Hindu dancer, traitor and ‘choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’, Le Matin, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

Le Petit Journal 16 10 1917

Le Petit Journal 16-10-1917 ‘The dancer of German origin’ according to Le Petit Journal, 16 October 1917. The woman in the photo does not really look like her, but who cares, the spy is dead. Source: BnF/Gallica

Le Journal 16-10-1917

Le Journal, 16 October 1917: ‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’. The newspaper uses a detail of a photo of Mata Hari that had already appeared in fashion magazine Les Modes in February 1908 (see below). Source: BnF/Gallica

Mata Hari Les Modes February 1908

The press did not seem too interested in the actual person behind the myth. No journalist bothered to investigate her background or the facts of her case. Instead the papers regurgitated official press releases and old pictures, showing the many faces – literally – of the glamorous, but treacherous Mata Hari.

Newspaper La Croix cared even less and put the news of Mata Hari’s execution on page 4, next to advertising and the weather.

La Croix p4 16 10 1917

‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in…’ Wait, we’ve seen this sentence before. La Croix, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica

The first female coach drivers in Paris in 1907

Mme Duffaut and 'badauds'

Mme Dufaut on the Boulevards: the gawkers outnumber the customers. Source: here

Recently I came upon a great set of photographs and postcards showing the first female coach drivers in Paris in the early 20th century. They were called les femmes cocher,  les femmes cochères or simply cochères. The French language was trying to come to terms with this new phenomenon. You can see many of the photos here. According to this website, the novelty of women drivers created a media sensation in Paris. The women drew more journalists, photographers and crowds than customers, and inspired a range of jokes, music-hall sketches, even a movie

I was of course curious to see what some of the newspapers were saying about these pioneers in 1907, the year when the first women passed the coach driving exams. So I did a little digging in BnF/Gallica’s newspaper archives. Rather predictably, the conservative and Catholic newspaper La Croix was anything but positive and saw these women as yet another threat to traditional gender roles, to the family, to society, and the universe. On 6 April 1907 satirical magazine Le Rire – never very subtle in its sense of humour – said the whole thing was funny at first, but now worried about the inevitable increase in deadly accidents with children. A woman would never be strong enough to control a horse. The magazine was joking, but only half-joking. It was not exactly known for its progressive views when it came to women, something the cover, entitled ‘what to do with our baby girls?‘, of that same issue on April the 6th illustrates. It wasn’t all doom and reactionary backlash in the papers though. Positive sounds in the press came from Le Radical, where the editorial simply states that Parisians should just get used to seeing women in different professions, since women in other countries as well as in the French countryside are doing all sorts of jobs and manual labour already. Le XIXe siècle considered women taxi drivers an inevitable development of modern society. The paper backs this opinion up by drawing from history, arguing that women were already driving carriages in Ancient Rome. So there. If it was good enough for the Romans. By 1909 the profession of cab driver seemed to have become accepted enough to be presented as a valid job choice in an official career guide for women, the Guide pour le choix dune profession à l’usage des jeunes filles et des dames, which you can find here on Gallica. choix d'une profession The guide lists the requirements for the job. You had to be over 18 and be a resident of Paris. Women had to register with the Préfecture de Police and have a thorough knowledge of all the streets in order to pass the theoretical exam set by the Préfecture. This was then followed by a practical exam. It is, the guide warns, a tough job, earning on average only 6 francs for long, 16-hour days. Also, beginners are often not hired by the larger companies. Honest advice, though not very encouraging.

Mme Charnier

Mme Charnier. Source: here

On 4 February 1907 Le XIXe siècle had already given an enthusiastic account of one of the first practical exams for women cab drivers. The first two women to pass the rigorous tests were Mme Charnier and Mme Dufaut, or Duffaut, who impressed the newspaper’s reporter. Other women would follow, though they would remain very much a minority over the years. XIXe siecle Mme Dufaut was not just met with curiosity from the public, but also with harassment it seems. Le XIXe siècle reported that a man pretending to be a customer had attempted to cut the leashes of Mme Dufaut’s horse as a sort of practical joke. Luckily Mme Dufaut had been unimpressed, informed the police and continued doing her job. The press meanwhile moved on to the next hype.

Mme Dufaut

Mme Dufaut. Source: here

Femme cocher en 1913

Here to stay: ‘femme cocher’ in Paris in 1913 (Agence Rol). Source: Gallica/BnF

On prostitution: L’ Assiette au Beurre and Kees van Dongen

Following my previous post on illustrated newspaper supplements, I was looking at some other examples of illustrated press around 1900.

One of the more fascinating publications, artistically and politically, was L’ Assiette au Beurre. This weekly satirical magazine had themed issues in which graphic artists gave their vision of politics and society. During its existence the periodical commissioned many well-known artists who were drawn to its anarchist, anti-authoritarian and socialist politics. Most of the artwork is striking, though not always very subtle and at times quite cynical. Yet the magazine tackled many socio-political issues and taboo subjects.

Dutch born artist Kees van Dongen – he later became a French national – was invited to illustrate a special issue of 26 October 1901 on prostitution. See the whole issue here on Gallica.

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 14.29.47


Contempt, Poverty, Illness, Death

Kees van Dongen was familiar with the subject. The son of a factory worker, he left home at 18 and rented a room above a brothel in Rotterdam. In Paris he lived in Montmartre where some of the prostitutes shared his bed, posed for him or paid for the young Dutchman’s meals because they thought he was so handsome. At least according to Van Dongen. Though he would become one of Paris’ richest portrait painters and a prominent society figure after the First World War, Kees van Dongen spent his formative years working night shifts in Les Halles and boxing for money on the Place Pigalle while pursuing his artistic career. At the time, doing illustration work was a great way to make money and to build a reputation. Before moving to Paris Kees van Dongen had already worked as a reporter-illustrator for the Rotterdamsche Nieuwsblad.


The four seasons of a life in prostitution.

Van Dongen would also illustrate Het rosse leven en sterven van de Zandstraat, a best-selling book by Dutch journalist M.J. (Marie Joseph) Brusse on the rosse buurt, the red light district, of Rotterdam. Brusse attempted to show the realities of life in prostitution without the usual moralising. The book’s second edition (1917) –for those who read Dutch – is freely available here and well worth a read for its vivid, often enthusiastic portrayal of a life in the margins that Brusse opposes to the stuffy hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. Brusse’s book as well as L’ Assiette au Beurre reflect the radical politics and social reform movements of the early 20th century, drawing attention to the underlying causes of prostitution such as poverty. As Brusse writes in his introduction: ‘you can’t blame women for turning to a profession where they are paid a lot more than a maid or a factory worker.’


Illustrations by Kees van Dongen for M.J. Brusse, Het rosse leven en sterven van de Zandstraat, 1917 (2nd edition)

Of course, these are all visions of prostitution through the eyes of others. The women themselves don’t really get a voice. Van Dongen’s illustrations for L’ Assiette au Beurre are a bit sentimental and his drawing of a naked, stretched out, dead cocotte is stereotypical if not exploitative -the magazine had to sell copy after all. Yet ultimately Van Dongen’s illustrations do side with the prostitutes: he shows the crippling shame of an illegitimate child, the threat of illness, death, and the vicious circle of poverty. L’ Assiette au Beurre was clear in its critique of a society that gave women very few choices and then condemned them for it.

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Note: Details on Kees van Dongen’s life are taken from Rudolf Engers, Het kleurrijke leven van Kees van Dongen, Schiedam, Scriptum, 2002.