This colorful piece served to advertise the novel Reine de Joie (“Queen of Joy”) by the now-forgotten French author, Victor Joze. The foundation of the novel is rooted in class relationships and distinctions between the rich and poor in Paris. The lithograph provides a daring scene that attempts to depict the troubled relationship between the upper and working classes. The man in the painting, described in the novel as a Jewish banker, is offering a working-class courtesan his wealth in exchange for nothing more than her company. This glimpse into the world of prostitution provides an interesting twist to the usual transactions that occurred between wealthy men and poor women. Furthermore, this work represents the wealthy as willing to indulge in whatever their money can buy, even if it goes against social norms and ethics of the era. This dehumanizes the wealthy banker, portraying him as repulsive and setting a stereotype for the Parisian upper class. Lastly, the courtesan’s red lipstick and dress symbolize a life rooted in and sustained by worldly lust. Her lifestyle was seen as immoral and vulgar during the period in France (The Art Institute of Chicago).
Apart from class differences, Reine De Joie has a unique historical context. In the years prior to this lithograph, French society had experienced a resurgence of anti-semitism within mainstream culture. There was rising fear that Jews posed an internal threat to France as both the main beneficiaries and main propagators of the capitalist system that divided the upper and working classes. They were also thought to be genetically inferior to non-Jewish caucasians (of which one can be seen in the background of the work), a motif that de Toulouse-Lautrec plays on by intentionally giving the businessman stereotypical negative Jewish characteristics, like a hooked nose, small moustache, and stout frame. Media like Reine de Joie increased the anti-Semetic momentum in France by providing non-Jews a feeling of physical and moral superiority over Jews, essentially equating the sin of prostitution with the sin of Semitism (Iskin).
In relation to the feast, this piece depicts two key aspects of what make feasts significant: community and relationships. Through its explicit depiction of the socially-unacceptable relationship between the banker and the courtesan, Reine de Joie demonstrates the power the feast can have to unite two unlikely companions in a relationship that would otherwise be impossible. Furthermore, since the agreement the two make – money for companionship – requires the courtesan accompany the banker at meals, the audience can understand the importance the feast has in defining companionship. For many single people, eating alone is one of the most difficult and lonely parts of life.
From a historical perspective, this work served to further degrade the French public’s opinion of Jewish people by depicting this Jewish banker as a gross, unhuman, and unrespectable man, who, through both his Jewish heritage and union with a courtesan, tarnishes the sanctity of the feast at which he presides. The man in the background, a well-looking Caucasian, serves as a foil to the main character, whose overweight and dirty demeanor would have been generally repulsive to the era’s French audience. Thus, de Toulouse-Lautrec utilizes the respect Frenchmen had for the feast as a tool to further dehumanize Jews in French society.
The Art Institute of Chicago. “Reine De Joie.” Reine De Joie, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1 Jan. 2008, http://www.artic.edu/artworks/88629/reine-de-joie.
Iskin, Ruth E. “Identity and Interpretation: Reception of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Reine de joie Poster in the 1890s.” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, vol. 8 iss. 1, spring 2009, http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring09/63–identity-and-interpretation- receptions-of-toulouse-lautrecs-reine-de-joie-poster-in-the-1890s.