Sarah Brown, 19th Century Supermodel

Moulin Rouge poster from 1891 by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Four years after the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris in 1889, it hosted an event which was so scandalous that four of the performers were prosecuted for outraging public decency.

The Bal des Quat’z-Arts featured a procession of floats, banners and models dressed as famous historical characters from Ancient Rome and Greece. The famous Cancan dancer La Gouloue (‘The Glutton’) was there in the guise of an ‘Indienne’.

But the highlight of the show was undoubtedly the artist’s model Sarah Brown as the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, held aloft by men clad only in white loincloths.

The red-haired model Sarah Brown, purportedly in the Bal des Quat’z-Arts costume

Her performance has since been described as ‘the world’s first striptease’ although descriptions of her costume vary wildly – some say she was completely naked while others describe a black velour g-string, stockings and a black shirt. Georges Montogueil, writing in Paris Dansant (1898), says:

The parade covers a long space. Here is part of the triumphal procession of Cleopatra. On a palanquin, she appears, dressed in a few rows of pearls and gold nets, the world-conquering beauty, it is the model Rochegrosse painted in the Death of Sardanapalus, the stunning redhead Sarah Brown. The people cheer. She welcomes the delirium with Oriental nonchalance.

When Sarah Brown was hauled before the court, she said she was only wearing the what she had posed in for the artist Georges Rochegrosse:

‘I had on a belt, large necklaces and sequins.’
‘Did you have on tights?’
‘No, why would I? I was dressed.’
‘Did you walk about the ball with your bust naked?’
‘I only appeared in the procession; during the entire ball I was in a loge.’
‘Who gave you the idea for that costume?’
‘Nobody, I am a model. I’m the one who posed for Rochegrosse’s Cleopatra. I naturally chose that costume.’

Sarah Brown was found guilty and fined 100 Francs or face six months in prison.

A few hours later as many as 2,000 of her student fans marched through Paris in protest wearing a symbolic fig leaf on their hats. The demonstration began peacefully but ended with street battles with the police and four days of riots.

Sarah, still only 24 years old, was celebrated as ‘one of the most notorious women in Paris’. The English painter William Rothenstein later wrote: ‘Sarah was fair, and her figure, small bosomed, had the creamy unity of a Titian’, while the author W.C. Morrow recalled: ‘She was the mistress of one great painter after another, and she lived and reigned like a queen. Impulsive, headstrong, passionate, she would do the most reckless things. But no one could resist Sarah.’

Her exploits were legendary: she asked for an audience with the poet Paul Verlaine only to faint in shock at the sight of his ‘terrifying’ face; she fell in love with a black model called Bamboulo, who claimed he could eat a whole rabbit alive, fur, bones and all; she liked to flounce out of the studio before the artist had finished his masterpiece; she changed her costumes at will and deliberately knocked down the painters’ easels for kicks; she was the model for Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s Lady Godiva and Clemence Isaure.

Clemence Isaure by Lefebvre

Lady Godiva by Lefebvre (1890)

But the Bal des Quat’z-Arts was to be the high point of her career and it is said she lost her looks and lovers as her wild life took its toll. Three years later on 12 February 1896 the Daily News in London reported her death from consumption.

Sarah Brown was once before the courts and everybody wondered at the reputation she won in the studios for in a bonnet and ladylike clothing she looked commonplace and indeed vulgar. Models generally are well-behaved girls and many live like anchorites for fear of spoiling their plastic beauty and losing the power to exact high fees. But Sarah Brown lived the life of a bacchante.

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Links / Sources:

Marie Lathers, Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist’s Model (2001), p243

Lela Felter-Kerley, The Art of Posing Nude: Models, Moralists and the 1893 Bal des Quat’z-Arts, French Historical Studies, volume 33, number 1, p69-98. Sarah Brown’s performance is said to mark a ‘shift in sexual attitudes’.

Quotations from Paris Dansant (apologies for my poor French translation) and Rothenstein’s Men and Memories. Robert Henri is quoted in His Life and Art as saying ‘Paris has two Sarahs; one is Sarah Bernhardt, the other is Sarah Brown, the model, who is one of the most notorious women in Paris.’

For more on La Goulue (and some very racy pictures of her), see The Burns Archive blog

There is another photograph, said to be of Sarah Brown, included in the book ‘Victorian Life in Photographs’. The caption describes her as a music hall dancer and says she was jailed for indecency. It seems almost certain that this is not the Sarah Brown, and most likely is someone else posing in a similar costume for her own pleasure. See my blog for The Victorianist on Sarah Brown in August 2012.