Patron: a special guardian or protector, or a wealthy or influential supporter of an artist or artistic enterprise
I always thought a “patron” was a good thing to be. But my perspective was just broadened by an extraordinary exhibit “The Dancers” at the Portland Art Museum showcasing the work of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931), and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).
Of course the art was thrilling (could lovely dancers depicted by three remarkable artists not be thrilling?) but the back story was much darker.
It turns out that in Paris in the later part of the 19th century, the patrons (men) of the Paris Opera and ballet wanted to see young WOMEN in their tights and tutus. This even to the point where almost all the ballet roles were for women, with the occasional male dancer being played by a female in drag. (What’s a male dancer to do? They went off to Russia or Denmark where employment was less problematic and vitalized dance in those two countries – but that’s another story.)
The ballerinas at the Paris Opera were often from the lower classes and, except for few who became stars (les etoiles), they earned a paltry salary. Rising through the ballet ranks was seen as a way for the dancers to better their lives and contribute money to their families.
Enter the patron.
The most prominent spectators at the Paris Opéra were the annual subscribers, or abonnés—men who were upper class political leaders, industry titans, and financiers. The abonnés bought the most expensive seats, best views—AND the privilege of consorting backstage with the dancers. The dancers in turn felt pressured to succumb to the men’s advances in order to get “financial aid.” Some dancers remained aloof, but in general, the ballet dancer was associated with the demimonde.
Did you ever wonder about those guys in top hats and tails waiting in the wings in some of the Degas’ paintings and drawings? Those are the fat cat abonnés. They loiter with intent in the shadows, or strike up deals with the girl’s mother. Or the girls are trying to act attracted to some geezer with a big belly.
From the exhibit’s liner notes:
“Degas emphasizes the artifice of the spectacle and the physical reality of the ballerina’s life behind the scenes. Forain rails against the social inequities that made the exchange of money for sex a dilemma in the dancer’s life. And Lautrec employs sexual references in his depictions of chahuteuses, both to titillate and to stress the humanity of women whom society treated as commodities.”