This unexpected exhibition shows the compassion in Impressionism

I begin with a small confession: I love Impressionist paintings more than any other school of painting, particularly when the subject matter is Paris and its inhabitants. Of course, some people will think this is like preferring the waltzes of Johann Strauss to the symphonies of Beethoven. However, the recent opening of a big Impressionist show in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay with the astonishing subtitle, ‘Images of prostitution in France, 1850–1910’, has reinforced my enthusiasm.

This may sound like a specialist take on the subject, but it isn’t. For prostitution was a matter of great concern to French society in the second half of the 19th century. So one can find paintings by all the major artists of the period in the exhibition. There are 20 works by Toulouse-Lautrec, seven early Picassos and four Manets – as well as canvasses by Degas, Renoir and Van Gogh.

What worried bourgeois society wasn’t

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