Few artists better explored the demi-monde of French high society than Henri Gervex. Equivalents on canvas to the novels of Guy de Maupassant, his paintings chronicled the hidden, fast and sometimes short lives of modern anti-heroes - courtesans, gamblers and drinkers who spent as much time at the music hall as at the opera house.
This avant-garde subject matter, which became known as 'réalisme mondain' was not unique to Gervex: it was common in the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, and in that of the artist's friends Forain, Degas and Manet. In Gervex, it found its strongest expression in his painting, Rolla, a large canvas inspired by Alfred de Musset's poem of the same title, which depicted a young dissolute man, contemplating suicide after a last night with a beautiful prostitute, shown sleeping in bed, the evidence of their love-making strewn across the foreground of the composition. Shown at the Salon of 1878, the picture caused such a scandal that it was removed from exhibition and placed in the window of nearby dealer, where it received wide admiration.
Notwithstanding the fact that his public decorations of the mairie of the 9th arrondissement reconciled him with the authorities, Gervex still maintained a critical position towards the Salon and the Academic teachings of the école des Beaux-Arts. Gervex, the elegant model for the sought-after painter Fagerolles in Emile Zola's 1886 novel, L'oeuvre, affirmed his position as a modern painter first by publicly defending his Impressionist elders - notably Edouard Manet who had died in 1883 - and also by setting up his own painting academy with his colleague Fernand Humbert.
The sitter in this painting is Ellen Andrée, one of Gervex's favourite models, who also served as the model for Rolla, painted in the same year, and who also posed for artists such as Renoir, Degas, Manet and Stevens. The subject fits the mould of a realist illustration, and clearly depicts a courtesan waiting to suprise her client from behind the curtains. The setting is ambiguous, representing perhaps a brothel or a private bedroom, although the overall effect is deliberately provocative, clearly suggesting an imminent sexual encounter. The model's clothes have been hurriedly disguarded, her look is one of obvious anticipation as she stares towards an unseen door, while the gesture of her hands is one of almost false modesty, emphasising rather than hiding her sexuality.