Rouault first made watercolor studies of prostitutes in 1903 and continued working on the series until the end of the decade. He exposed these hapless figures, sometimes alone and more often in groups, clad only in stockings and garters, to the uneasy gaze of the viewer, who assumes the sordid role of a bordello client. Their surroundings are equally bare and squalid, with no hint of the elegant décor that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicted in his bordello salons. "These gutter Venuses", as the critic Gustave Coquiot called them, "have become vitriolic and cruel representations of the body reduced to a mere commodity."
Rouault painted their bodies in a summary style that transforms them into block-like forms bounded by dark and heavy contours, reflecting the artist's early apprenticeship in the stained-glass trade. He filled these nervous, gestural lines with contrasting washes of rose tones and deep Prussian blue, which creates the effect of crudely modeled flesh seen in a harsh raking light. The prevailing blue tonality may have been prompted by Pablo Picasso's Blue period works, which also featured poor, fallen women, and the revelation of Paul Cézanne's late watercolors, which were just beginning to be seen in Paris. When Rouault first exhibited his prostitutes at the Salon d'Automne in 1904, his rough technique seems to have attracted as much attention as his subject matter. The critic Louis Vauxcelles, who later dubbed the terms 'fauve' and 'cubist' for emerging styles at the Salons, was disturbed by Rouault's dark palette, pasty surfaces and indistinct shapes, which ran in the face of all the gains made by the Neo-Impressionist artists he most admired.
Rouault's depiction of prostitutes locate him squarely with the realist tradition of French caricature and social criticism that extends from Honore Daumier and Constantin Guys to Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and his caustic vision corresponded to the reportage and commentary in such satirical journals as L'Assiette au beurre. Nevertheless, despite the outward brutality and unflinching negativity seen in these works, Rouault insisted that there was a spiritual dimension underlying his vision, in which there was genuine compassion for this hidden corner of suffering humanity. A devout Catholic at a time when French society was becoming increasingly secular--the official separation of church and state in France was enacted in 1905--Rouault identified with a Christian mission in art, and held the belief that art was capable of a redemptory role in exposing and atoning for the sins of society. Rouault recalled a spiritual epiphany that he experienced in 1903:
I underwent a moral crisis of the most violent sort. I experienced things which cannot be expressed by words. And I began to paint with an outrageous lyricism which disconcerted everybody. It was not the influence of Lautrec, Degas or the moderns which inspired me, but an inner necessity and the perhaps unconscious desire not to fall full-length into conventional religious subject matter.
(Quoted in J.T. Soby, Georges Rouault, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1945, pp. 12-13)
Nevertheless, Rouault's interest in the theme of the prostitute is not entirely confined to an agenda of moralizing intentions or a desire to redeem a fallen humanity. The artist employs these fallen women as a symbol of his own ambivalent state of mind, as he wrestles with his own sexual feelings. These women are deserving of sympathy and compassion, but at the same time Rouault recognizes their predatory and seductive nature. Rouault's friend the painter Maurice de Vlaminck understood this contradiction is his work. "Rouault's painting expresses desire, temptation and the horrors of lust all at once, the same complex of feelings found in the figures medieval artists carved on cathedrals in the twelfth century. The association of religion and anarchy embracing and clashing, join forces in his canvases. If there is something of the monk and the saint in Rouault, there is also something of the libertarian martyr, dressed in a black cheviot suit" (quoted in "Remembrances: Homage to Georges Rouault," XXe Siècle, special issue, 1971).