Rolla, 1878, oil on canvas, 175 x 220 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
In the Spring of 1878, a month before the inauguration of the Salon, Rolla was brutally excluded from the event by the authorities who judged the scene to be “immoral”.
Gervex found his inspiration in a long poem by Alfred de Musset published in 1833. The text recounts the destiny of a young bourgeois, Jacques Rolla, falling into a life of idleness and debauchery. He meets with Marie, a teenager who found in prostitution an escape from misery. Rolla is seen here ruined, standing by the window, his eyes turned to the girl sleeping. He is about to commit suicide by poison.
If the scene was judged indecent, it was not because of Marie’s nudity, which in no way differs from the canonic nudes of the time. The attention of contemporaries rather turned to the still life constituted by a gown, a garter, and a hastily undone corset covered with a top hat. Gervex put the corset on the floor so that the spectator may know this woman “is not a model”. Indeed, this disposition and the nature of the clothes clearly indicate Marie’s consent and her status as a prostitute.