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Friday, 31 August 2012

“Impulsive, Headstrong, Passionate, She Would do the Most Reckless Things. But no one Could Resist Sarah…” Or: The Incredible Sarah Brown: A Guest Post by Peter Stubley:

This story begins with a photograph. And what a photograph it is:

 The caption claims it is 'Sarah Brown, a popular music hall dancer’ who was jailed for three months for indecency just for wearing this costume.

So who was Sarah Brown? Hardly anybody knows her name today. I assumed she was a forgotten figure who scraped a living in the seedy backwaters of London’s theatre land. But, after an hour of eye-wearying Googling, it emerged that the real Sarah Brown was probably THE most famous model of her day (the early 1890s). And she was French.

Marie Royer (if that really was her name) is thought to have adopted her stage name as a tribute to the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Her fans, mostly students and artists living in the Latin quarter of Paris, called her Sarah Larousse – ‘the redhead’. ‘Sarah was fair, and her figure, small bosomed, had the creamy unity of a Titian’, wrote the English painter William Rothenstein. The author W.C. Morrow was also in raptures: ‘She was the mistress of one great painter after another, and she lived and reigned like a queen. Impulsive, headstrong, passionate, she would do the most reckless things. But no one could resist Sarah.’ And the American artist Robert Henri called her ‘one of the most notorious women in Paris.’

Her exploits were legendary: she asked for an audience with the poet Paul Verlaine only to faint in shock at the sight of his ‘terrifying’ face; she fell in love with a black model called Bamboulo, who claimed he could eat a whole rabbit alive, fur, bones and all; she liked to flounce out of the studio before the artist had finished his masterpiece; she changed her costumes at will and deliberately knocked down the painters’ easels for kicks; she was the model for Jules Joseph Lefebvre’s Lady Godiva and Clemence Isaure, and Georges Rochegrosse’s Les derniers jours de Babylone.
Lady Godiva

But Sarah Brown was most famous for appearing ‘nude’ at the Moulin Rouge for the ‘Bal des Quat’z-Arts’ in February 1893. It has been called ‘the world’s first striptease.’ Descriptions of her costume vary – either she was completely naked, reclining upon a shield carried by men clad only in white loincloths, or she was wearing a black velour g-string, stockings and a black shirt. Or perhaps she was dressed only in ‘a few rows of pearls and gold nets’.

Word soon reached the local moral guardian, Senator Rene Berenger, who insisted on prosecuting Sarah Brown, as well as three other models, for outraging public decency. They told the court that they saw no difference between their performance and posing for artists in their studios. Sarah Brown claimed she was wearing the same Cleopatra costume she wore for Rochegrosse a few years earlier. The verdict was predictable: guilty. She was fined 100 Francs or six months in prison.

A few hours later her student fans marched through Paris in protest – as many as 2,000 of them all wearing a symbolic fig leaf on their hats. The demonstration began peacefully but ended with street battles with the police and four days of riots. In some ways it was a mini-revolution against the bourgeois culture which preferred its women to stay at home, fully clothed, nursing children and keeping house.

Sarah Brown was only 24 years old, but this would be the high point of her career. She is said to have lost her looks and her lovers as her wild life took its toll. Three years later on 12 February 1896 the Daily News in London reported her death from consumption (tuberculosis):

‘Sarah Brown was once before the courts and everybody wondered at the reputation she won in the studios for in a bonnet and ladylike clothing she looked commonplace and indeed vulgar. Models generally are well-behaved girls and many live like anchorites for fear of spoiling their plastic beauty and losing the power to exact high fees. But Sarah Brown, who was a red haired Jewess, lived the life of a bacchante.’

The New York Times’ tribute - ‘The Sad Career of Sarah Brown’ - claimed she was ‘one of the scarce artist’s models who may pose for the head as well as for the body.’ Sarah was ‘not extremely beautiful, but she knew how to seem to be thus.’ The paper also related a story of how Sarah’s career as a model deteriorated after she was stabbed in the breast by an English Countess vying for the affections of the artist Rochegrosse.

Attempting to unravel her true story would take a whole book (and she certainly deserves one), but the question remains: does that photograph show the real Sarah Brown? Comparing it with the paintings and another photograph suggests it might be an imposter, someone attempting to recreate a famous image.



Although they appear almost identical at first glance, the first woman seems a little too ordinary to be ‘the most famous model in Paris’. Her costume looks a little cheap, her face bears a bit too much of a resemblance to Oscar Wilde and her pose seems slightly too awkward and heavy. Looking closely, what appears to be naked flesh actually looks more like some kind of long john. By contrast the second woman has the aloof, regal air of someone who knows what they are doing. There is even the hint of an exposed left nipple.

But whatever the truth, don’t let that spoil your enjoyment of the real Sarah Brown – the flame-haired woman who helped drag the stuffy, old 19th century kicking and screaming into the modern era.

Peter Stubley is part journalist and part author. He can be followed on Twitter @historyhack and you can read his brilliantly researched blog which covers all manner of historical eras at http://historyhackblog.wordpress.com/

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