Few modern artists have captured the public imagination like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (fig. 1). His biography conforms perfectly to the notion of artistic agonism and social rebellion: born into a life of aristocratic privilege, he suffered a series of accidents as a child that left him a cripple, and he was ultimately to seek comfort in the bottle and friendship among the denizens of the Parisian demi-monde. But the historical Lautrec might not have recognized the character whom José Ferrer played in Moulin Rouge, which spun a myth around the familiar topos of social degeneration and the heroic struggles of the avant-garde. To be sure, writers in Lautrec's day associated his physical deformity with moral decay and cultural transgression, eliding the man with his art and social practices. Commenting on his confinement in a Parisian clinic for alcohol abuse in 1899, L'Echo de Paris saw fit to observe that "the banal debauchery, the commercial travelers' excursions which he was happy to organize and to which he would drag his friends, combined with his irritation at his own physical ugliness and moral degeneracy, undoubtedly helped propel him towards the padded cell" (quoted in R. Thompson, "Rethinking Toulouse-Lautrec," Toulouse-Lautrec, New Haven, 1991, p. 13). But there were also more generous and thoughtful critiques of Lautrec the artist: "There is a brash humour and a cruelty in Lautrec's work when he is depicting dance-halls, brothel interiors and unnatural liaisons," wrote Gustave Geffroy in 1893, "but he retains his integrity as an artist; his pitiless powers of observation preserve life's beauty, and the philosphy of vice which he parades with a sometimes provocative ostentation nevertheless takes on the force of a lesson in clinical morality through the strength of his drawing..." (quoted in ibid, p. 13).
Like the peripheral faubourg he haunted--Montmartre was a contradictory mix of ateliers and tenements along the little back streets, and spectacular dance halls and café-concerts around the axial boulevards separating the quarter from the rest of Paris-- Lautrec moved between different and opposed worlds, testing, but never fully erasing, the social boundaries of his class and gender. In a word, Lautrec was the quintessential bohemian, working between the center and the margins of bourgeois life. He was just as apt to visit the prestigious Comédie Française as he was Les Ambassadeurs, Le Mirliton, the raucous Folies Bergères, or the now legendary Moulin Rouge, which he depicted on numerous occasions and whose entry hall was graced by one of his paintings (fig. 2). Indeed, however much the Moulin Rouge is synonymous in the public imagination with Lautrec's name--his first poster, the great Moulin Rouge (La Goulue) of 1891, made him an overnight sensation--the artist himself preferred the classical repertory of the Comédie, which he frequented throughout the 1890s, elegantly dressed in black tie.
The theater provided Lautrec with a range of themes, subjects, and models, from circus performers to singers on stage to lone figures. Danseuse assise aux bas roses belongs to the latter category. In this magnificent character study, a solitary dancer is seated on a couch or bed, caught in reverie or responding to some distraction. Leaning forward just enough to expose the cleavage of her breasts, she folds her hands between her legs in a gesture of apparent repose. Her body fills the entire space of the painting, the transparent veils of her tutu forming a kind of billowy cloud that extends outward from her waist and seems to dissolve in a flurry of long brushstrokes into the ground of the support. This effect contrasts with the pasty materiality of the dancer's face, arms, chest and skinny legs. Here, Lautrec seems to insist on the dancer's physicality in relation to a certain sexual availability, highlighting her pink stockings with accents of ruby red that extend along her inner left thight, suggestively echoing the color of her full, heavily made-up lips. The treatment of the blue upholstery or bed covering lends credence to this interpretation, the dense pile of short, choppy brushstrokes beneath the dancer's spread legs suggesting a kind of displaced pubis.
Danseuse assise aux bas roses is a characteristic work of this period. Speaking of Lautrec's technical experimentation at this time, Gale Murray writes:
Lautrec was now evolving a distinctive way of applying paint thinly in long, striated brush strokes. He began also to layer his pigments, and whether he was painting on canvas primed with white ground or directly onto cardboard, he often left areas of the support exposed to function positively as "colour." By thinning his oil paints with turpentine (peinture à l'essence), he mixed a less viscous, matte finish, giving an appearance more commonly associated with drawing or pastel than painting. He was, in effect, consolidating his personal variation of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist touch--his "streak"--with his own adaptation in oil paints, first of Degas's manner of applying pastel, and second, of the streaky drawing in illustrations by popular artists such as Steinlen, Forain, and Raffaëlle. (G. Murray, Toulouse-Lautrec: The Formative Years, 1878-1891, Oxford, 1991, p. 177)
Lautrec's admiration for Degas in particular is well known. In 1885 he executed a number of dance compositions in fresco for an inn at Villiers-sur-Morin (e.g. Dortu, no. P.241; The Art Institute, Chicago), clearly adopting (just as he subtly parodies) the master's daring compositional strategies and his approach to describing the dazzling effects of artificial stage light on sumptuous fabrics worn by figures in motion. After 1890, however, the ballet theme virtually disappears from Lautrec's work, with a few notable exceptions.
This fact raises a number of questions concerning the identity and precise location of the woman in Danseuse assise aux bas roses. It is possible that the painting is one of two studies of dancers which Lautrec, in a letter to his mother dated January 1891, mentioned that he had sold to the director of the Héliogravure Goupoil, Michael Manzi (The Letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Oxford, 1991, pp. 139-140). The present work was, in fact, exhibited at the Galerie Manzi-Joyant, Paris, in June 1912. Questions of provenance and exhibition history aside, however, it is difficult to state with any certainty whether Lautrec's figure is an actual dancer or a studio model. More importantly, it is hard to know to which world of dance she belongs--the ballet, the cabaret, or the circus.
The possibility that Lautrec's dancer may be a circus performer is intriguing. In Au cirque Fernando: l'ecuyère of 1887-1888 (fig. 2), the bareback rider is dressed in what appears to be the costume of a ballerina, as too, perhaps, is Seurat's stylized acrobat in Le cirque of 1890-1891 (fig. 3). The element of parody that is a stock-in-trade of the circus--the inversion of established norms and social codes--would not have been lost on Lautrec, who admired the caricatures of Daumier and Forain and whose biting humor was legendary. (Indeed, the Cirque Fernando, later renamed the Cirque Médrano, would provide the youthful Pablo Picasso with a repertory of marginal social types during his celebrated Rose Period.) Surely, the erotic accessibility of Lautrec's dancer suggests a far less exalted outlet for her talents than the rarefied corps de ballet. What is more, her pose foreshadows the artist's celebrated lithograph of the clowness Cha-U-Kao from the portfolio Elles of 1896 (fig. 4). Although there is considerably more information in the lithograph to locate the figure in a specific theatrical context, the position of the figure in the present work--hunched slightly forward, hands clasped between her outstretched legs--suggests that Danseuse assise aux bas roses may also have a somewhat suspect social pedigree.
(fig. 1) Portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892
(fig. 2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Au Cirque Fernando, l'ecuyère, 1887-1888
The Art Institute, Chicago
(fig. 3) Georges Seurat, Le cirque, 1890-1891
Musée du Louvre, Paris
(fig. 4) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La clownesse assise, 1896
Danseuse assise aux bas roses
Peinture à l'essence and pastel on board
Signed bottom left 'HTLautrec'
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, May, 1902, no. 83
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Peintures et Lithographies de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1910, no. 14
Paris, Galerie Manzi-Joyant, Exposition des Arts Modernes, June, 1914, no. 72
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, H. de Toulouse-Lautrec trentenaire, April-May, 1931, p. 18, no. 62
Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Cent Ans de Théâtre, Music-Hall et Cirque, Dix-neuvième Siècle, May-July, 1936, p. 43, no. 89
Paris, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Tableaux et Dessins de quelques Maîtres du 18ème et 19ème siècle, 1938, no. 73
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Toulouse-Lautrec, Feb.-Mar., 1964, no. 15 (illustrated)
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture from Private Collections, July-Sept., 1966, p. 17, no. 182
22 3/8 x 18¼ in. (56.8 x 46.4 cm.)
A. Brook, "Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec," The Arts, Sept., 1923, p. 127 (illustrated)
G. Coquiot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Berlin, 1925, p. 60 (illustrated, pl. 40)
A. Astre, H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1926, p. 73 (illustrated) M. Joyant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1926, p. 270 (illustrated, facing p. 12)
M. Joyant, "Toulouse-Lautrec," L'Art et les Artistes, Feb., 1927, p. 169 (illustrated)
P. MacOrlan, Lautrec, Peintre de la Lumière Froide, Paris, 1934, p. 33 (illustrated)
F. Jourdain and J. Adhemar, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1948, pl. 7 (illustrated)
W. Kern, Lautrec, Bern, 1948, pl. 7 (illustrated)
F. Jourdain and J. Adhemar, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1952, p. 118, no. 29 (illustrated, pl. 29)
J. de Laprade, Lautrec, Paris, 1954, pl. 15 (illustrated)
H. Focillon, Lautrec, Dessins, Paris, 1959, pp. XIII and XVIII
R. Carrieri, Epoca, Sept. 18, 1960, p. 46 (illustrated in color)
M.G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son oeuvre, New York, 1971, vol. II, p. 198, no. P.370 (illustrated, p. 199)
P. Huisman and M.G. Dortu, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1974, p. 35 (illustrated in color)
G.M. Sugana, L'opera completa di Toulouse-Lautrec, Milan, 1977, p. 101, no. 225 (illustrated)
The Frances and John L. Loeb Collection, London, 1982, no. 24 (illustrated in color)
R. Thompson, "Illustration, caricature and the type," in exh. cat., Toulouse-Lautrec, Hayward Gallery, London, 1991-1992, p. 184 (illustrated, fig. a)
Olivier Sainsère, Paris
Anon. sale, Palais Galliéra, Paris, June 19, 1963, lot 11 (illustrated in color)
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York
Acquired from the above by the late owners on Oct. 11, 1963