Painted in 1889, La Liseuse is a major example of the penetrative, insightful character of Toulouse-Lautrec's portraiture, as well as of his remarkably modern style. The subject of this intimate portrait is the eighteen-year old Hélène Vary (fig. 2), Toulouse-Lautrec's neighbour whom he had known since childhood. As Anne Roquebert wrote: 'Hélène Vary was Lautrec's young Montmartre neighbour. Deciding one day that 'she turned out to be very beautiful, extremely beautiful, admirable!' Lautrec determined to paint her portrait and asked his friend François Gauzi to bring along his camera, because he wanted 'to have her photo. Her Grecian profile is incomparable!' Gauzi, to whom we owe the record of this conversation, added: 'Hélène was not a redhead; her hair was a light chestnut brown; but this time Lautrec had eyes only for the purity of the profile' (A. Roquebert, Toulouse-Lautrec (exhibition catalogue), Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 1991, p. 144).
That the artist himself held the present work in great esteem is demonstrated by the fact that he selected La Liseuse, together with Moulin de la Galette (fig. 1) and another three paintings, for the exhibition of 'Les XX' held in Brussels early in the following year. In a letter to his grandmother dated January 1890, Toulouse-Lautrec wrote: 'At the end of January I'm going to carry the good work, or rather the good paintings to Belgium – poor Belgians!' (quoted in Herbert D. Schimmel (ed.), The Letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Oxford, 1991, p. 132). Both La Liseuse and Moulin de la Galette reflect Lautrec's fundamental goal throughout his career, which was to explore and express the emotional and psychological realities that underlie human experience. Even in his large café and cabaret scenes, the artist was not interested in simply recording the spectacle, but was fascinated by the emotional and psychological effect they had on their participants and audiences. Rarely, however, was he able to express these notions with such strength and directness as in his portraits, and the present work is a testament to the virtuosity with which the artist probed into the inner life of his subject.
In 1888 and 1889 Toulouse-Lautrec executed three portraits of Hélène Vary, who also captured the imagination of his fellow artist Louis Anquetin (fig. 3). In Lautrec's Etude (Hélène Vary) (fig. 4), she is seen in profile, seated on a chair, and posing for the artist in a rather formal manner. She is surrounded by the artist's canvases leaning against the walls of his studio at 27 rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, where he stayed until 1898. For this painting, Lautrec asked his friend François Gauzi to take a photograph of Hélène in profile, so that he could work on her profile without the model having to endure long hours of posing for the artist. In another portrait (fig. 5), Lautrec provides an over-the-shoulder view of the seated Hélène reading, with her back turned to the viewer and her hair pinned up at the back and sides.
Unlike the other, more formal portraits of her, the present work depicts Hélène in a more intimate setting, not in the artist's studio, but in the privacy of her own home. Dressed in a casual blouse, and with her rich, almost wild hair freely falling over her shoulders, Hélène is absorbed in her own private world, seemingly unaware that she is being watched by the artist. As in many of Toulouse-Lautrec's portraits of this time, the artist's attention is almost entirely on the figure; the furnishings are reduced to a minimum that gives the viewer a simple indication of the setting of the scene. This focus on the subject and on rendering her during a private moment is reminiscent of Edouard Vuillard's intimiste interiors (fig. 6). In the present work, the sense of intimacy is emphasised by the way the table at which the model is seated occupies the immediate foreground of the composition, suggesting a shared space between the viewer and the sitter.
Although not portrayed sitting in a formal, dignified pose, in La Liseuse Hélène is rendered with the same elegance and poise of Lautrec's other depictions of her. Her pose and her downcast eyes suggest her focus on the book which is resting on the table in front of her. Of his portraits of Hélène Vary, this is the most penetrating and personal in its projection of her inner life. Yet despite the calm and tranquility of the scene, the painting is invested with a dynamic rhythm, achieved through contrasts of colour and form. A connoisseur of Japanese graphics, Lautrec adopted their distortions and simplification of form and their juxtaposition of contrasting tonalities. The present work exemplifies his exploration of the expressive qualities of line and colour. The waving lines of the woman's hair and the softness of her facial features are contrasted by the sharper, more angular forms that dominate the rest of the work. The focus on her head is further accentuated by the warm yellow and red tones, surrounded by the cooler blues and greens of her clothes and her surroundings.
Charles Stuckey discussed this use of contrasts in the artist's work: 'Lautrec is a consummate master at intensifying the essential quality of form by juxtaposing it with forms of a contrasting nature. His characteristic use of this device sets his work apart from that of the Impressionists with their more homogenous surfaces. Lautrec extended this artistic idea to all other aspects of the picture as well. While the Impressionists' colors are rich and sensuous, Lautrec intensifies his even further by juxtaposing contrasting complementaries. The carefully orchestrated oppositions of orange and blue-violet, cerise and green, have a vibrancy that is reinforced by the bold, energetic facture. While Manet and Renoir tended to handle the picture surface fairly evenly, giving equal attention to both figure and ground, Lautrec concentrates attention more closely on his model by contrasting her densely painted form with the more thinly and sketchily treated peripheries of the canvas. Finally, whereas his older colleagues were preoccupied exclusively with the decorative effects of forms and colors seen in outdoor light, Lautrec reveals his abiding concern for capturing some quality of inner life in his subject' (C. Stuckey, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, Chicago, 1979, pp. 149-50).
Portraiture played an important role in Toulouse-Lautrec's œuvre, and he approached the portrayal of his sitters with a keen psychological acuity. Freed from the necessity of seeking portrait commissions due to his family's wealth, the artist rarely practised flattery or yielded too greatly to convention in his portraits. He was also free to cross class boundaries, choosing between artists and performers, or the working class and his own elite circle of friends and family members. His interest in the complex nature of each sitter's personality naturally led him towards the habit of executing multiple renderings of favoured sitters. In the 1880s he executed a number of intimate and affectionate portraits of his mother, Comtesse Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec. He usually chose to depict her in a domestic setting, reading a book or sitting at the kitchen table. Lautrec's rendering of his mother in Comtesse Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec (fig. 7) and of Hélène in La Liseuse, share the same sense of intimacy and tenderness towards his subjects, as well as a certain dignity and intellectual power that he admired in both women.
Fig. 1, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin de la Galette, 1889, The Art Institute of Chicago
Fig. 2, Photograph of Hélène Vary, Maison Natale, Albi
Fig. 3, Louis Anquetin, Torse de jeune fille (Hélène Vary), 1890, oil on canvas, Private Collection
Fig. 4, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Etude (Hélène Vary), 1889, oil on panel, Kunsthalle, Bremen
Fig. 5, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Hélène Vary, 1889, peinture à l'essence on board. Sold: Sotheby's, London, 27th June 2000
Fig. 6, Edouard Vuillard, Femme lisant, 1893, oil on card, Private Collection
Fig. 7, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Comtesse Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887, oil on canvas, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi
Peinture à l'essence on board
68 by 61cm.
26 3/4 by 24in.
Painted in 1889.
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec
Brussels, Salon des XX, 1890
Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec, 1930-31, no. 17, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Lautrec and Redon, 1931, no. 17, illustrated in the catalogue
London, New Burlington Galleries, Masters of French 19th Century Painting, 1936, no. 113, illustrated in the catalogue
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1947, no. 8
Paris, Orangerie des Tuileries, Toulouse-Lautrec. Exposition en l'honneur du cinquantième anniversaire de sa mort, 1951, no. 100, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from circa 1895)
Albi, Musée de la Berbie, Toulouse-Lautrec, ses amis et ses maîtres, 1951, no. 138, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1895)
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, La Femme dans l'art français, 1953, no. 123
Albi, Musée de la Berbie & Paris, Petit Palais, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1964, no. 64bis
68 by 61cm. 26 3/4 by 24in.
Stephan Bourgeois & Waldemar George, The Adolphe Lewisohn Collection, New York, 1928
Christian Zervos, Cahiers d'Art, 1931, no. 2, illustrated in an installation photograph of the 1930-31 exhibition in Chicago, p. 110
Lang, Art and Style, 1951, no. 19, illustrated
M. G. Dortu & Jean Adhémar, Toulouse-Lautrec en Belgique, Paris, 1955, illustrated pl. 4
Henri Focillon, De Callot à Lautrec, Paris, 1957, pl. XXVII, illustrated p. 195 (as dating from 1897)
Génies et réalités, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1962, illustrated p. 77
M. G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son œuvre, New York, 1971, vol. II, no. P.349, illustrated p. 179
Bruno Foucart & Gabriele Mandel Sugana, Tout l'œuvre peint de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1986, no. 343, illustrated p. 109
Collection Bing, Paris (sold: Paris, 9th June 1927, lot 41)
Paul Rosenberg, Paris (purchased at the above sale)
Mrs Adolphe Lewisohn, New York (acquired by 1928)
Roger Janssen, Brussels (acquired from the above in April 1939)
Thence by descent to the present owner