Progression of Art
Self Portrait in Front of a Mirror
This is one of few self-portraits Toulouse-Lautrec painted, as he was incredibly self-conscious about his appearance, and the only one in which the artist is the sole focus. In it, he uses peinture a l'essence (oil paint, thinned with turpentine), applied directly onto cardboard to create a loose, sketchy effect. He would continue to use this technique throughout his career, adapting it to his sensibilities as a mature artist. Here the artist is both literally and figuratively emerging: the looseness of the brushwork makes it evident that he has studied Impressionism, but there is a darkness here, perhaps even a hint of the sinister, and a depth to the composition that departs from the buoyancy of the Impressionist palette and mood.
Oil on cardboard - Musée Toulouse-Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi
One of a series of portraits of Carmen Gaudin done by Toulouse-Lautrec during his Paris years, The Laundress is meant to expose the raw, somber and gritty world of the working-class. Toulouse-Lautrec poses the prostitute - one of his favorite models - as a laundress, taking a break from her physically intensive and exhausting work. And while Toulouse-Lautrec was famous for wanting to expose the hardship of Parisian life, there is a subtle delicacy and warmth to this work that belies his affection for this woman and her toils. This naturalism and painterly style is a cornerstone of Toulouse-Lautrec's earlier works, once again calling forth Degas' influence.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
The Streetwalker (Le Casque d'Or)
While images of working class people and prostitutes certainly existed before the 19th century, these subjects were almost invariably portrayed as types, not individuals. Though not alone in his quest to make portraits of working-class individuals (his friend Vincent Van Gogh was at this very moment working on a similar project in the South of France), Toulouse-Lautrec's approach to the subject is part of this revolutionary shift in art. At first glance, this is a rather conventional portrait of a woman seated in a garden. In brushy strokes, Toulouse-Lautrec describes the outdoor setting and long-sleeved button-down dress fastened high at the chin. Almost all of his concentration is focused on her distinctive features - the face, with its sharp features, whitened by rice powder, thin red lips, and red gold hair, piled high on top of her head. A slight smile plays at the corners of her eyes and mouth, as if the artist has just made a joke. The only visual hint at a departure from convention is the sitter's fully confrontational pose. She sits right at the edge of the frame, squares her shoulders, and looks out directly, a bit too close for polite comfort. What makes this portrait truly radical is, of course, its subject, a prostitute. Her street name was Le Casque d'Or (the Golden Helmet -a reference to her distinctive hair). Toulouse-Lautrec portrays this would-be scandalous subject, in a matter-of-fact, overall quite dignified manner --truly a radical departure from the norm.
Oil on cardboard - Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Bed (Le lit)
In this remarkable painting, two women lie gazing at one another, their cheeks flushed with the glow of intimacy. Toulouse-Lautrec frequented the houses of prostitution in Paris, and he admired the unguardedness of the women: "who stretch themselves out on the divans...entirely without pretensions." Some were lesbians who agreed to let him watch (for a fee, of course). Toulouse-Lautrec was by no means unique in being interested in girl-on-girl action. What was different was his interest in portraying it with subtlety and psychic depth, as opposed to lascivious spectacle, and an unprecedented degree of tenderness. Toulouse-Lautrec's enlightened position on homosexuality is well-documented. A staunch defender of gay rights, he stood by his friend Oscar Wilde throughout the writer's harrowing trial in Britain.
Oil and pastel on cardboard - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh
This painterly pastel, made well before Toulouse-Lautrec or his famous sitter were well-known, depicts Van Gogh seated pensively at a Montmartre café table. In front of him is a glass of absinthe, and he leans forward intently as if he has just spotted someone he knows. Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh were friends, bonding over their passion for absinthe (also known as "the green fairy") which they viewed as a gateway to inspiration, and as both struggled with intense bouts of alcoholism. Paul Signac (another artist in their circle) remembered, "absinthes and brandies would follow each other in quick succession." Visible in this relatively early composition is Toulouse-Lautrec's command of color and line (evidence of his solid, traditional art school background). What makes Toulouse-Lautrec unique is also present here, he zeroes in on the visible traits (in this case, Van Gogh's sunken cheeks, heavy brow and anxious, forward-leaning pose) that capture the essence of a person.
Pastel on Cardboard - Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance
In this painting, Toulouse-Lautrec captures the exuberant energy and seedy underbelly of Paris night life. As if through an opening in the crowd, we glimpse the center of the Moulin-Rouge (a busy dance hall in the entertainment district of Montmartre). A dancer in mid-kick lifts her skirt above her knees (revealing much more leg than was considered ladylike), while a much more modestly dressed and apparently well-heeled woman with an upturned nose looks on, a hint of disapproval in her expression. Yet why is she in this space? What is she looking for? Toulouse-Lautrec, a great observer of night life, was familiar with Degas's depictions of the ballet. Here, he is giving a nod to the older artist, but has shifted the scene from the more regimented structure of the practice room (ballerinas were working-class in the 19th century, and many of them also worked as prostitutes) to the dance hall with its cast of characters: entertainers, dandies, and ladies of the night. The dynamic interaction between the pair of dancers at the center contrasts with the relative stasis in the rest of the crowd. The composition is like a spinning top with the female dancer at its center. Toulouse-Lautrec uses color to move the eye outward across the composition from right to left, from the pink dress to the red stockings, and over to a red blazer in the background, drawing us right into the action.
Oil on canvas - Philadelphia Museum of Art
Moulin Rouge: La Goulue
Toulouse-Lautrec's greatest triumph was in lifting advertisement, previously seen merely as a commercial and thus inferior path for artists, to the status of an art form. This six-foot-tall poster for the Moulin Rouge, the famous dance hall in the center of Montmartre, is the artist's most recognizable advertisement, and it made him famous in his own lifetime. The naturalism of his earlier Impressionist style gave way to these large swaths of flat color with strong outlines and generalized silhouettes. Toulouse-Lautrec collected and studied Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. These sophisticated, high contrast compositions contained large swaths of flat color with strong outlines and generalized silhouettes that inform his lithographs. There is also an Art Nouveau aesthetic at play with the graphic nature and suggested (rather than delineated) curves.
Printed Color Lithograph - Indianapolis Museum of Art
Jane Avril was one of the major starlets on the dance scene in 1880s Paris. This lithograph is an advertisement for Avril's major gig at the Jardin de Paris. Its aim was to generate excitement (and ticket sales) for an upcoming performance. On the left, Avril completes a high-kick, her eyes closed, transported by the passion of her own performance. On the right, a cello's neck, grasped by a man's hairy hand (and, yes, Toulouse-Lautrec fully intended the sexual innuendo here) rises from the orchestra pit, completing the border of the composition. In this daring work, Toulouse-Lautrec reveals his bawdy sense of humor, mastery of the medium, and true appreciation for Avril's mesmerizing talent.
Lithograph - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Femme en Corset
Prostitution was an overarching theme in Toulouse-Lautrec's work. Over the course of his career, Toulouse-Lautrec made over 50 paintings of prostitutes, none of which were exhibited during his lifetime. What he did publish was a series of 11 lithographs, entitled "Elles" (roughly translated "them" but in French, the designation is feminine). These works detail with unprecedented frankness the daily life and operations of a Paris brothel. A book of prints was more discreet than a painting, and could be put away when the owner wasn't looking at it. In this lithograph from the series, a prostitute stands in her underwear, unbuckling her corset while a well-dressed client who has paid for her services looks on, grasping his cane in one hand (it is unclear what the other hand is doing). As a paying client himself, Toulouse-Lautrec does not appear to have seen prostitution as a problem and displayed an unusual capacity for empathy for the vulnerability of the sex worker. He shows this in visual terms: with the exposed nape of her neck and the contrast between poses (sitting vs. standing, dressed vs. undressed, and watching vs. being watched) he emphasizes differences in social standing, and the fact that his pleasure is her work.
Lithograph - Museum of Modern Art, New York
At the Circus: The Spanish Walk
Toulouse-Lautrec made this thoughtful and evocative drawing from memory at the end of his stay at a sanatorium in Paris. It was made for the express purpose of demonstrating his mental stability. He returns to a subject he had loved since childhood: horses. The circus, with its equestrian performers, held Toulouse-Lautrec's fascination throughout his mature career. This composition appears to have succeeded in convincing the doctors he had fully recovered his sanity. He was released.
Graphite, black and colored crayons, and charcoal - The Metropolitan Museum of Art