Born into nobility and heir to the cultivated and occasionally decadent tastes of his class, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec might have appeared little different from the elegant gentlemen who nightly sampled the pleasures of the Paris boulevards. One might encounter him at the prestigious Comédie Française, the Opéra, at the café-concerts at Les Ambassadeurs, Le Mirleton or the Folies Bergères, or in Montmartre dancehalls such as the Moulin de la Galette or the fabled Moulin Rouge. Yet his appearance was unusual, the growth of his legs having been stunted since the age of thirteen, and there was other evidence of genetic abnormalities that probably stemmed from being the offspring of first cousins.
His diminutive size made him seem like a court dwarf and jester, someone able to cut across social classes and proprieties, someone who could do and say things that might be difficult to forgive in someone else. Although he could behave very badly, was syphilitic and relied increasingly on drink to deaden his physical pain and personal sorrows, his peculiar appearance, which endeared him to those who bore their own miseries, his sense of humor, which blunted the cutting edge of his cynicism, and most especially his skills as an artist, all gained him special admittance into the seedy back rooms and ill-lit wings behind the glamorous stage that was the Paris demi-monde. His paintings document these haunts better than any photographs or writing of that time, and resonate in our imagination to this day. Hollywood revisits this mythical realm almost as often as it returns to Arthur's Camelot, and for each new generation there is a Moulin Rouge melodrama that retains at its core some element of the essential sadness of Lautrec, even if its production values and social mores have a decidedly contemporary feeling.
By the early 1880s, when Lautrec was starting out as a painter, Degas was almost fifty and had made the ballet of the Paris Opéra a signature subject in his oeuvre. The older painter was especially interested in the daily routine of the petits rats, the skinny teen-aged girls who made up the corps de ballet, as they worked at the barre, conversed with their mothers, waited for their cue and performed on stage. It was far preferable for a poor girl from the slums to try to become a dancer than to work as a seamstress or shopgirl. They began their classes at the age of seven or eight. Ballet was now the rage, and if a rat were lucky, even if she did not possess the talent to become a première danseuse, she might be courted by wealthy and even titled galants, showered with expensive gifts, and marry into a noble family. The men, for their part, would lay in wait in the wings like raptors, and it did not matter if they were more than twice the age of their tender prey.
It was a form of prostitution, and the girls' mothers were little better than procuresses. Degas dealt with this subject in a series of monotypes illustrating Ludovic Halévy's pair of novels La Famille Cardinal, which followed the lives of two rats and their mother (fig. 1). The project was abandoned, however, when Halévy realized that he would appear as one of the characters in Degas' prints, looking like a customer in a brothel.
It remained for another artist, Jean Louis Forain, to fully expose this situation in his paintings. Forain and Lautrec were close friends - they had both been students in Fernand Cormon's studio - and both young men idolized Degas for his technique, which drew upon what seemed best and most relevant in the classical tradition of Ingres, and his involvement with modern life, which the poet Charles Baudelaire had decreed to be the only proper domain for an aspiring artist. "That Degas was the greatest single influence on the mature work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was obvious from the first and never denied by him, yet the two rarely met and over the years Degas showed little interest in this supposed disciple. The link was Forain, first through his own paintings based on Degas', but probably also because he may have had examples of the private works, borrowed from the master, on view in his studio" (D. Sweetman, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin de Siècle, London, 1999, p. 86).
Forain's career extended long past the death of Lautrec and well into the 20th century. He was best known for his perceptiveness as an illustrator, an ability to grasp the narrative in a situation and drive home the point, with or without a caption. Lautrec shared Forain's eye for the sleaziness that lurked behind the scenes. Lautrec painted a handful of dance pictures in the mid-1880s, including a series of three fresco decorations for an inn in Villiers-sur-Morin (Dortu P.239-P.241). In one of these (fig. 2) a gentleman of uncertain age looks on while an attendant adjusts a dancer's dress as she primps in a mirror. There is also a pair of paintings showing a troupe of dancers performing in a line (Dortu P.262-P.263). In them Lautrec used an extended rectangular format and cropped the figures to create an interesting design in the style of Japanese woodcuts. Although Lautrec comes closest here to the type of ballet ensemble picture at which Degas excelled, there are incongruous elements of humor and parody. Lautrec probably intended to poke some fun at Degas as he began to distance himself from the master's powerful influence and find his own way with his subjects.
The most exquisite and accomplished dancer that Lautrec painted before he was thirty years old is surely Danseuse assise aux bas roses, painted in 1890 (fig. 3). Although we do not know the identity of Lautrec's model, she is completely convincing as a petit rat. She is lithe but slightly built, with thin arms and legs, very much the type of girl that the ballet masters liked to work with, and who might capture the attention of a gentleman in want of some company. Her makeup accentuates the fact that she is very young indeed. The same girl probably posed for Danseuse ajustant son maillol (Le première maillot), painted around the same time (Dortu P.371; Christie's, New York, 9 November 1994, lot 17).
Lautrec may have decided that the scène de coulisse, with its setting at the Opéra, was a lode that had already been sufficiently mined by both Degas and Forain, and by now he had discovered even seedier recesses in the nightlife of the city that he could feature in an original and personal way. He turned to popular dancehall entertainers, such as the singers Yvette Guilbert and May Belfort, and the dancers La Goulue and Jane Avril, who performed in a working-class environment. In contrast to the mostly anonymous dancers of the Opéra these were self-made celebrities who stood out in a crowd, a position that Lautrec no doubt envied, even if he saw their vulnerability as well. Despite the glamour and faddishness of his subjects, and the festive setting at La Moulin Rouge, these women seem to express a weary melancholy; they appear spent, and if their gestures proclaim anything, it is a feeling that the party is almost over.
Lautrec carried this growing sadness over into his next great series, the brothel paintings done in 1893-1894. By the time he executed the present painting in 1895-1896, his first depiction of a dancer in five years and the last he would do, these attitudes, shaped by the powerful effects of his consumption of absinthe and the growing consequences of his own physical debility, had become an essential aspect in the character of his work.
In 1896, in some ways his best year, he was at the summit of his powers and to have suggested that there was anything but good times ahead would have seemed unnecessarily morbid. He was only thirty-one he was experimenting with new ideas and subjects, pushing himself further. He exhibited frequently and his sales and his commissions were gratifying, there was everything to look forward to and yet, a remorseless descent into alcoholic oblivion now sent him stumbling down a side alley away from the broad highway of his own creative genius.
Danseuse, which Charles F. Stuckey states is "certainly one of Lautrec's very greatest works" (op. cit., exh. cat., 1979, p. 261), was done on the eve of this final descent. Its first owner was Adolphe Albert, an engraver whom Lautrec had met fifteen years before when they were students together in Cormon's atelier. Albert may have recalled some of the dance subjects that Lautrec had done in those days and proposed the idea for the present painting. Lautrec thought highly of Albert, and in 1898 made a lithograph showing his friend at work (fig. 4).
In contrast to the young girl who modeled for Danseuse assise aux bas roses five years earlier, Danseuse is clearly a woman, her arms and legs are fuller and more muscular, and the low cut of her costume reveals an ample bust. The illumination coming from the footlights below shades her upturned face in a manner that resembles the arch and haughty expressions of Lautrec's cabaret entertainers. In the fashion of the time her waist is tightly cinched, perhaps a bit too unrealistically so, which accentuates her mature femininity. She bears little resemblance to the usual dancer we see in Degas, Forain or earlier Lautrec. She may be a première danseuse, slightly past her prime, hinting again in Lautrec's now customary fashion that, for all the hard work put into it, achievement and success is fleeting at best.
If not an actual dancer, Lautrec's model may have been a circus performer, perhaps from the Cirque Fernando, where a bareback rider's costume was not unlike that of a ballet dancer and the circus girls had a more powerful physique than most dancers. In any case, Lautrec's view of women was evolving in its own terms, in an increasingly stylized mixture of exaggerated reality and private fantasy, in which the artist displays a marked preference for an Amazonian concept of femininity. Lautrec had once referred to the ballerina as "a deluxe animal" (quoted in ibid.). The locked hands of the dancer here are a gesture that suggests strength and resolve. Although it is unlikely that she was more than five feet tall, she nevertheless assumes the stature of a powerful giantess and glowering idol.
The elongated vertical format of Danseuse may have been determined by some decorative scheme that Albert had in mind. The upward thrust in the stage screen at left appears to burst from folds of the the dancer's skirt; it amplifies her figure, and contributes to the sense of power and strength in the subject. The influence of japonisme is evident in the flat surfaces and off-center composition. Stuckey has noted Lautrec's interest in Chinese hanging scrolls, and indeed, in Lautrec's brushwork, especially in the background scenery, there is a resemblance to the traditional brush and ink technique of Chinese landscape painters.
When the painting was exhibited in 1925, the critic Theodore Duret commented, "Look at this picture and then think about Degas' Ballerinas. It is so simple, and all I can do is to repeat; here genius, there talent" (quoted in G. Jedlicka, op. cit.). Most would think it unfair nowadays to praise Danseuse at the expense of the incomparable Degas, and it is unlikely that Lautrec himself would see it in this light. It is nevertheless one of the supreme peaks in Lautrec's mature oeuvre, and represents a level of achievement that he rarely again approached in the final years of his life.
From Albert Danseuse passed to Pierre Decourcelle via the dealer Paul Rosenberg in 1912. Decourcelle commenced his career as a journalist for the magazine Gaulois, where he chronicled Paris society and theatre events. He contributed articles and popular fiction to Le Figaro, Le Matin and Le Petit Parisien. He made his debut as a playwright with the crime drama L'As de Trèfle, which was produced in the theatre directed by the son of Sarah Bernhardt. In 1908 he turned to film production, specializing in the adaptation of great French novels. He was later president of the French Société des Auteurs and the Société des Gens de Lettres.
Decourcelle began to collect around the age of forty, and acquired paintings by Chardin, Constable, Fragonard, and Gainsborough, among others. He was also interested in fine prints and drawings. The centerpiece of his collection was a group of 18 pictures by Lautrec, with Danseuse as its highlight. Upon his death, his collection was dispersed in a sale at Hôtel Drouot, Paris on 16 June 1926. Danseuse was featured on the cover of the sale catalogue. Family members wished to retain Danseuse, and likely purchased it back at this sale. The painting has remained in the family collection since then, and has been shown many times, including landmark Lautrec exhibitions in Chicago in 1979 and in Paris in 1992.
(fig. 1) Edgar Degas, Les petites Cardinal parlant à leurs admirateurs, black ink monotype on paper, 1880-1883.
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
(fig. 2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Danseuse dans sa loge, 1885.
(fig. 3) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Danseuse assise aux bas roses, 1890.
(Christie's, New York, 12 May 1997, lot 111)
(fig. 4) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Le bon graveur (Adolphe Albert), 1898.
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
(fig. 5) Cover of the Pierre Decourcelle sale illustrating the present lot, 16 June 1926.