Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Paris in the Belle Époque was a city at ease with the demi-monde, the decadent underworld of brothels, bars and café-concerts — where prostitutes, dancers, writers and artists of every description mixed with the penniless and the bourgeois, and where cocottes and perhaps even the famous courtesans known as the grandes horizontales could be seen on the arms of ‘respectable’ gentlemen. No part of Paris was more associated with this world of hedonistic excess than Montmartre and Pigalle where highlife and lowlife came together in a heady mix of sex, absinthe, music and art.
And no artist is more associated with the bars and brothels of Montmartre during this period than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. An aristocrat of impeccable lineage, Lautrec’s forebears, in their efforts to preserve the purity of their line by intermarriage, probably contributed to the congenital skeletal weaknesses which resulted in his stunted growth. Unable to take part in the outdoor life which his father considered suitable to his station, Henri was rejected by one parent but received lifelong support from his mother who nurtured his artistic talent — a talent which required stimulation and instruction in the studio of an established artist. And so Lautrec found himself in the City of Lights and very soon in Montmartre (where the action was).
He became besotted with the area and especially with its women. His bodily deformities did not impair his healthy sexual appetite and he could not have been better placed to assuage these desires. Some of the brothels in Montmartre were splendidly appointed and Lautrec became such a devotee that he occasionally left his studio and took up residence for a month or so (or even longer). Throughout his peregrinations he assiduously recorded the lives of the workers (usually female) and customers in this demi-mondaine entertainment hub.
The subject of this painting is Lucy Jourdain, a celebrated cocotte who is enjoying dinner at the renowned Rat Mort, a café-restaurant in the rue Pigalle. We have no way of identifying her escort as the picture frame has cut through his face (a device much used by Degas — an obvious influence on Lautrec) consigning him to perpetual anonymity, a state which no doubt suited the gentleman concerned. Lucy’s red lipstick and somewhat over-the-top outfit would have been a sure sign to contemporaries regarding the nature of their relationship. Be that as it may, judging by the half-empty champagne glass in front of her and her facial expression, Lucy is having a very good time and this ebullient mood is echoed in the bravura brushwork especially in the striking treatment of her gauzy dress and her extraordinary headgear (which seems to mirror the pear in the foreground). But in the midst of this gaiety Lautrec is unerring in his ability to capture the psychological undercurrent within a given situation and one senses that there are melancholy tensions beneath Lucy’s smiling façade.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1899 Vilhelm Hammershøi: Interior, London, National Gallery
1900 Édouard Vuillard: Madame Hessel on the Sofa, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery