Six denizens of Paris's red light district share the spotlight in Toulouse-Lautrec's suggestive Au bal de l'opéra, making their way, and their conquests, in the sexually-charged atmosphere of a masked ball. Clamoring for publicity and in search of sundry pleasures, they personify the collective voice attributed by a period guidebook, which wrote: "We need publicity, daylight, the street, the cabaret, the café, the restaurant... We like to pose, to make a spectacle of ourselves, to have a public, a gallery, witnesses to our life" (quoted in M. W. Chapin, "Toulouse-Lautrec & the Culture of Celebrity," Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 47). Nowhere was the trend-setting exhibitionism of fin-de-siècle Paris more alive than in the entertainment culture of Montmartre (fig. 1). There on the steep streets just north of the city center, a demimonde of performers, artists and their clientele "command[ed] more attention than the utterances of the president," contemporary observer Abel Hamel observed, and its cast of players provided the subjects for some of Lautrec's most haunting work (quoted in op. cit., p. 46). Distancing himself from the aristocratic world into which he was born, but through which he could never circulate due to a congenital deformity that left him dwarfed and crippled, Lautrec sought out the artistic bohemia of Montmartre, with its blithe belligerence and voyeuristic enchantments.
An anecdote remembered by Thadée Natanson, editor of La Revue blanche, offers some insight into Toulouse-Lautrec's preference for the vernacular entertainments and anti-establishment values of Montmartre. As recounted by Julia Frey, "One evening in a fashionable salon, Natanson sat near Henry who was paying court to a beautiful, aristocratic woman, obviously with little success. When at length Henry rose to leave, the woman suddenly insisted that Henry meet her for lunch the next day, saying that she had something she needed to tell him in private. After Henry had gone, she turned to Natanson apologetically and explained, 'He looked so sad, so mortally sad, that I was afraid to let him leave like that all alone. It seemed as if at any cost, I had to give him a reason to live until lunchtime tomorrow.' Henry's fear of the hypocrisy of his own social class was perfectly justified. He had no need for the pity of a woman he couldn't seduce" (in Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, London, 1994, p. 341).
"It is not surprising," Frey continues, "that he was more comfortable in brothels, café concerts, and cabarets than he was in fashionable gatherings. In the former, 'kindness' was eliminated. Nothing was given away there; there was no pretence that the women loved their clients. The interactions were straightforward; everything was for sale. No one was being nice to him because they felt sorry for him. He, like any client, paid for drinks, amusement, sex. He owed no emotional debts and could choose to accept or decline what he was offered" (ibid.).
If Lautrec owed no emotional debts to these desultory prostitutes of the world, he often found in their companionship, and in that of their madams, pimps and clientele, the easy fraternity of the similarly ill-fated and the fleeting thrills of celebrity. In the passing encounters of Au bal de l'opéra, Lautrec brilliantly captures the personalities of the moment at a masked ball, one of Paris's latest, sexually-charged fads. The anonymity afforded by the costumes enabled discreet encounters, and its exhibitionist allure naturally fascinated Lautrec, who loved to dress himself up in the costume of personae as varied as a Japanese (fig. 3), a choirboy, and a Spanish seqorita, "complete with fan, veil and large mustache" (op. cit., p. 245). The intrigue and innuendo of the masked ball and its "accompanying reputation for libertine behaviour--a happy combination of bordello and circus," Frey has noted, quickly gained popularity (op. cit., pp. 244-45). A notice appended to Lautrec's famous Moulin Rouge poster in 1892 announced that the cabaret artistique held masked balls two evenings each week.
Anonymity may have prevailed, but all but one of the figures in Au bal de l'opéra can be identified. Drawn in part from Lautrec's circle of friends and ranging from the cabaret performer to the fashionable man of society, the personalities portrayed here deftly illustrate the social ambiguities of the Third Republic, much maligned for its alleged fall into decadence and moral degeneracy. The dancehalls and theaters of Montmartre were only one part of a more pervasive social problem, yet Lautrec's psychological snapshots of this milieu in profligate decay were, as Gustave Geoffroy observed, as much a diagnostic tool as a commendation: "The philosophy of vice that he sometimes flaunts with provocative ostentation nevertheless takes on, because of the strength of his drawing and the gravity of his diagnosis, the instructive value of a clinical class in morality" (quoted in R. Thompson, "Toulouse-Lautrec & Montmartre: Depicting Decadence in Fin-de-Siècle Paris," in Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, op. cit., p. 2).
At the top of the stair, leaning against the balustrade, is the Prince de Sagan, a beloved dandy and well-known society figure, in glancing conversation with a masked figure seemingly on the move. He separates the crush of anonymous masked women in the distance from the recognizable personalities in the foreground. At the right stride the actor Praince and the comedian and singer Caudieux, whom Lautrec painted and made a poster of in 1893; here he enters in full make-up in the costume of "l'homme canon." Standing with her back facing the viewer is Jane Avril, the infamously demure Moulin Rouge dancer and particular favorite of Lautrec. Standing behind her is Paul Sescau, a Montmartre photographer, whom Lautrec met through the intervention of his close friend Maurice Guibert, pictured at the center with heavy-lidded eyes. Guibert and Avril belonged to Lautrec's inner circle in 1893, Avril as his muse and empathetic soulmate and Guibert as his drinking companion and general partner in crime.
A former student of Cormon, whose atelier Lautrec had also attended, Guibert was an affluent man about town, a representative of Moët and Chandon champagne and, like Lautrec, a rebellious son of an aristocratic family. A notorious roué, he introduced Lautrec to the brothels and was in the fall of 1893 his most frequent companion, along with his cousin Gabriel. Although Lautrec was able to satisfy his sexual needs in the brothels, he "turned to men to meet his profounder emotional needs," Frey has noted, usually keeping one close male friend who "shared his obsessive fascination with alcohol or brothels," someone "willing to go out slumming, but who held in common with him a love of elegance, gourmet cooking and witty conversation" (in J. Frey, op. cit., p. 284).
Lautrec reportedly asked Jane Avril to go to bed with him--and she, evidently, accepted just once, "as friends"--but for the most part she belonged to his fantasies alone, and he drew her portrait repeatedly in the early 1890s. Of all of Lautrec's cabaret models, Avril was the only one he portrayed in the greater, private intimacy of the world offstage. Here, we see her not as the star of the Iafé-concert but modestly making her way through the background milieu, on the cusp between her private and public personas. Our perspective is that of the privileged voyeur standing well in the wings, gazing at her from behind and almost distantly from above--a viewpoint generally unavailable to Lautrec. As described by the British poet and dandy Arthur Symons, Avril was "young and girlish, the more provocative because she played a prude, with an assumed modesty...[she] had about her a depraved virginity." Watching her dance, he mused, "The tall slim girl: the vague distinction of her grace; her candid blue eyes; her straight profile... One reason Lautrec painted so many portraits of her was because she remained une grande amoureuse des ateliers, and another because she obeyed all the painter's caprices, and another because she was all fine nerves, and as passionate as abnormal. Did she appreciate Lautrec's genius? I imagine that she did, because she loved the odour of painting" (quoted in ibid., pp. 272-73). More cerebral than La Goulue and typical cancan dancers, Avril was educated and kept company with the artistic and literary avant-garde of Montmartre. Like Lautrec the product of a traumatic childhood, Avril remained a loyal, personal friend to him, recognizing his extraordinary talent and supporting him continuously through his long alcoholic binges. Appreciating that her celebrity owed a great deal to Lautrec's publicity, she commissioned a promotional poster earlier in 1893 that would become one of his (and her) iconic images: her leg kicking high in the air, she personified the refined detachment and allure so irresistible to her male audience (fig. 4).
Au bal de l'opéra served as an illustration for Gustave Geffroy's article, "Le Plaisir à Paris: Les Bals et le Carnaval," published in February 1894. Not unusually, Lautrec's draughtsmanship outshines his use of color, the strong contours and declarative lines nimbly characterizing personalities caught fleetingly at the dance-hall. The heavy charcoal adds an emphatic weight to the men in the group, lending them a gravity not given to Avril, whose dress trails off into her surroundings, nearly as ethereal a presence as she. The painting has the intimate, unfinished quality of a sketch, which adds an immediacy and an urgency to the scene. Lautrec does not reveal the desires and intentions of these seasoned players, leaving this scene he sets tantalizingly suggestive and its outcome ultimately unknowable.
(fig. 1) Anonymous, The Dance Hall of the Moulin Rouge, c. 1898. The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. BARCODE 25003932
(fig. 2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/1895. The Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE 25003956
(fig. 3) Maurice Guibert, Toulouse-Lautrec Dressed in Japanese Costume, c. 1892, photograph. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25003949
(fig. 4) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago. BARCODE 25003925