Mademoiselle CHA-U-KA-O was a popular performer at the Nouveau Cirque and the Moulin Rouge. She claimed to be of Japanese origin, yet her exotic name was in fact a phonetic transcription of the French word chahut, an acrobatic dance related to the cancan, and the word chaos – referring to the mayhem she used to cause in the audience when she took to the stage. CHA-U-KA-O began her performing life as a lithe and supple gymnast, as evident in a photograph taken by Toulouse-Lautrec's close companion Maurice Guibert, for whom she would pose (see Hayward 1991, p. 340, illus. a). By 1895 however, the agile, slender dancer had metamorphosed into an ageing, slightly overweight clownesse, as can be seen in the preparatory oil sketch of that year (Dortu P.580).
La Clownesse assise was published in 1896 in Toulouse-Lautrec's celebrated portfolio of ten lithographs, Elles, dedicated mostly to the depiction of prostitutes in the maisons closes or brothels of Paris. A regular visitor and at times long-term guest of these establishments, the artist was well-acquainted with the women who lived and worked there. He was particularly interested in depicting them in their daily routines, at the wash table, getting dressed or dozing in bed. These are quiet, domestic scenes, mostly printed with only one or very few colours. La Clownesse is clearly an exception amongst them and it remains unclear why Toulouse-Lautrec decided to include her, a stage performer and not a prostitute, in this series.
Unlike most of Toulouse-Lautrec's depictions of dancers, actresses and actors, which so brilliantly capture the style, attitude and movements of their subjects, this portrait of CHA-U-KA-O is not about her public persona. Although she is shown in her costume in a cabaret, this is a private moment, as she sits resting on a bench at a corner, visibly tired and a bit despondent. Without forsaking his compositional flair and formal rigour, Toulouse-Lautrec in this lithograph explores his sitter's character and mood perhaps more sensitively than he does in any other of his famous prints. We feel her aching feet and heavy limbs and see her inward glance, her slightly twisted face and crooked little smile, and understand: this is a woman who hasn't given up, but knows her best days have passed. Her expression is one of self-confidence and resignation at the same time. Toulouse-Lautrec confronts us very directly with her, and it is this immediacy which makes La Clownesse assise one of the most touching and profound portraits of its time.