Lindsay Griffith with Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Clownesse assise

Live like a Rockefeller — La Clownesse assise by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Rockefellers so loved the French artist’s poignant image of a dancer beyond her prime that successive generations of the family came to acquire two different plates of the same print. Christie’s specialist Lindsay Griffith explains how, and why

‘The Rockefellers had a deep affinity for the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), and were committed to championing him as the pre-eminent printmaker of his time,’ says Lindsay Griffith, Prints and Multiples specialist at Christie’s in New York. ‘Abby Rockefeller was the first in her family to own a copy of this print, which she later donated to MoMA. Sixteen years later, when her son Nelson was offered this version for sale, he could hardly refuse.’

In 1940, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948) gifted her personal collection of 1,600 prints to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which she had co-founded with two friends 11 years earlier. In 1949, using the bequest as its foundation, MoMA opened the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Drawings and Prints Study Center, now a cornerstone of academic research in the field.

Included in her endowment were 61 prints by Toulouse-Lautrec. ‘She considered him a pioneer of avant-garde 19th-century French art, and one of the most important printmakers of all time,’ the specialist explains.

The collection, which was shown in a 1946-47 exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec prints at MoMA, included an impression of La Clownesse assise. ‘It’s the most celebrated image from the artist’s 1896 Elles  portfolio — a collection of 12 prints, inspired by Japanese woodblock carving, that became the pillar of 19th-century lithography,’ Griffith says. Toulouse-Lautrec mastered the technique, using waxy crayons and spattering ink to create wonderful textures on the printer’s stone. And where other artists would use one or two colours, he used five or six.

Toulouse-Lautrec had spent the years between 1892 and 1895 acquainting himself with bohemian Paris — particularly the women of the bars and brothels of rue d’Amboise and rue Joubert. One of his favourite subjects was Mademoiselle Cha-U-Kao, a French dancer at the Moulin Rouge  and Nouveau Cirque  who claimed to be Japanese and was famed for her acrobatic performances. By the time the pair met, however, the Belle Epoque beauty had metamorphosed from a slender, agile performer to an ageing clownesse.

‘Toulouse-Lautrec depicts La Clownesse  with a real sense of labour performed,’ says the specialist. ‘A social outcast because of his congenital health conditions, Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by others who lived on the fringes of society. In this image he tenderly captures La Clownesse’s  decline.’

‘It wasn’t until after his death that people understood the virtuosity of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of decadence’

In 1897 the art dealer Ambroise Vollard offered the complete Elles  portfolio for sale at his gallery in Paris for 300 francs. But despite the artist’s fame at the time (people were known to tear his posters from the walls of Paris clubs), the series was a failure because of its taboo subject. ‘It wasn’t until after his death that people understood the virtuosity of Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of decadence,’ says Griffith. ‘Very few complete sets were sold, making them hard to come by today.’

It came as something of a surprise, then, when in 1956 Abby Rockefeller’s son Nelson was approached by the German Toulouse-Lautrec expert Ludwig Charell, who had a collection of prints by the artist to offer. Among them was another La Clownesse assise. Nelson purchased the collection, and La Clownesse assise  hung in the dining room of his residence at 13 West 54th Street in New York for 23 years. After Nelson died, the print collection was acquired by his younger brother David, who followed suit by hanging La Clownesse assise  in his own Manhattan home.

In May 2018, La Clownesse assise  will be one of three Toulouse-Lautrec prints offered at Christie’s in New York to benefit David Rockefeller’s charities; David donated most of the remaining to MoMA.