Toulouse-Lautrec’s portfolio Elles is one of the most celebrated and sought-after series in the history of printmaking. As a regular visitor, and at times long-term guest, of the maisons closes or brothels of Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec was well-acquainted with the women who lived and worked there. He was particularly interested in depicting them in their daily routines, at the washstand or dozing in bed. The most famous lithograph in the Elles series is therefore unusual for showing a woman in a public place: La Clownesse assise depicts Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o in costume at a cabaret show. It is a private moment nonetheless as she sits on a bench in a relaxed posture.
A dancer at the Nouveau Cirque and the Moulin Rouge, Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o claimed to be Japanese. However her name is a phonetic transcription of the French chahut – an alternative name for the can-can which means ‘noise’ or ‘rowdiness’ – and chaos, a reference to the uproar generated whenever she came on stage.
Cha-u-ka-o began her performing life as a lithe and supple gymnast; she is depicted as such in a photograph taken by Toulouse-Lautrec’s close friend Maurice Guibert for whom she would pose. However by 1895 the agile, slender dancer had morphed into an ageing, slightly overweight clowness. The arc of Cha-u-ka-o’s life, ending in physical ruin, was bound to appeal to Lautrec. His interest in human decrepitude was doubtless reinforced by his reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1891 and subsequently translated into French. Lautrec became acquainted with the author and painted portraits of both Wilde and Cha-u-ka-o in the same year.
Fascinated as Toulouse-Lautrec was by decadence and decline, it is his ability to empathise with his subjects and his willingness to show them in all their human frailty and vulnerability – offstage rather than in the spotlight – that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries.
HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC (1864–1901)
La Clownesse assise (Mademoiselle CHA-U-KA-O)
lithograph in colours, 1896
S. 552 x 400 mm.