Painted in 1895, L'abandon (Les deux amies) is one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's masterpieces, vividly capturing an intimate, behind-the-scenes moment in the Parisian demi-monde in which he so notoriously had made his home. The picture has featured in a vast array of books and exhibitions, a tribute to its importance, and has passed through the hands of many illustrious dealers and collectors alike, including the painter Max Liebermann, reflecting the esteem of one artist for another. The art critic Douglas Cooper was moved to write of this picture that it 'is unquestionably one of Lautrec's most beautifully painted and most successful brothel pictures' (D. Cooper, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, London, 1955, p. 120).
Toulouse-Lautrec had been born into a wealthy and long-established family in the French aristocracy. Many of his ancestors were larger-than-life characters, be it as rakes, heretics, leaders or military heroes. Despite the possibly unpromising fact of his diminutive stature, the result of two accidents and his already fragile bone structure, Toulouse-Lautrec has come to be one of the most famous of this illustrious line. In part, this is a result of the almost legendary stories that still hover around his name because of his obsession with the cabarets, actresses and brothels of Paris. These were the landmarks of much of his life, and were likewise the fuel for the exceptional paintings, drawings and prints that he produced during his short life. These scenes of segments of society and indeed activities that sometimes outraged the taste and sense of decency of the bourgeoisie of the day showed Toulouse-Lautrec's distinctly un-judgemental appreciation of life in all its strange permutations, life in all its glories. It is telling, considering the absorbing delicacy of L'abandon (Les deux amies), so at odds with any sense of either scorn or titillation, that the singer and actress Yvette Guilbert, who featured in so many of his pictures, recalled the artist saying, 'Everywhere and always ugliness has its beautiful aspects; it is thrilling to discover them where nobody else has noticed them' (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, quoted in ibid., p. 12).
L'abandon (Les deux amies) dates from a period when Toulouse-Lautrec had gained great assurance in his painting, having had exhibitions and also been celebrated for the posters that remain so iconic to this day and which advertised so many of the soirées which he would have attended. During this period, he had managed to exceed even his roguish father in decadence and debauchery, albeit in a different way and with a different flavour. Not for him, following his accident, the riding and hunting that his father so loved, nor the eccentric Oriental costumes that he favoured. Instead, Toulouse-Lautrec led a decadent life of his own style, taking up residence in the brothels of Paris. The poet André Suarès described him by saying,
'Toulouse-Lautrec is a baron who has taken root in a brothel' (A. Suarès, quoted in J. Bouret, Toulouse-Lautrec, London, 1964, p. 65). This was true to the degree that when asked for his address by his friend Yvette Guilbert, he gave that of one of these houses of ill repute, to her great consternation. Likewise, when the famous Impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel requested a meeting with him, he was directed unwittingly to the recently-opened brothel at rue des Moulins, 24.
That brothel, opened by Marie-Victoire Denis the year before L'abandon (Les deux amies) was painted, was characterised by luxury and decadence. It featured rooms decorated in various styles of opulence and even boasted La Païva's bed and silver-gilt bath. It was here that Toulouse-Lautrec spent a great deal of his time, as well as at the brothel on the rue d'Amboise which he himself, as a favoured client, had been asked to decorate in 1892. In a strange artistic symmetry, it was his frieze of sixteen women adorning that brothel that resulted in the theme of prostitution entering Toulouse-Lautrec's pictures, and it remained an important source of motifs. Pictures such as L'abandon (Les deux amies) give a clear sense of the incredible freedom of access that Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed in these establishments. As well as a customer, nick-named the little Priapus, Toulouse-Lautrec was a friend and confidant to many of these women; the welcome that they extended to him, which was so important to an artist whose own appearance resulted in his feeling apart from much of the world, has flavoured his pictures, adding an intensely personal dimension. Crucially for Toulouse-Lautrec, who only painted the people who stimulated and excited and interested him, the women in the brothels were full of life. 'Models always look as if they were stuffed,' he explained. 'These women are alive. I wouldn't dare pay them to pose for me, yet God knows they're worth it. They stretch themselves out on the divans like animals... They're so lacking in pretension, you know' (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, quoted in H. Perruchot, Toulouse-Lautrec, London, 1960, p. 157).
In L'abandon (Les deux amies), the atmosphere of intimacy is accentuated by the artist's use of peinture à l'essence, a technique by which he removed some of the oil from his paints and mixed it with turpentine. This has resulted in the almost pastel-like appearance of the brushstrokes, with their matt finish, recalling the works of Degas, whom Toulouse-Lautrec disliked but admired. Owing to the fact that peinture à l'essence dried a lot faster than traditional oils, the vivid brushwork in this picture gives a sense of spontaneity, of sketch-like speed of execution, recalling Toulouse-Lautrec's works on paper. Despite this, it appears from comparisons between this work and Le sofa, a related painting in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, that this was a pose rather than a record of a fleeting moment in the brothel. In Le sofa, the women appear to be shown from the other side while reclining on the same surface (Richard Thomson, in the exhibition catalogue for the show at the Hayward Gallery, London and the Grand Palais, Paris in 1991-92, posited that one of the women in L'abandon (Les deux amies) was Rolande, a prostitute recognisable in several other pictures from the period). This suggests that the models were moved around to some degree and viewed from different angles, possibly in a studio. In this light, it is telling that Toulouse-Lautrec's friend, the poet, playwright and novelist Tristan Bernard, recorded visiting the artist's studio in 1894 and finding him engaged in painting two naked women on a sofa (see exh.cat., Toulouse-Lautrec: Woman as Myth, Andros, 2001, p. 153).
Like so many artists before him, including Courbet and Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by lesbianism. To him, though, it was a reality, not an abstraction. He had first been exposed through some of the cabaret stars he knew, several of whom lived with other women. He sometimes visited La Souris, the club run by Madame Palmyre, which was one of the main meeting places for lesbians at the time, as well as the Hanneton of Madame Brazier. However, the women there, who often dressed in a mannish manner, seldom held the same attraction for the artist as those in the confines of the brothels, with whom he was on better terms. These women had the added bonus of being more gracefully feminine, a prerequisite of their occupation and an important factor in the artist's interest in the theme, as is reflected by an anecdote related by Huisman and Dortu:
'one day he showed to his friend Charles Maurin a small photograph of two women clinging together, unconsciously voluptuous. It was a photograph which he had treasured, and in showing it he asserted peremptorily: 'This is superior to all else. Nothing could rival such guilelessness'' (P. Huisman & M.G. Dortu, Lautrec by Lautrec, trans. C. Bellow, London, 1964, p. 135).
Intense, tender relationships often sprung up between the various girls living in the brothels, sometimes as a reaction to their employ. These relationships were often a form of refuge, something to which Toulouse-Lautrec could easily relate. In L'abandon (Les deux amies), Toulouse-Lautrec has clearly concentrated on an image of grace as well as lust, passion and indeed the abandon of the title. Jean Bouret's statement regarding this picture, in his monograph on the artist, illustrates the distance between Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries, between the profoundly human degree of understanding the judgements of the conservative society of the day: 'Abandon (The Friends) was the masterpiece prompted by his observation of Sapphic passion; yet it would be hard to find a painting more tender, more poetic...' (J. Bouret, Toulouse-Lautrec, London, 1964, p. 204). At the same time, Toulouse-Lautrec's composition in L'abandon (Les deux amies) leaves just enough room for ambiguity that the girls might appear to be 'two friends,' rather than in a state of abandon; this is a similar gleeful sleight-of-hand to that in his picture of the salon in the brothel at the rue des Moulins, where there is little exposed flesh, yet with which the artist posed for a photograph with a naked model in order to emphasise the scandalous content...
At the time that L'abandon (Les deux amies) was painted, Toulouse-Lautrec's artistic influences had expanded, as he had recently become acquainted with the Japanese prints of artists such as Hokusai and Utamaro, which he now began to collect. While the flatness of the colours came to have clear ramifications in the posters that he and his friends and acquaintances amongst the Nabis were creating during this period, in terms of the sense of line and of the theme, L'abandon (Les deux amies) can also be seen to show their impact.
L'abandon (Les deux amies) was formerly in the collection of the distinguished publisher, patron, author and philanthropist Sébastien-Paul Gallimard, the father of Gaston, the founder of the publishing company of that name. Paul Gallimard was a great friend and supporter of a range of artists at the end of the Nineteenth and beginning of the Twentieth Centuries, and counted many of the prominent figures of the day amongst his friends; his wife was painted in a portrait by Renoir. The picture was subsequently owned by the celebrated pioneer of German Impressionism, Max Liebermann, one of the most influential artists of the Nineteenth Century and beginning of the Twentieth Century and the founder of the Berliner Secession.