In the tradition of a 17th century Van Dyck portrait of a young English prince posing with his favorite canine companion, Lautrec painted the life-size L’Enfant au chien in the latter half of 1900. The young boy, attired in French naval livery, is known only as the son of Madame Marthe X., presumably a lady of high standing in Bordeaux society, whose portrait Lautrec also painted during this time, using a smaller format, in his most sumptuous manner (Dortu, P. 699). The dog is Lautrec’s own, which he named Pamela. Working in his studio, the artist placed his subject in a marine setting that represents the beach at Taussat-les-bains on the Bassin d’Arcachon, a resort area for nearby Bordeaux.
Having sufficiently recovered from an overwhelming mental and physical collapse, brought on by alcoholism and an altogether dissolute night life, Lautrec’s two-and-a-half-month confinement in Dr. Sémelaigne’s Neuilly clinic came to an end in May 1899. At his mother’s insistence, the artist was entrusted to the guardianship of Paul Viaud de la Teste, a distant relative who grew up in Bordeaux. A teetotaler, Viaud became Lautrec’s constant companion, his “cornac” (“elephant-driver”), as the artist fondly called him. Keeping Lautrec away from his old haunts in Montmartre, Viaud realized, was key to the artist’s continuing convalescence, and they spent the summer on the coast, in Normandy and at Taussat. When they returned to Paris that fall, however, Lautrec quickly reverted to his accustomed self-destructive behavior, which Viaud was at a loss to control.
In June 1900 the two men travelled again to Taussat for the summer, and in October moved to Bordeaux, where they rented rooms at 66, rue de Caudéran. The local dealer Imberti lent the artist use of a studio on rue Porte-Dijeaux. “I am working very hard,” Lautrec wrote to Maurice Joyant on 6 December 1900. “You will soon have some shipments” (H.D. Schimmel, ed., Letters, no. 598). Among the paintings he completed by that date were the portraits of Madame Marthe X. and her son.
The center of attraction for Lautrec in Bordeaux was the city’s lively theater scene. “[Offenbach’s opéra-bouffe] La belle Hélène is charming us here [at the Théâtre Français],” Lautrec wrote to Joyant, “it is admirably staged; I have already caught the thing [Dortu, P 265]” (ibid.). Lautrec had long been fascinated with the story of Valeria Messalina, wife of the Roman emperor Claudius, infamous for her corruption and debauchery. He was delighted to attend on 19 December the French premiere of Silvestre and Morand’s play Messaline, with music by the English composer Isidore de Lara, at the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux. He praised Thérèse Ganne in the title role—“She is divine.” Having attended numerous performances, Lautrec painted four canvases depicting scenes in the play, evoking history as theater (Dortu, P. 703-706). Madame Marthe X. may have been affiliated with the production, as a participant or patroness. “I am very satisfied,” Lautrec wrote to Joyant of his recent work in Bordeaux, as he and Viaud prepared to return to Paris in April 1901 (Letters, no. 606).