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Property from the Estate of Sophie F. Danforth

Au cirque: Éléphant en liberté

Au cirque: Éléphant en liberté
signed with monogram (lower right) and stamped with monogram (Lugt 5894; lower left)
black and colored chalk and pencil on paper
14 x 9 3/4 in. (35.5 x 25.4 cm.)
Drawn in 1899
Maurice Joyant, Paris (acquired from the artist).
Mme D (by 1931).
Galerie Matthiesen, Berlin.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above, September 1931).
Martin Birnbaum, New York (acquired from the above, 27 March 1934).
Helen and Murray Snell Danforth, Providence, Rhode Island (acquired from the above, 1934, then by descent to the late owner).
A. Alexandre, Toulouse-Lautrec, au cirque: Trente-neuf dessins au crayon de couleurs, Paris, 1905, no. 5 (illustrated in color).
G. Coquiot, H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1913, p. 206.
T. Duret, Lautrec, Paris, 1920, pp. 69-70.
G. Coquiot, Toulouse-Lautrec: Ou quinze ans de mœurs Parisiennes, Paris, 1921, pp. 82 and 138-140.
A. Astre, H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1925, p. 129.
M. Joyant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Peintre, Paris, 1926, pp. 223-226.
M. Joyant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Dessins, estampes, affiches, Paris, 1927, vol. II, p. 234.
Kunst and Künstler, 1932 (illustrated).
M. Orlan, Lautrec, Paris, 1934, p. 333.
E. Julien, T-Lautrec, Monaco, 1942, p. 12.
M. Delaroche-Vernet Henraux, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Dessinateur, Paris, 1948, p. 9.
W. Kern, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bern, 1948, p. 16.
M.G. Dortu, L'étrange Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1951, p. 6.
E. Julien, Lautrec: Dessins, Paris, 1951, p. 11.
F. Jourdain and J. Adhémar, T-Lautrec, Paris, 1952, p. 55.
M.G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1952, p. 8.
J. Lassaigne, The Taste of our Time: Lautrec, Geneva, 1953, p. 104.
D. Cooper, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, London, 1955, p. 44.
H. Landlot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Basel, 1955, no. 29.
H. Perruchot, Le vie de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1958, pp. 314 and 320.
E. Julien, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cologne and Milan, 1959, p. 53.
M.G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son œuvre, New York, 1971, vol. VI, p. 820, no. D. 4.526 (illustrated, p. 821).
Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs, Palais du Louvre, H. de Toulouse-Lautrec trentenaire, April-May 1931, p. 80, no. 246.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Toulouse-Lautrec: Au cirque, November-December 1931, no. 4.
Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, Toulouse-Lautrec, October 1955-February 1956, no. 116 (illustrated).
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, Drawings, Posters and Lithographs, March-May 1956, no. 78.
Sale room notice
Please note the updated provenance which is accessible online.

Brought to you by

Vanessa Fusco
Vanessa Fusco Head of Department, Impressionist & Modern Art, New York

Lot Essay

In March 1899, at the age of thirty-five, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was confined to the Folie Saint James asylum in Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. The artist most closely associated with fin-de-siècle Parisian nightlife had long suffered from the depressive effects of alcohol and syphilis. His physical and psychological state deteriorated, and at last his distraught mother committed him to the care of physicians at the sanitorium. While there, Toulouse-Lautrec sketched Au cirque: Éléphant en liberté using black and colored chalk on paper, hoping to prove his own sanity. By May, Toulouse-Lautrec’s doctors noted his improved condition and discharged him; the artist declared, “I’ve bought my release with my drawings” (quoted in C. Ives, Toulouse-Lautrec in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996, p. 58). Since then, Au cirque: Éléphant en liberté had been featured in a number of important monographic exhibitions in museums in both France and the United States, from the Musée du Louvre to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This sheet belongs to a group of at least fifty drawings that Toulouse-Lautrec produced while convalescing in the asylum, which he intended to later publish in book form. These drawings represent the artist’s nostalgic, humorous fantasies of the circus. The protagonists of the drawings are the flamboyant cast of characters who performed there, both human (acrobats, clowns, equestrians, tamers) and animal (dogs, horses, bears, monkeys). Several of the sheets depict the direct collaboration or confrontation of interspecies co-stars at the center of the circus ring. Though they were drawn from the artist’s memory, his depictions of the captive animal are treated with remarkable anatomical precision and sincere empathy. Their human counterparts, by contrast, often appear cartoonish and cruel. Consider, for example, the plump clown who presides over the interaction between a pony and a baboon in a drawing housed at The Art Institute of Chicago (Dortu, no. D.4.525), or the pathetic horse trainer who weakly brandishes a whip in the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco’s Au cirque: Cheval pointant (Dortu, no. D.4.533).
The present work is a rare depiction of an elephant from this series. In response to the command of its trainer, the massive, wrinkled gray creature stands on its hind legs, balancing its enormous bulk upon a small platform. It holds its trunk aloft with great effort, while its pink tongue wags. Below, the trainer is dressed in the costume of a Spanish matador and wields two whips, urging the elephant to maintain its strenuous pose. As in many of the works belonging to the Au Cirque series, Toulouse-Lautrec suppressed the background details; there is no sign of an audience or other performers, and only the sparest indication of the circus interior. Instead, Toulouse-Lautrec focused his attention upon the relationship between the pair of performers, and the contrast between their forms.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s fascination with the circus, a popular source of entertainment during this period, began more than a decade earlier. In 1885 the artist acquired his own studio in the bohemian neighborhood of Montmartre in Paris, and frequented the nearby Cirque Fernando, one of three indoor circuses in the city. This troupe was particularly renowned for its scantily clad equestriennes, who performed acrobatic tricks on horseback. This spectacular display later formed the subject of one of the artist’s most dynamic paintings of that decade, Equestrienne (Au Cirque Fernando) (Dortu, no. P312; The Art Institute of Chicago). During his confinement at the Folie Saint James, Toulouse-Lautrec turned to the subject of the circus once again, expressing his frustration in having to “perform” to prove his own stability—but also conveying his enduring creative genius.

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