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L'Argent (Comédie en 4 actes de M.E. Fabre)

L'Argent (Comédie en 4 actes de M.E. Fabre)
peinture à la colle on board
16 x 12 1⁄8 in. (40.5 x 31 cm.)
Painted in 1895
Lilli Wulf, New York.
Félix Wildenstein, New York (gift from the above).
Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America (bequest from Lilli Wulf, 1952); sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., New York, 7 November 1952, lot 259.
Wertheimer collection, Paris.
Maurice Loncle, Paris.
Galerie Nathan, Zurich.
Private collection, Washington (acquired from the above, May 1957); sale, Christie's, New York, 16 May 2018, lot 175.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
M.G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son oeuvre, New York, 1971, vol. III, p. 372, no. P. 603 (illustrated, p. 373).

Lot Essay

Painted in 1895, Toulouse-Lautrec’s masterful L’Argent powerfully demonstrates the artist’s deep-held fascination with the world of the theater. The stage and its protagonists had enthralled him for years—the drama of the stories told, the electric atmosphere of the live performance, the dynamism of its actors, all drew him back repeatedly to their nightly performances. Frequenting theaters of every kind, from the most traditional and celebrated of Parisian stages such as the Comédie Française to the informal, bawdy establishments that lined the boulevards of Montmartre, Toulouse-Lautrec observed every element of the theatrical performance, from the action on stage, to the performers waiting in the wings, and the eclectic crowds that filled the auditoriums each evening to watch the drama unfold. His passion for this heady nocturnal world inspired him to create countless sketches and portraits of the period’s most celebrated actors and actresses, from Sarah Bernhardt to Marcelle Lender, each revelling in the burgeoning celebrity culture that was emerging in Parisian society at this time.
From 1893 onwards, the artist became involved with André Antoine’s avant-garde theatrical experiments at the Théâtre Libre, which regularly involved contemporary artists in the design of its program, posters and scenery, with the aim of achieving a Gesamtkunstwerk or “a total work of art,” in which each element of the performance interacted to achieve a new, unparalleled creative unity. Toulouse-Lautrec was actively involved in the Théâtre Libre’s 1893-1894 season, producing lithographs for the programme of Une Faillite, followed by an image of the two lead actors of the show, Antoine et Gemier. The following year, he was invited to create a specialist program for Emile Fabre’s four-act play L’Argent, which opened at the Théâtre Libre on 15 May 1895 with Antoine in the principal role. The drama concerned itself with the tale of Monsieur Reynard, a small grocer who, upon making his fortune, finds himself in need of a will, an act which causes unrest and tension among his extended family.
Plucking a scene directly from the play, Toulouse-Lautrec generates an enigmatic composition, one which reveals almost no details regarding the plot or the characters of L’Argent. Monsieur Reynard and his wife are shown from behind as they leave what seems to be the dinner table, their identities and expressions hidden from the audience as they depart the scene, their clothing the only indication of their status, age or role within the family. By choosing a fleeting moment of the action, a transition from one scene to the next or a snapshot from the middle of an exchange between the two actors, Toulouse-Lautrec imbues the sketch with a powerful sense of what it feels like to be a member of the audience. With the most economical of means, he manages to capture the complexity of the theatrical performance, rendering the play of brilliant lights and velvety shadows that bathe the stage, the fleeting vignettes and spirited movements of the characters that underpin the dialogue, the manner in which the performers manage to captivate their audience, even with their back turned and their faces hidden.
Delineating the figures in a series of flowing, sinuous lines using rapid strokes of thinned oil paint, Toulouse-Lautrec concentrates solely on the fundamental aspects of the subject, leaving the details of the background to the bare minimum. The artist often employed an element of caricature in his work, exaggerating certain features or traits to better capture the fleeting impression they leave on the mind of the viewer. In the present composition, he exaggerates the silhouettes of both Monsieur and Madame Reynard so that they appear almost elephantine in their costumes, granting their figures a monumental presence that powerfully translates the magnetism of their stage personae.

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