With her unmistakable profile, striking coloring, and distinctive hair style, the enigmatic protagonist of Pierreuse appears to be one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s favorite models, the auburn-haired gamine, Carmen Gaumin. Lautrec had discovered Carmen in 1884 when he caught sight of her walking along a Montmartre street. Instantly captivated by this young, working class “woman whose hair is all gold,” as he wrote to his mother, Lautrec implored his friend, Henri Rachou to approach her and persuade her to model for him (quoted in Toulouse-Lautrec, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1991, p. 126). She agreed, and from this time until the end of the 1880s, she featured in some of Lautrec’s greatest portraits, inspiring the realist, Zola-esque works in which the artist captured the dark underworld of bohemian Montmartre. She became a melancholic, wistful laundress in La Blanchisseuse (Dortu, P. 346; Private collection), a murderous prostitute immortalized in the famous cabaret song in À Montrouge, Rosa la rouge (Dortu, P. 305; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia), or, as in the present work, a street walker, her downturned gaze and understated beauty lending each depiction of her a solemnity and an enigmatic introspection that sets these works apart within Lautrec’s oeuvre.
Soon after he met Carmen, “La Rousse,” as she was often known in his paintings, Lautrec painted a number of studies of his new model (Dortu, nos. P. 243-247). Carmen offered Lautrec a window into the glamorous yet seamy world of the demi-monde to which he was so compelled, offering him the perfect subject to achieve his aim of creating an art “outside the law” (quoted in C.F. Stuckey, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 1979, p. 18). Having led a relatively sheltered life on the provincial estate of an aristocratic family in the southwest of France, Lautrec was fascinated by the bustle of the Parisian streets and the many people who eked out marginal livings in lowly occupations.
It was in part through seeing at first hand Carmen’s situation that Lautrec experienced this underside of lower class life in Montmartre. In her presence, the characters of Emile Zola’s famed Les Rougon-Macquart novels that Lautrec was so inspired by found a visual form. In contrast to his earlier 1885 works that featured the Moulin de la Galette, the dancers, prostitutes, and denizens of Montmartre rendered with strident, rapid handling and brash tones, his portraits of Carmen and other working class figures showed the artist exploring a greater psychological depth, expressing the inner world of his subjects with a novel clarity and monumentality, as Pierreuse shows.
Pierreuse is also related to a group of plein-air portraits that Lautrec painted throughout 1889 (Dortu, P. 341-344, 353). In the present work, the artist has pictured his muse adorned in an elegant black dress and shawl, amid what seems to be the street or a park, the stippled, pastel toned background suggesting perhaps the quintessential silver-gray Parisian light and the bustling, fluctuating atmosphere of the city. These works clearly reference Lautrec’s Impressionist contemporaries, particularly Édouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir and their profile portraits painted in gardens. Yet, while in the Impressionists’ paintings, the surface is unified, the depiction of the figure and their foliage-filled surroundings rendered with the same loose, rapid brushstrokes, in the present work, Lautrec has relished the contrast between figure and setting. In Pierreuse particularly, the protagonist’s black dress, painted with sweeping, vertical strokes of paint, works in dramatic opposition to the softly colored, loosely executed and staccato-stroked background. Her red hair appears jewel-like, its exquisite portrayal heightening the enigmatic visual effect of her turned head, the viewer unable to read her face.
It is not only the subject of Pierreuse that tells of Lautrec’s heady immersion in the world of Montmartre, but the provenance too tells of the artist’s life in this milieu. The first owner of this painting was the cabaret proprietor and singer, and long term friend of the artist, Aristide Bruant. When the Chat Noir moved address, Bruant opened his own music hall in the vacated space on the boulevard Rochechouart in Paris. Le Mirleton as it was known became a popular hotspot, one which Lautrec began to frequent in the mid-1880s on the hunt for subjects. It was also at the Mirleton that Lautrec exhibited his work for the first time, when Bruant began to borrow pictures to decorate the music hall. The pair collaborated closely together, with Lautrec designing a number of advertisements, one of which featured the iconic, imposing profile of Bruant.
Before Pierreuse was acquired by Henry Ford II, it was a highlight of the collection of the famous French actor, director, and playwright, Sacha Guitry. Lautrec had known Guitry’s father, Lucien, an actor, and had depicted him in his art on a few occasions. The present work could be seen hanging in the center of Guitry’s “grande galerie” in his lavish hôtel particulier at 18 avenue Élisée-Reclus, in Paris, flanked by works by Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Vincent van Gogh, as well as bronzes by Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin.