Painted in 1896, Femme nue, de profil, se coiffant dates from one of the great highpoints of the short life and artistic career of an artist often considered to epitomize the values, or lack thereof, in late 19th century Paris. Ballet dancers, circus performers and dance-hall ladies of Montmartre provided staple subjects for Toulouse-Lautrec from the late 1880s through the 1890s. Toulouse-Lautrec had been struck by Baudelaire’s suggestion, in his essay “Painters of Modern Life” that artists abandon the seclusion of their studios and go outdoors to directly capture contemporary life. Rejecting the stiff, unnatural pose of the professional model, he began observing modern life. The artist now focused on unrehearsed gestures thereby eliminating unnecessary details from his paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec found it necessary to abbreviate his technique, and fortunately his facile draughtsmanship allowed him to develop a style using very rapid strokes of thinned oil, most of which was concentrated on the subject with the background left just to a bare minimum. At the time the present work was painted, Toulouse-Lautrec was at work on a series of color lithographs that were published in May 1896 in an album entitled Elles. He chose this title to refer to the private world of the prostitutes who inhabited the luxurious brothels in Paris, where he would periodically live for weeks at a time from 1892-1895 in order to objectively record the daily lives of the women. Speaking of the artist’s choice to live among the women, Edouard Vuillard commented in an interview in 1931 “Lautrec kept very odd company. But the real reasons for his behavior were moral ones…Lautrec was too proud to submit to his lot, as a physical freak, an aristocrat cut off from his kind by his grotesque appearance. He found an affinity between his own condition and the moral penury of the prostitute” (quoted in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Performers of the Stage and Boudoir, 1891-1899, exh. cat., Theodore B. Donson Ltd., New York, 1980, n.p.).
In the present work, Toulouse-Lautrec deftly combines his subject from Elles and his signature style, rendering the figure with the most economical use of line, using the exposed support to function as part of the composition. Recording only the necessary detail adds to the intensity of the portrait, and the thinly washed transparent whites act to highlight the curves and crevices of the woman’s body. She is caught in a transient moment of observed reality. Lautrec’s interest in these fleeting moments is discussed by Charles Stuckey: “Unaware that they are being observed, their private meditation is witnessed but not understood. Lautrec had the profound insight to scrutinize people looking, or as they follow their thought along paths of glances over shoulders and across rooms, or tracked backwards into private reveries. Confronting the visual act increases our awareness of all that it can mean to see, and this was Lautrec’s poetry” (Toulouse-Lautrec, Paintings, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 1979, p. 28).