Throughout his career, Lautrec excelled above all as a portraitist. Nearly forty percent of his oeuvre, painted, drawn and printed, can be classified as portraiture. He rendered his friends and family, as well as hired models and characters from the world of the dance-halls, circuses, cafés, and bordellos; his portrait subjects are depicted full-length and bust-length, seated and standing, motionless and mobile, in interiors, in landscapes, against abstract backgrounds. That portraiture should have dominated Lautrec's artistic production is not unexpected; his teacher, Léon Bonnat, is best known as a portrait painter. Lautrec himself once claimed, "Only the figure exists" (quoted in A. Roquebert, "Portraits," Toulouse-Lautrec, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, 1991, p. 132).
The present painting is a portrait of Misia Natanson, a prominent figure of the intellectual community in fin-de-siècle Paris and a close friend of Lautrec (figs. 1 and 2). Born in St. Petersburg in 1872, Misia was the daughter of a successful Polish sculptor named Cyprien Godebski and the granddaughter of the well-known cellist Frantz Gervais. Raised by wealthy relatives in Ixelles, near Brussels, the young Misia was a gifted pianist and student of Gabriel Fauré; Franz Liszt is said to have held out great hopes for her future as well. Enrolled by her father in a Parisian convent at age seventeen, she rebelled and moved to London, renting a small apartment and supporting herself by giving piano lessons. In 1891, she returned to Paris and settled on her own in the fashionable district near the Place de Clichy. At that time, she was re-introduced to the brothers Alexandre, Thadée, and Alfred Natanson, second cousins by marriage whom she had not seen since childhood. Thadée was immediately captivated by her vivacity, impetuousness, and intelligence; the two married on 25 April 1893.
Thadée Natanson was editor of the influential and progressive periodical La Revue Blanche, voice of the Parisian intellectual community from its establishment in 1891 until its collapse twelve years later. The magazine hosted some of the era's most important articles on modern thinking, with contributors including André Gide, Paul Valéry, Tristan Bernard, Alfred Jarry, Romain Coolus, and the young Marcel Proust, who used her as one of his models for the music-loving Mme Verdurin in A la recherche du temps perdu. Upon her marriage to Thadée Natanson, Misia quickly became the "soul and muse" of the group of writers and artists involved with La Revue Blanche. Each Thursday evening, she held an informal soirée for contributors and subscribers at the Natanson apartment at 9 rue Saint-Florentin, an eclectic, loft-like space that served as an unofficial annex to the magazine's offices on the rue Lafitte. Members of the Revue Blanche circle also gathered under Misia's hospitality at the Natansons' country homes at Valvins-la-Grangette (near Fontainebleau) and Villeneuve-sur-Yonne. So synonymous with the spirit of La Revue Blanche was the active, independent Misia that Lautrec, when commissioned to make a poster for the periodical in 1895, chose her portrait as its emblem (fig. 3).
The present portrait of Misia was executed in the summer of 1897, while Lautrec was staying at Villeneuve. Lautrec painted Misia at least six other times, but she claimed that this picture was her favorite. It was made during a difficult period for the artist: his alcoholism had worsened (the writer Romain Coolus described him that summer, his drooping moustache always damp with vermouth or absinthe), and he suffered several breakdowns at Villeneuve. He took great solace, however, in Misia's company; as Vuillard recounted in a letter to Vallotton in July, "There are some mishaps along the way; but one must not despair. He has his good moments, and he is very much attached to Thadée and his wife" (quoted in A. Roquebert, "Late Work, 1898-1901," in ibid., p. 464). She and Lautrec spent hours in the garden that summer, indulging in a favorite past-time: she would sit in the grass reading or pretending to read, while Lautrec tickled her bare feet with a paintbrush, discovering "imaginary landscapes."
It is perhaps this idyllic game that Lautrec had in mind when he painted the present picture, an exquisite portrait of Misia reading on the lush grounds at Villeneuve. With its fresh, pastel palette and loose, exuberant brushwork, the painting masterfully captures both the breezy warmth of a summer's day and the nourishing intimacy that existed between Lautrec and Misia. At the same time, Misia's solemn expression and Lautrec's choice of the hieratic profile format impart to the sitter an air of imposing dignity, recalling early Renaissance portraits like Alesso Baldovinetti's Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (circa 1450; National Gallery of Art, London), a painting that Lautrec is known to have deeply admired.
Commenting upon Lautrec's portrait of Misia on the occassion of its exhibtion at The Art Insitute of Chicago in 1979, Naomi Maurer wrote:
"Misia's gently inclined head continues the sinuous curve of the chair seat which is balanced and stabilized by the slashing, angled lines of its legs. With great sensitivity Lautrec avoided overloading the composition and distracting attention from Misia's face by leaving the surface of the background behind her head relatively smooth and even. Only in the bottom half of the picture do his strokes pick up velocity, the boldly dashed-in blades of grass enlarging rapidly to fuse with the long streaks of Misia's gown and chair. Skillfully balancing the dynamic forcefulness of his brushwork with a palette of delicately shaded tones in hazy green, pinks and white, Lautrec has created a poetic evocation not only of Misia's beauty, but of the airy summer days of their holiday together" (N.E. Maurer, in exh. cat., op. cit, 1979, p. 283).
Other pictures of Misia by Lautrec include a scene of her playing the piano, executed around the same time as the present picture (fig. 4); an oil sketch of her at mealtime with Thadée, Vuillard, and Vallotton, painted the following summer (Dortu P.567); and four portrait studies dated between 1895 and 1898 (Dortu P.593, 599, 655 and 672). Lautrec also chose Misia as the subject of an 1895 lithograph which was featured on the cover of the final issue of L'Estampe Originale, a quarterly publication of original prints by the finest artists of the day.
(fig. 1) Misia Natanson in her salon, rue Saint-Florentin, Paris, circa 1898. BARCODE: 24402026
(fig. 2) Misia and Thadée Natanson at their country house at Villeneuve, circa 1899. BARCODE: 24402033
(fig. 3) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895. BARCODE: 24402019
(fig. 4) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Misia Natanson, 1897. Kunstmuseum, Bern. BARCODE: 24402002