Toulouse-Lautrec's portfolio Elles is one of the most celebrated and sought-after series in the history of printmaking. As a regular visitor and at times long-term guest of the maisons closes or brothels of Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec was well-acquainted with the women who lived and worked there. He was particularly interested in depicting them in their daily routines, at the wash table or dozing in bed. Unlike the other lithographs in the series, the most famous of them however shows a woman in a public place rather than a private environment: La Clownesse assise is shown in her costume in a cabaret. It is a private moment nonetheless, as she sits resting on a bench at a corner, visibly tired and a bit despondent.
A dancer at the Nouveau Cirque and the Moulin Rouge, Mademoiselle CHA-U-KA-O claimed to be Japanese, yet her name is in fact a phonetic transcription of the French words ‘chahut’ (an acrobatic dance derived from the cancan) and the chaos she caused whenever she came on stage. CHA-U-KA-O began her performing life as a lithe and supple gymnast, as evident in a photograph taken by Toulouse-Lautrec's close companion Maurice Guibert, for whom she would pose. By 1895 however, the agile, slender dancer had metamorphosed into that of the ageing, slightly overweight clownesse. The arc of CHA-U-KA-O 's life, ending in physical ruin, was bound to attract Lautrec. His interest in human decrepitude was no doubt reinforced by his reading of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1891 and subsequently translated into French. Lautrec became acquainted with the author, and painted portraits of both Wilde and CHA-U-KA-O in the same year. Fascinated as he was by decadence and decline, it is his ability to empathise with his subjects and his willingness to show them in all their human frailty and vulnerability - off-stage rather than in the spotlight - that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries.