Shortly after Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced his extraordinary Elles series with Gustave Pellet, the publisher commissioned from him several more luxury prints, two of which featured the clowness Cha-U-Kao…This performer particularly fascinated Lautrec; he depicted her in several important prints and paintings, including one that was purchased by the former king of Serbia (1895; Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland). In most of his representations of the clowness, Lautrec focused on her stage role, emphasizing her baggy black trousers, wide yellow ruff cut low to expose her ample bosom and strange white wig, drawn up into a topknot and tied with a yellow bow. Dancing at the Moulin Rouge, however, depicts the performer off-stage, wearing street clothing. A known lesbian, she is shown dancing with another woman at the Moulin Rouge, which had a tolerant attitude toward same-sex couples.
The print is a reprisal of a painting Lautrec created five years earlier (1892; National Gallery, Prague). Although the composition remains unchanged, Lautrec greatly altered his palette for the lithograph, replacing the painting’s heavy, nocturnal colors and atmosphere with fresher and lighter hues in this rare print. To the right of the female couple is the famous café-concert performer Jane Avril, dancing with her back to the viewer. Two more of Lautrec’s friends- François Gauzi and Charles Conder- are included at the far left and right of the composition, respectively.
Despite the fact that Lautrec populated the image with his friends and acquaintances, the figures do not communicate with one another, In fact, the composition revolves around a series of missed glances, Gauzi, the dark-complexioned man at the far left, stares intently at a woman in an elaborate hat, who directs her gaze beyond him. Likewise, the woman with the antenna-like hat in the right background peers at Conder, who stares impassively at the dancers on the floor. Avril dances entirely alone, as was her custom, and Cha-U-Kao’s eyes do not meet the look of her partner. Lautrec does, however, suggest some of the intimacy between the two women by his careful draftsmanship. The skirts and jackets are drawn with the same horizontal marks of the black lithographic crayon and seem to merge in places, while their coattails swing together in harmony. Similarly, the sensitive handling of the women’s hands and faces suggests the tenderness between them.
Mary Weaver Chapin, Graphic Modernism: Selections from the Francey and Dr. Martin L. Gecht Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago with Hudson Hills Press, 2003, pp. 30.