By 1900 Lautrec's chronic abuse of alcohol had so undermined his health that his friends feared he would experience a complete physical collapse, and again have to be confined to a clinic, as he had been for eleven weeks in 1898. In October 1901 he moved to Bordeaux, the home town of his good friend Paul Viaud, who accompanied and looked after him. It was Viaud's hope that living away from Paris would remove most of the temptations that provoked the artist's dissolute behavior, and that his new surroundings would inspire him to get back into a regular painting routine. Here Lautrec, an avid theater-goer, produced a series of six paintings based on Isidore de Lara's opera Messaline, which he saw in the city's Grand Théâtre (Dortu, vol. 3, nos. 703-708).
Lautrec and Viaud returned to Paris in late April, 1901, and remained there until mid-July. During this time the artist sorted out the contents of his studio at 15, avenue Frochot. He painted a few pictures, mainly portraits, as well as two outdoor scenes of riders and seated onlookers in the Bois de Boulogne, including the present painting, which were probably done from memory.
In his description of the larger companion scene, Cavalier et Amazone se croissant au Bois (Dortu, vol. 3, no. P.719), Maurice Joyant noted that the female rider bears the profile of 'Mlle M.' (op. cit.). He was referring to Mlle Margouin, the figure of the milliner in La Modiste: Mlle Margouin, which Lautrec painted in 1900 (Dortu, vol. 3, no. P.716; coll. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi). Margouin is actually slang for 'milliner,' and Dortu and Huisman have ascertained that the actual identity of the model is Louise Blouet, who worked for the owner of the shop which Lautrec used as a setting in the painting. La Modiste: Mlle Margouin is certainly the finest of the artist's late portraits, in which the artist concentrated on his subject's "magnificient red-gold hair, always his irresistible preference in models" (N.E. Maurer, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, 1979, p. 309). Indeed, Lautrec very likely had this lovely model in mind when he painted the young woman seen here in profile--in addition to Louise Blouet's red hair, she also had the latter's small, pointed and upturned nose, and fine lips.
Au Bois du Boulogne shows Lautrec's inclination to use dark background tonalities in his late work, against which he has contrasted a light, central figure in the foreground. Lautrec admired this chiaroscuro effect in the work of Rembrandt, whose paintings he had seen in the Netherlands in 1894, as well as in the drawings and paintings of his contemporary Eugène Carrière. The focus in the present composition centers on the warm tones of the young woman's yellow hat and red hair. There is a related oil study in outline for her seated figure (Dortu, vol. 3, no. P. 720; coll. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi). However, in arriving at the final crescent shape of her tricorne hat, the artist referred to a small, quickly-drawn sketch that he had done in 1899 (Dortu, vol. 6, no. D.4.473).
The present picture is among the last that Lautrec painted. His health rapidly deteriorating, the artist decided to leave Paris, and on 15 July 1901, he and Viaud left for Taussat-les-Bains, on the coast near Bordeaux. Lautrec suffered a stroke in mid-August and was then taken to his mother's home, the Château de Malromé, in Saint-André-du-Bois, near Bordeaux. There he died in the early morning hours of 9 September 1901, at the age of thirty-six.