While Joyant ascribed the date of 1888 to La blanchisseuse, and Dortu placed it in the year after that, Charles F. Stuckey and Naomi E. Maurer have convincingly made the case that Lautrec painted this picture in 1886-1887 (in exh. cat., op. cit., Chicago, 1979, pp. 113-114). The artist was probably not yet 23 years of age when he completed La blanchisseuse. It was his finest painting to date, and indeed, it is arguably his first masterwork. There is no prior picture in his oeuvre in which the young painter had so powerfully and dramatically characterized his subject, or expressed his deepening insight into the world around him with such clarity and certainty in his technical means. Projecting himself into the very soul of this young woman, who may have been no older than himself, Lautrec demonstrated a degree of worldly understanding and compassion well beyond his years. Yet there is nothing sentimental or emotionally extraneous in his depiction of her. Here he made a significant statement of what it was like to live and work in the lowermost rungs of Parisian society at that time; he has utterly transformed the particulars of daily life into the universal image of art. For an adequate comparison, using a similar subject, one has to turn to the mature work of an artist no less in stature than Degas.
Lautrec painted La blanchisseuse during the final years of his enrollment in the atelier of Fernand Cormon, which he entered in 1882. Cormon specialized in an unusual genre, of no interest in itself to Lautrec, in which he painted scenes from prehistory and antiquity that he painstakingly researched using the latest archeological findings. Nonetheless, having chosen to locate his studio in the less academic and déclassé milieu of Montmartre, Cormon proved to be a progressive teacher in other respects. At the conclusion of his morning classes, he urged his pupils to take their sketchbooks out into the streets and draw the people of all stations whom they encountered there. Having led a relatively sheltered life on the provincial estate of an aristocratic family, Lautrec was fascinated by the bustle of the streets and the people who eked out marginal livings in lowly occupations. Older, more experienced friends and fellow students, such as Albert Grenier and Henri Rachou, introduced Lautrec to the seamy pleasures of the demi-monde. In 1886, not long before he painted La blanchisseuse, Lautrec signaled his commitment to a bohemian life-style by renting rooms with a studio at 27 (now 21), rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre, where he stayed until 1898.
The model for this painting was Carmen Gaudin, who in fact made her living as a laundress. François Gauzi, writing much later, related a story in which Lautrec and Rachou spotted Carmen as she was leaving a restaurant sometime in mid-1885. Lautrec was irresistibly attracted to red-headed women, and is supposed to have walked right up to her and examined her closely. He exclaimed to Rachou, "what an air of spoiled meat she has" (in F. Gauzi, Lautrec et son temps, Paris, 1954, p. 129), apparently referring to the fact that like many laundrymaids, she probably worked as a part-time prostitute. Lautrec is supposed to have sought to improve her position by making her his model, but it appears that she had already posed for the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, and later worked for Cormon as well. In autumn 1885 Lautrec wrote to his mother that he was "painting a woman whose hair is absolute gold," a clear reference to Carmen. His model turned out to be not quite the wild creature that he first supposed her to be. David Sweetman has described Carmen as "polite, punctual, discreet and eager to please. In fact this passivity was one of her sadder traits--[Lautrec] eventually discovered that she had a lover, or more likely a pimp that beat her up, though she never deserted him." (in Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin-de-Siècle, London, 1999, p. 142).
Lautrec made numerous studies of Carmen in 1885 (Dortu, nos. P. 243-247). She is easily identifiable by her russet hair, with a fringe that extends outward like small curving wings from her forehead, a petite upturned nose, and a squarish face (fig. 1). By the titles of these studies we know her as Carmen, La Rousse (the redhead), and in Dortu, no. P. 247, her occupation was identified as that of a blanchisseuse. The first large painting in which Lautrec featured her initially caused some confusion about her identity; it is titled A Montrouge--Rosa la Rouge (fig. 2), which refers to a gritty street song by the cabaret singer Aristide Bruant, in which the hapless working heroine, like Carmen in real life, gets bloodied in the end:
It's Rosa I don't know she comes from
She has red hair, a dog's head
When she passes they say, here comes 'Red'
When she gets a 'John' in the corner
Me, I'm right there not far at all
And the next day the cop finds 'red' all right,
(quoted in ibid., p. 143)
It was through Carmen's situation that Lautrec first experienced the hellish underside of lower class life in Montmartre. In her presence the characters of Emile Zola's 1877 novel L'Assommoir seemed to suddenly spring to life; the very subjects and fictional plots of the Naturalist novels that Lautrec had been reading materialized in all their disturbing reality before his eyes. In 1880 Joris-Karl Husymans published his Croquis parisiennes, in which he described the plight of washerwomen:
Oh yes, they have a bad reputation. Oh yes, the old ones prowl around like bitches scoffing and drinking, raging with thirst from the heat of the stoves. Oh yes, the young ones flirt, mad for love, and have a right old time on leaving the washhouse! And what of it? Do you think their lives are easy and that they haven't the right to bury the dreariness of a long day in the bottom of a wine bottle or a bed? Oh, how they love and how they drink! Because to work standing up, under a rain constantly falling from washing hanging on lines, to feel the water creep over the hairs of your neck and run slowly down the middle of your back, to breathe steam from the laundry in big gulps, to have your loins burnt by the fire of the furnace, to carry cartloads of sheets over your shoulder, to stagger under the weight of an enormous basket, to walk, to run, never to rest such is their terrible job, their terrible life! (trans. Brendan King, Parisian Sketches, London, 2004, pp. 77-78)
The sadness of this dreary life may be seen in Carmen's downcast and resigned expression in the painting Tête de femme rousse en caraco blanc (fig. 3), which, like the present painting, was probably done in 1886-1887, although Dortu ascribed it to 1889. Maurer has noted that these later paintings of Carmen are "subdued in color yet more subtle and refined than the somewhat crude, raw pictures of 1885. When Lautrec made his initial foray into the seamy world of the Parisian lower classes, he wanted his subjects to embody all its coarseness and brutality. In the years that followed, however, as his sensibilities changed, he considerably modified the quality of the works he produced after his first contact with the Zolaesque demi-monde. His paintings became increasingly elegant and subtle in mood as he sought to endow even the tawdriest subjects with decorative qualities and make them expressive of his own developing psychological insight" (in op. cit., pp. 113-114).
Lautrec captured and crystallized the very essence of Carmen Gaudin in the present painting. This was the largest of his depictions of her to date, and the most penetrating and personal in its projection of her inner life. Lautrec, with his own diminutive stature, viewed her slightly from below, which emphasizes the bottom-heavy, pyramidal mass of her lower body, which is further anchored by her left hand propped firmly on the table. Her figure then rises within the triangular shape of her white blouse and peaks at her neck and head, giving her an imposing, almost towering presence. Wearily, hunched forward by the weight of her chores, she leans forward into the light, sharply observing someone in the room, or perhaps looking expectantly to a window that opens to the world outside. In that moment she suddenly assumes an almost saint-like aura, and appears unbowed and defiant. While her eyes are hidden from view, we sense her indomitable character from her posture, her powerful hand, rubbed raw from her work, and the firmness of her jaw. Maurer has written,
By the size of the figure and the extreme boldness and simplicity of the geometric composition with its powerful light-dark contrasts, Lautrec has endowed La blanchisseuse with a physical monumentality that intensifies her mood of somber reflection and recalls similar works by Vermeer. Body inclined toward the open window and face gently illuminated by its light, the figure of the laundress expresses a quiet sense of yearning. By abruptly cropping the window with its open view and by curtaining the model's eyes with her hair, Lautrec implies that her vision is directed not outside but inward. The masked eyes protect her from the prying gaze of the spectator as well, isolating her in introspection and suggesting how mysterious and hidden our real selves are from one another. (ibid., p. 114)
Carmen's left-leaning pose in La blanchisseuse recalls Degas' painting Répasseuse à contre-jour (fig. 4), one of a series depicting laundresses ironing that he made in 1873, whose realistic, proletarian subject caused a stir when Degas showed them in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. Douglas W. Druick and Peter Zeghers have called this Degas Répasseuse "the most economical as well as the noblest of Degas' early depictions of ironers, with a slightly tragic cast mitigated only by the wonderful effect of light" (in Degas, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988, pp. 223-224). Lautrec was probably aware of this picture, and indeed in his own Blanchisseuse he created a 'converse' image of it. The window, table and model are similarly positioned. However, instead of silhouetting his subject against the light, Lautrec spotlights her against the surrounding darkness of the room. While Degas' model is little more than a dark and anonymous profile, with little detail visible in her figure, Lautrec's laundress has a strongly individual character. Unlike Degas, who showed the women at work, Lautrec went so far as to dispense with all signs of activity pertinent to Carmen's occupation, as well as the tools of her trade. He instead proceeded by inference, allowing the title and the dramatic depiction of his subject tell the story in his picture. The novelty of Degas' subject is less striking now than it was in the late 19th century, and his painting engages us primarily through "its wonderful effects of light." Lautrec, on the other hand, draws in his viewers, now as then, through the unflinching intensity of his psychological insight, which is far more personal and confrontational than the "slightly tragic cast" of Degas's painting.
Picasso also featured a laundress ironing in his own Répasseuse, painted near the end of his Blue period in 1904 (fig. 5). Picasso was clearly referring to Degas's paintings on this subject, and while he was a great admirer of Lautrec during his early years in Montmartre, it is perhaps unlikely that he knew Lautrec's La blanchisseuse. In any case, Picasso's painting is all about the misery and poverty of living, which he has stylized to such a degree that genuine tragedy has become melodrama. In contrast to both Degas and Picasso, artists who placed other agendas ahead of their engagement with the personality and inner life of their laundress subjects, Lautrec alone directs our attention in his portrait to the fact that this is the story of a real woman, a living, flesh-and-blood person.
Lautrec employed Carmen Gaudin as one of his favorite models into 1889. In the last paintings he made of her he adopted an airier, lighter keyed Impressionist manner, such as in La Rousse au caraco blanc, 1888 (Dortu, no. P.317), Femme rousse en mauve, 1889 (Dortu, no. P. 342) and, finally, Femme rousse assise dans le jardin de M. Forest, 1889 (Dortu, no. P. 343; fig. 6). Lautrec thereafter lost interest in Carmen, partly because of his contacts with other women, but as Lautrec told it, mainly because she stopped dyeing her hair, so that it no longer possessed its magical reddish-gold tone. Now an ordinary, natural brunette, she had, as Lautrec told a friend, "lost her appeal." But she had initiated Lautrec into a hidden reality that the young painter had known little about, in David Sweetman's words, "the grey world that lay behind the facade of starched shirts and layered dresses, the world of bourgeois fashion and comfort, whose slaves were the available playthings of the same men who paid so little for their daily luxuries" (op. cit., p. 143). This is the Paris that Lautrec came to know and love best, the nether regions of mixed light and shade, glamour and tawdriness, which would remain his hunting-ground, as well as his playground, for the rest of his life.
(fig. 1) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Carmen, 1885.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. BARCODE 23659223
(fig. 2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, A Montrouge--Rosa la Rouge, 1885. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. BARCODE 23659230
(fig. 3) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Tête de femme rousse en caraco blanc, 1886-1887. Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. BARCODE 23659247
(fig. 4) Edgar Degas, Répasseuse à contre-jour, 1873. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. BARCODE 23657380
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Répasseuse, 1904. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. BARCODE 23659254
(fig. 6) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Femme rousse assise dans le jardin de M. Forest, 1889, Private collection. BARCODE 23659261