Previously thought to represent the performance of a sailor's song at the Star, in Le Havre, it is now known that this print in fact represents an English performer, Bessie Wentworth performing a 'minstrel' song at a show in London. The apparent sailor's costume is in fact one adopted by American performers in these shows and may have originated with the striped uniform worn by slaves on the Southern plantations. The taste for American novelties was strong in late Nineteenth Century Europe and it would not be unusual for an English performer to adopt this outfit. Furthermore, recent research through photographic records has revealed that Bessie Wentworth indeed performed in her plantation costume as depicted here by Lautrec. This research was precipitated by the appearance of a previously unknown impression of this print at auction in London in December 1984, which was inscribed 'Miss X in the Alabama Coons.' (Sotheby's, London, 5 December 1984, lot 299, illustrated.)
The above mentioned print also put into question the traditional dating of 1899, as it came directly from the archives of Chaix, with whom the artist had stopped collaborating in 1896. In addition it is almost certain that Lautrec witnessed Bessie Wentworth's performance during a weekend spent in London between 30th April and 4th May 1896, at a time when Wentworth is known to have been performing. It therefore seems likely that this print would have been produced soon after the artist's return to Paris rather than three years later in 1899, the date usually ascribed to it.
The so-called 'coon' songs evolved from the traveling minstrel shows which first appeared in the 1830s, in which white actors would appear in 'burnt cork' blackface (the women without make-up as we see here), singing songs and acting routines supposedly mimicking black dialects, entertainments and attitudes.
The artist evidently only printed a few proofs of this extremely rare print. Wittrock records only one other impression with the keystone printed in brown-olive as in the present example, presently in the Gerstenberg Collection. Two of the remaining three impressions were printed with the keystone in violet, one of which was signed in pencil (Sotheby's, London, 5 December 1984, lot 299, illustrated). The other bears the artist's red monogram stamp (Kornfeld & Klipstein, Auktion 137, 19 June 1970).