Huddled within the warmth and concealing privacy of bed linens, two young women–their bodies naked, one may dare infer, beneath the covers–have drawn each other into their arms to gently embrace and kiss. The lineaments of their enveloping limbs radiate outward as folds in the linens, like the outlines of petals forming an immense flower. We may imagine these lovers, awash in pale blue, as swimmers about to be swallowed whole, arm in arm, in an inescapable whirlpool, in swirling torrents of desire, a sea of love.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this ode to a special kind of love in 1892, as one of four pictures of female couples au lit, “in bed” (Dortu, nos. P. 436-439). These scenes inaugurated his series of works describing the lives of women who, with few if any other options, had resigned themselves to a livelihood as “fonctionnières de l’amour”–as Lautrec called them– spending their days and nights shut away in a maison close, or maison de tolérance–a brothel (D. Sweetman, Toulouse-Lautrec and the Fin de Siècle, London, 1999, p. 355). As many as seventy paintings comprise this theme, most of which Lautrec created between 1892 and 1895, plus another dozen pictures in related situations, outnumbering the cabaret, theatre, circus, or any other single subject grouping in the artist’s oeuvre.
The setting alone was enough to provoke controversy, but in these paintings, Lautrec, then only twenty-eight years old, moreover dared to reveal the extent to which lesbianism had become a hopeful alternative, if only perhaps a palliative, for women who were newly questioning–and exploring as well–the means of sexual expression and gratification that were available to them during the late 19th century. The present Au lit: le baiser is one of two Au lit paintings shown in a group exhibition at Le Barc de Boutteville, Paris, in late 1892. The other was Au lit (Dortu, no. P. 437). A complaint led police to demand that one be taken down and removed from view. It is not clear which of them had given offense; you, the reader, may compare the two and decide for yourself. A caricature drawing of the present painting appeared in Le Journal on 26 November 1892.
While such issues of censorship have long been put to rest in liberal democratic societies, the overarching issues of gay relationships are still news in our own time, such as during the past year in America, where the implications related to the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage continue to be heatedly debated and contested pro and con. Indeed, many of the ideas, and even some of the fundamental attitudes, that have driven this discourse may be traced back to the late 19th century; such issues were as current at the time when Lautrec painted Au lit: le baiser and other works of this kind, as they are now.
Men of the 19th century typically received their sexual education and first experienced heterosexual intercourse at the behest of their fathers, in a brothel. Lautrec did not follow this customary route. He suffered from what was likely pycnodysotosis, a hereditary form of dwarfism that had affected other relatives within his larger family tree–Lautrec’s parents were first cousins. He consequently suffered from shunted bone growth in his legs, a condition that accidental falls exacerbated; by the age of fifteen he was permanently crippled, and needed to walk with a cane. Barely five feet tall at maturity, Lautrec possessed the torso of an adult on a child’s legs. He early accepted as a foregone conclusion that he could never marry into his own aristocratic class as his parents would have expected, and indeed he would likely face difficulty finding a suitable partner anywhere else as well. Growing up under the close care of this mother and with other female family members, it was not until he was enrolled in Cormon’s atelier during the mid-1880s that a fellow student arranged for him to lose his virginity to a prodigiously experienced sixteen-year-old artist’s model and prostitute.
Lautrec thereafter became a habitué of one maison close or another, always a short walk from a favorite café, often in the company of friends, for whom he intended that these brothel encounters demonstrate proof of his virility. “The interactions were straightforward,” Julia Frey has written, “everything was for sale. No one was being nice to him because they felt sorry for him. He, like any client, paid for drinks, amusement, sex. He owed no emotional debts and could choose or decline what he was offered” (Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life, London, 1994, p. 341).
“It had long been accepted that prostitution was a necessary, if undesirable, element in the modern city,” Richard Thomson stated. “Men’s lusts needed to be serviced, not least to protect respectable women, whose purity as a bride was seen as an essential guarantee of the family, which was the basic social unit and mechanism for the transmission of wealth. To safeguard the bourgeois social order from potentially disruptive male urges, a distinctive cadre of women was necessary to divert them. However expedient such a solution, prostitution was also immoral, so it needed to be disguised and monitored. Hence the establishment of the licensed maisons closes, which could be discreetly housed, regulated by police, and their personnel [les soumises] subject to regular medical inspection” (Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 205).
The spread of unregulated, “casual” prostitution during the 1870s and 1880s, however, put increasing strain on the maison close system. There were 65 officially sanctioned brothels in Paris in 1888, down from over 200 in 1856. Migration from the provinces into the capital during the prolonged recession of the later 1870s had swelled the ranks of young, mostly unattached women, even underage girls, desperate for employment. They resorted to the occasional or more frequent practice of selling sex whenever they needed the money. The estimated count of unlicensed streetwalkers (les insoumises) numbered anywhere from around 30,000 to 120,000. “These women were to found everywhere,” Thomson has written, “no longer in the registered brothels but on the boulevard and in public places amongst the bourgeoisie; and worse, cheap department store clothing made the prostitute and middle-class woman difficult to distinguish... Confinement in the maison close did not suit the increasingly fluid character of Parisian prostitution... It was more congenial and lucrative to work independently or in a brasserie de femmes, a café acting as a front for private rooms” (Toulouse-Lautrec, exh. cat., The South Bank Centre, London, 1991, p. 407).
As a result of this influx, Thomson detected “a change of tone in the discourses about prostitution. Descriptions of the women became less condemnatory and more humane.” Even conservative commentators representing the governmental administrative viewpoint, and the Catholic Church, insisted that “the filles de maison be treated as individuals, for they are ‘plus malheureuses que coupables’. It is within these shifting patterns that Lautrec’s images should be placed” (ibid.).
In early 1889, Lautrec completed Au bal du Moulin de la Galette, his first multi-figure masterwork of bohemian nightlife in Montmartre. He was pleased to see this painting published in the Courrier français on 19 May, and sent it to the fifth Salon des Indépendants in September, and to the Les XX exhibition, Brussels, in January 1890 (Dortu, no. 335; Art Institute of Chicago). He was eager to undertake a large decorative commission, a major canvas that would consolidate his growing reputation as one the leading young painters in Paris. His first opportunity, however, was not what he had in mind, but it did concern a subject in which he was already thoroughly at home and could not pass up. Blanche d’Egmont, the maîtresse of the maison close on the rue d’Amboise, asked Lautrec to paint medallion-shaped portraits, in profile or three-quarter view, of sixteen women in her employ. Lautrec had become involved in a relationship with one of them, that is, he had become a steady client of a girl named Mireille. Intended to advertise these ladies’ charms to prospective clients, these small paintings were set into panels that lined the establishment’s elegant 18th century style grand salon (Dortu, nos. P. 440-457).
Lautrec took care to give individual character and a fair likeness to each of the filles de maison in the rue d’Amboise portraits. It is not clear where Lautrec painted most of his other brothel paintings. Smaller compositions may have been begun in situ, but others more likely proceeded from sketches and drawings; the artist then worked up and completed the paintings in his studio, since 1886 located at 27 (now 21), rue Caulaincourt, from which it was but a short walk to the Moulin de la Galette, in Montmartre. The artist liked to give out the impression that he actually lived and painted in the brothels, again partly to show off before his friends. “I shall set up my tent in a brothel,” Lautrec declared (quoted in J. Frey, op. cit., 1994, p. 345). Living in a brothel was illegal, however, and the artist simply spent a lot of time hanging around the house on the rue d’Amboise. He even fooled the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel into meeting him there, under the pretense of showing him his studio.
Mireille left Mme d’Egmont’s establishment in 1894 to pursue an offer of work in Argentina. Lautrec soon afterwards shifted his base of brothel activities from the rue d’Amboise to the newly opened maison de grand tolérance at 24 (today 6), rue de Moulins. The building’s exterior was that of “an apparently solid bourgeois townhouse,” Sweetman has written, “but behind its bland exterior lay a fantasy world that even the most flamboyant theatrical set designers could only envy. Therein, every perversion was served, from grim torture chamber to medieval dungeon, from Chinese den to Second Empire Salon” (op. cit., 1999, p. 338). The entrance salon suggested some of the architectural elements and furnishings that Lautrec incorporated into his largest, most elaborate and famous brothel painting, Au salon de la rue des Moulins, 1894 (Dortu, no. P. 559; Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi).
Lautrec depicted almost every aspect of daily life in the shuttered environment of this upscale Parisian brothel: lunching in the réfectectoire (Dortu, no. P. 499), a leering blanchisseur’s morning pickup of the previous night’s laundry (P. 544), the humiliating mandated inspections for signs of venereal disease (P. 557), and women playing cards and otherwise passing the monotonous daytime hours, until they readied themselves for the evening trade. Men are noticeably, indeed surprisingly absent. There is only one depiction of a fille de maison in bed with her customer, his (or is it another woman’s?) head buried in her lap (Dortu, no. P.545). In the exclusively feminine private world of the brothel, Lautrec “found a home of his own choosing, oddly parallel to the manless hours of his childhood,” Frey has explained. “And he became, in a sense, one of the family of the women in the brothels, a friend and confidant, eating meals with them, getting to know their problems, participating in their gossip, observing them in their various occupations and pleasures” (op. cit., 1994, p. 345).
In this grossly artificial pleasure dome of sex for hire, a world in which love was simultaneously faked and denied, Lautrec was drawn to the only signs of genuine affection he could find. Indeed, Lautrec’s interest in lesbian love, a longing for a passion that appeared to him to be more pure, complete and virtually selfless than that acquisitive, domineering urge of lustful desire that men habitually pursued in their lives, appears to have been the master key that in the four lesbian au lit paintings of 1892 opened the door to the brothel paintings that followed. “He had always felt a drive to do what was forbidden, to see behind the surfaces of illusion...to slip into the closed worlds of theatres, circuses, cabarets, and brothels. He found the temptation to invade the sanctuaries irresistible” (ibid.).
Several poems in Baudelaire’s collection Fleurs du mal, published in 1857, instigated a fascination with lesbianism in the following generation of symbolists and decadents, in both literature and the fine arts. The poet had once considered Les lesbiannes as the title for his collected verse. Lautrec told Arthur Symonds that Baudelaire’s poem Femmes damnées had been for him an inspiration; in it Delphine admonishes Hippolyte, “Go, if you wish, and seek some boorish lover...And bring me your scarred breast to be consoled” (trans. Roy Campbell, New York, 1952). Courbet painted Le sommeil, his provocative scene of two women entwined in bed, in 1866 (Petit Palais, Paris).
The women Lautrec depicted in Au Moulin Rouge, painted in 1892 (Dortu, no. P. 427; The Art Institute of Chicago), were all lesbians: La Macarona, La Goulue, La Môme Fromage, and in the foreground, May Milton. He depicted the latter with Yvette Guilbert, another lesbian, on the cover for the song Eros Vanné, in which Guilbert sang the words, “I preside over the Sapphic love of women without men.” Lautrec’s favorite Montmartre eateries, Le Rat Mort and La Souris, were both notorious lesbian hangouts. “Most of the women in the scenes of singers and dancers were in fact lesbians and quite a few of them were lovers,” Sweetman observed. “So many, in fact, that it is possible to argue that lesbianism is the hidden subtext of much of Henri’s mature years. As chronicler of his age, this was perhaps inevitable given the increased visibility of the subject in the bars and cabarets of the Butte–some contemporary accounts speak of an explosion of Saphisme, as if half the women of Montmartre were falling into bed with each other” (op. cit., 1999, p. 358).
Both Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert later married men, but to take this step was inconceivable while their careers as celebrity performers were flourishing; they would have had to surrender all financial and legal control of their lives to a husband. While male homosexuality was then expressly against the law (as the trial of Oscar Wilde would soon demonstrate), lesbianism was not, and although the practice was a growing phenomenon in the arts and entertainment, and recognized as such in those fields, it largely escaped notice nearly everywhere else. Lautrec was certainly more sympathetic than most other men in his understanding and acceptance of this life-style, but it is impossible to say how “enlightened”–in present-day terms–his underlying attitudes actually may have been. Despite advances in the sciences, sexology and philosophy, few men were able to cast aside the received, deeply engrained and privileged notions of superiority and bias directed against women, in traditions and social conventions that were practically insurmountable.
Using examples drawn from the art and literature of the late 19th century–such as those with which Lautrec would have been familiar–Bram Dijkstra studied these complex gender-based issues in Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture, New York, 1986. He recreated the sensibility through which a novelist, poet or visual artist working at that time would have likely viewed gender differences and related matters as they may have influenced the content in his work.
“As long as a woman lived among women, she lived alone, completely self-contained,” Dijkstra explained. “She mirrored other woman and other women mirrored her. Her purity was her self-containment, her inviolate sex the mirror of existence, barren though that existence might be. Yet as long as woman existed apart from man, she existed as Woman, the great undifferentiated, static expression of primal being.” The symbol of woman’s self-containment, her self-involvement, was the mirror–“The Mirror of Venus,” as Dijkstra called it–the hand-held oval mirror, moon-like, vulval in shape, in which she gazes at herself. “The breaking of the mirror, the transfer of the jewel of her containment, the violation of barren chastity, of woman’s absolute purity, whether on an actual level or a symbolic, spiritual one, was, after all, in woman a sign of her total abandonment to the will, the identity of the male” (ibid., pp. 132 and 133).
The mirror is also the instrument, men believed, by which a woman reveals her innate vanity. Her glance in the mirror, away from the male viewer, her secret desire to embrace her own reflection, and–as depicted in various paintings–when she actually kisses the glass, signal her refusal to accept her socially designated natural role and traditional marital duty to yield to the will of a man.
The mirror, as Dijkstra discovered in fin-de-siècle imagery, is transformed into “The Lesbian Glass.” “When a woman kisses another woman, it was indeed as if she were kissing her own image in the glass. In the art of the period, the image of a woman kissing herself in the mirror was therefore often supplemented by images of a woman kissing another woman... Thus while the sexologists were rediscovering female sexuality in terms of woman’s supposed autoerotic fixation during the 1860s and 1870s, artists and writers were discovering the existence of lesbianism as a sort of extension of this supposed autoerotic fixation” (ibid., p. 152).
Dijkstra’s image of the “Lesbian glass” is useful in interpreting Au lit: le baiser–a kiss is not just a kiss. Even if Lautrec had in fact employed a pair of models, the two young women are virtually identical, sharing even the russet hair tone to which Lautrec was famously partial in his choice of sitters. He adopted here a point-of-view that places the girl on the left slightly closer to him than her partner, with the result that she does appear to be kissing herself in a mirror. The two women together comprise a circular, self-contained totality. The mirror has not yet been broken–they have created for themselves a moment of splendid isolation, in a world apart from men, with the exception of Lautrec the compassionate artist-voyeur, in so many ways a man unlike other men.