Maurice Joyant, Paris (acquired from the above by 1918)
M. G. Dortu, Le Vésinet (acquired from the above by 1931)
Mme Jean-Alain Méric, France (by descent from the above)
Private Collection, France (by descent from the above)
Purchased from the above by the present owner
Brussels, Musée de Peinture moderne, Xe exposition internationale de XX, 1893, no. 2 (titled Dans le lit)
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Exposition H. de Toulouse-Lautrec trentenaire, 1931, no. 80
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, L’Impressionnisme, 1935, no. 89
London, M. Knoedler & Co., Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings and Drawings. Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of the Musée d’Albi, France, 1938, no. 22
Paris, Galerie Knoedler & Cie., Toulouse-Lautrec 1864-1901, Exposition au profit et avec le concours du Musée d'Albi, 1938, no. 14
Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie des Tuileries, Toulouse-Lautrec en l'honneur du cinquantenaire anniversaire de sa mort, 1951, no. 39
Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, Chefs-d’œuvre de Toulouse-Lautrec appartenant au Musée d’Albi et à des collections françaises, 1959, no. 133
Albi, Palais de la Berbie & Paris, Petit Palais, Centenaire de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1964, no. 41
Kyoto, Musée National d'Art Moderne de Kyoto & Tokyo, Musée National d'Art Occidental, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1968-69, no. 18, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Maurice Joyant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901, Dessins-Estampes-Affiches, Paris, 1926, mentioned p. 27
Pierre Mac Orlan, Lautrec, peintre de la lumière froide, Paris, 1934, mentioned p. 113
New Statesman, 29th January 1938
Paris-Soir, 17th March 1938, mentioned p. 2
Gerstle Mack, Toulouse-Lautrec, New York, 1938, mentioned p. 307
Francis Jourdhain & Jean Adhémar, Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1952, illustrated in colour pl. 55
M. G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec, New York, 1952, illustrated in colour pl. 5
Jacques Lassaigne, Le gout de notre temps – Lautrec, Geneva, 1953, mentioned p. 72
Douglas Cooper, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, London, 1955, illustrated in colour p. 107
Raymond Charmet, Arts, 11th March 1959, mentioned p. 16
M. G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son œuvre, New York, 1971, vol. II, no. 436, illustrated p. 269
Bruno Fourcart & Gabriele M. Sugana, Tout l’œuvre peint de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris, 1986, no. 421, illustrated p. 114
Toulouse-Lautrec (exhibition catalogue), Hayward Gallery, London, 1991, illustrated p. 428
Gilles Néret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901, Cologne, 1993, illustrated in colour p. 137
Serge Bramly & Jean Coulon, Les Baisers, Paris, 2012, illustrated in colour pp. 222-223
Born into an aristocratic French family in 1864, Lautrec moved to Paris as an art student in 1882 in the same year that the infamous cabaret Le Chat Noir opened its doors for the first time. He was quickly drawn to the artistic milieu of Montmartre and the cabarets and bars of this vibrant world became his home. Long a gathering place for artists, writers and musicians, in the 1880s it was also fast becoming the place where two different worlds collided and the growing middle classes came to observe and mix with a cast of characters from the lower echelons of society.
More so than any other artist of his generation, Lautrec is associated with this world. Arriving in a decade that saw a proliferation of cabarets, dance halls, brothels and circuses, Lautrec was soon immersed in the melting-pot of Montmartre. He wrote to his grandmother in 1886, ‘I’d like to tell you a little bit about what I’m doing, but it’s so special, so “outside the law,” Papa would call me an outsider’ (quoted in Toulouse-Lautrec and Monmartre (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art Washington, Washington D.C., 2005, p. 11). A serious childhood illness had affected Lautrec's growth precluding many of the outdoor activities normally associated with the aristocracy – but in this new world of the demi-monde he found a place where he belonged, and a new subject for his art.
His paintings of this seductive environment led Gustave Geffroy to describe him as ‘the quintessential chronicler of Paris, as it is understood by those who come here seeking bright lights and wild pleasures’ (G. Geffroy, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, XII, August 1914, pp. 91-92). However, Lautrec’s works not only reveal a view of fin-de-siècle Paris as a centre of hedonistic pleasure and revelry, they also offer acute and perceptive observations of this society. By the mid-1880s Lautrec had adopted the Decadent viewpoint shared by many of his contemporaries. As Richard Thomson writes, ‘The decadent critique was central to the “Montmartre” culture of cabarets, illustrated periodicals, and popular song within which Lautrec’s work developed. The easing of censorship laws in 1881 gave scope for the younger generation’s perception of the bourgeois republic as corrupt and venal, stuffy and hypocritical. During the 1880s Montmartre developed rapidly into the locale where such anti-establishment attitudes were stridently-voiced’ (R. Thomson, in ibid., p. 5). Lautrec’s engagement with these attitudes – a far cry from his provincial aristocratic origins – are particularly evident in the satirical characterisation of the posters he produced for the cabarets and dance halls, but they also emerge in more subtle ways. His depictions of these Montmartre haunts are sensitive and often empathetic. Lautrec’s use of low, often intimately close viewpoints draws the viewer into the lives of his subjects in much the same way that he too was part of their world. This is particularly the case in his masterful paintings of the brothels of Montmartre where he deliberately avoids glamorising his subject, offering instead the same privileged insight that he enjoyed.
It was as a result of his close involvement with the cabaret culture that Lautrec was drawn to the maisons closes. In 1892 Lautrec was commissioned to decorate the salon of a brothel on the rue d’Ambroise. He produced a series of sixteen portraits of the brothel’s residents, and his four paintings of women together date from the same period. This commission gave him the opportunity to observe the brothel’s inhabitants at all times of the day and night, witnessing not only their interaction with clients, but also their more intimate and private moments. As Charles F. Stuckey and Naomi E. Maurer explain, ‘The object of this intense personal scrutiny was to observe absolute, unaffected candour of experience, behaviour, and gesture. Models, Lautrec explained, are still and lifeless (empaillé), whereas the brothel residents “are altogether without pretensions”’ (C. F. Stuckey & N. E. Maurer, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings (exhibition catalogue), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1979, p. 251). The paintings that resulted consolidated his growing reputation and marked a highpoint of his achievements as an artist. The subject had probably already been suggested to him by Manet’s infamous painting of a prostitute Olympia (fig. 5) which had caused such a scandal when it was shown at the 1865 Salon. The uncompromising naturalism of Manet’s work – attacking the conventions of an idealised womanhood - is echoed in Lautrec’s own interpretation of the subject. His most ambitious brothel painting, Au salon de la rue des Moulins (fig. 6) shows the prostitutes spending time together as they await the arrival of their clients and Lautrec’s sensitive observation of their attitudes and expressions is characteristic of his depictions of the underclass. In the present work this intimacy of observation is coupled with a real sense of compassion; it has been suggested that his sympathy towards these women was due in part to his own disfigurement. Crucially it is this resulting sense of individuality and humanity that elevates his portrayals of the filles de maison beyond pastiche or voyeurism and marks them out from those of many of his contemporaries.
His close contemporary, Emile Bernard, produced a number of watercolours and drawings on the subject but whilst like Lautrec he depicted the women engaging in everyday activites, his drawings have an element of caricature which is not so readily evident in Lautrec’s work. Both were probably influenced by Edgar Degas who also frequented brothels in search of subjects for his painting and in the 1870s had produced a series of works depicting prostitutes. Like Lautrec, many of his works were deliberately uneroticised, showing the women waiting for prospective clients or in moments of private intimacy or personal celebration (fig. 7) but he also produced a series of drawings showing the latent lesbianism that Lautrec observes in the present work. It is likely that Degas was partly influenced by Japanese prints – of which he was a pioneer collector – and these works, which had increasing currency among artistic circles in the second half of the nineteenth century, were also an inspiration for Lautrec who is known to have an extensive collection of Japanese Shunga prints. Although these prints primarily portrayed heterosexual couples, their highly stylised aesthetic often made it difficult to differentiate between the male and female form in a way that is surely echoed in the adrodgyny of the two women in Au lit: le baiser. Equally, lesbian images were common currency in pornographic photography of the period, and Lautrec owned an image of two women together that he particularly prized, writing to his friend Charles Maurin – the first owner of the present work – ‘This is superior to all else. Nothing could rival such guilelessness’ (quoted in ibid., p. 251).
The iconography of the present work and the other Au lit: le baiser (fig. 2), with the figures captured at the moment of embrace was a particularly charged choice of imagery. Rodin’s famous sculpture Le baiser (fig. 4) was first exhibited in public in the late 1880s and its straightforward representation of human passion and strong classical beauty made it immediately popular with the art-loving French bourgeoisie. In contrast to this, just as Manet’s Olympia had caused outrage more than twenty years previously, Lautrec’s interpretation of the subject was designed as a challenge to the conventional morés of the French middle classes. Thomson describes the impact that the works had when Lautrec first showed them at the Le Barc de Boutteville gallery in 1892: ‘These [the present work and fig. 2] both showed women kissing and were met with a certain degree of shock. Writing in La Plume, Yvanhoé Rambosson used punctuation to affect surprise – “the Kiss is of an… entanglement!” – while a page of caricatures in Le Journal captioned its rather accurate rendition of one painting: “Le Baiser du diable ou un nez pour deux” [The kiss of the devil or one nose for two]. Lautrec’s motifs must have looked stridently frank alongside the virginal fantasies of Maurice Denis or Vuillard’s chaste Le Sommeil. His choice of those motifs rather than the other pair, Au lit and the Orsay painting [fig. 1], both of which show the women in silently affectionate proximity, suggests that he intended to confront his audience with a theme of public fascination but usually private representation’ ( R. Thomson, Toulouse-Lautrec (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 430).
Thomson also argues that Lautrec’s interest in lesbianism as a subject was part of the wider Decadent opposition to the enshrined status quo: ‘Fascinated by lesbianism and other sexual peculiarities, Lautrec was consistent with the Decadent subculture in which he had been formed, for lesbianism played a major role in Decadent iconography from the writing of Verlaine and Catulle Mendès to the images of Rops and de Feure. But Decadence itself was formed by broad social and psychological patterns, standing in ironic opposition to the bourgeois values which cohered the Third Republic and France’s intense nationalism’ (ibid., p. 429).
At the same time, these works remained largely private objects available only within a small, male circle. The present work was bought by Lautrec’s close associate, the painter Charles Maurin for 400 francs in 1893, before becoming part of the collection of Maurice Joyant, one of the artist’s oldest friends. Other works were owned by Gustave Pellet – the publisher of the Elle series of lithographs – and the art critic Roger Marx. This history of ownership not only illustrates how important these works were to Lautrec, but it also suggests a simultaneous function for the works: challenging and subversive though they were, they were also intended as objects of private pleasure in much the same way as Courbet’s lesbian paintings of the 1860s were produced for specific male patrons (fig. 3).
Lautrec’s innovative and enlightened treatment of the subject had a profound impact on subsequent generations of artists. In particular, the combination of vivid colouration, bold application of paint and the radical modernity of his subject was an important source of inspiration for the Expressionists. Egon Schiele produced numerous compositions depicting pairs of lovers of all genders, as well as a body of work that used women of the street, among others, as models for images of Sapphic couplings (fig. 8). The overt and graphic sexuality of these works would have been unimaginable two decades previously and owes much to the influence of that generation. More generally, the motif of le baiser was adopted by the artists of the early twentieth century, undergoing countless and varied reinterpretations and ultimately becoming a touchstone of contemporary visual culture. Brancusi’s 1907 Le baiser (fig. 9) illustrates the strength of the motif; reduced to its most simplistic components, it is nonetheless immediately recognisable. In much the same way, Picasso’s 1969 interpretation of the subject (fig. 10) – painted nearly a century after the present work – is testament to the longevity and power of this theme.
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