LONDON - More than any other artist of his generation, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is associated with the vibrant world of fin-de-siècle Montmartre. An art student from an aristocratic family, Lautrec arrived in Paris in 1882, the same year that the infamous cabaret Le Chat Noir opened its doors for the first time. This area, which had long been a gathering place for artists, writers and musicians, was now a place where the middle classes came to observe and mix with a cast of characters from the lower echelons of society, and he was soon immersed in its cabarets, dance halls, brothels and circuses. He wrote to his grandmother, “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.”  

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Au Lit: Le Baiser. Estimate $9,000,000–12,000,000.

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. However, Lautrec’s works from this time not only reveal a view of Paris as a centre of hedonistic pleasure and revelry, they also offer acute and perceptive observations of this society. This is particularly the case in his masterful paintings of the brothels, or maisons closes, of Montmartre, where he deliberately avoids glamourising his subject, offering instead the same privileged insight that he enjoyed.

Au lit: le baiser is considered to be one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s greatest works from his series depicting scenes of maisons closes. Painted in 1892, it is one of a series of four compositions in which Lautrec depicts a moment of tender intimacy between two women, and presents a viewpoint almost unique in his œuvre. The women are pictured in a loving embrace, with their bodies foreshortened so that all that is visible of them are their intertwined arms and their closely interlocked faces. The result is a painting of extraordinary intimacy, and one that is among Lautrec’s most psychologically insightful works.

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 series of four paintings of women together date from this period. The 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. The paintings that resulted consolidated his growing reputation and marked a highpoint of his achievements as an artist.    

Amanda Partridge is a specialist in the Impressionist and Modern Art department, Sotheby’s London.

Lead Image: A postcard of the Moulin Rouge, circa 1900.