Between the years of 1892 and 1895, Lautrec was a regular visitor to the maisons closes (brothels) of the rue des Moulins, the rue d'Ambroise and the rue Joubert, observing, sketching, and often living with the prostitutes for weeks at a time. Lautrec devoted Elles, an entire suite of prints to his experience at the brothels, seeking to portray them without the morality or overt eroticism common in other artists' depictions of similar subjects. Rather, he showed his subjects engaged in the everyday activities of grooming, bathing, dressing and sleeping. The one print that is an exception of the general, anonymous tone of the portfolio, and the only image which does not depict a prostitute, is the portrait of Cha-u-ka-o, a dancer (La Clownesse assise). Known for her acrobatic versions of erotic dances, Cha-u-ka-o is linked to the other subjects of the portfoilo as a practitioner of a form of popular entertainment frowned upon, but often patronized by the upper classes.
Executed in 1896 and published in an edition of 100 the same year, this portfolio is widely regarded as the artist's definitive work from this period, and one of the pinnacles of color lithography. Among the most prolific lithographers of the nineteenth century, Lautrec regarded this medium as a primary means of artistic expression in that it afforded him a greater flexibility and control than other graphic media. In these superb examples, Lautrec has combined the evocative and powerful primacy of line and the use of broad planes of color (derived from the immensely popular and influential Japanese woodblock prints) with original compositional designs and his extraordinary command of the technique. Often, bright colors are defused by splatterwork which promotes a more painterly approach to lithography. To achieve these textural effects, Lautrec used a toothbrush as well as the conventional lithographic crayons and fine brushes for the lines and detail work. The Elles suite highlights not only Lautrec's mastery of color lithography, but also his exploration of color, line, texture and paper.
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