An exquisite example of Toulouse-Lautrec’s insightful Parisian scenes, Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo captures a crucial moment in the history of French Modernism. Painted in 1895, the present work situates the eponymous Tristan Bernard at the helm of the cycling track which he operated from 1892.
Lautrec and Bernard were introduced at the home of collector and journalist Thadée Natanson and quickly became good friends, their jovial and quick-witted personalities aligning well. It was Bernard who would first introduce Lautrec to the world of cycling, though the artist was less interested in the sporting aspect than he was in capturing the spirit of the crowd and movement of the riders. The present work witnesses a proud Bernard gazing out across his domain, situated in thick of it all, quite literally standing in the middle of the course. Among his myriad careers as a lawyer, journalist and industrialist, Bernard was perhaps most gratified by his role as director during the triumphant early days of cycling in Paris.
Indeed, the course was a sight to behold (see figs. 1 & 2). Situated at the northwest corner of the city near Porte Maillot, the Vélodrome Buffalo introduced the nascent sport to eager French audiences who until this time had only witnessed the occasional race in neighboring parks. Droves of citizens began flocking to the outskirts of Paris to witness the new and thrilling diversion. “The Velodrome...in which thousands of spectators at a time crowded to bet on the riders sprinting elbow to elbow around the banked wooden track, was a cosmopolitan phenomenon. It celebrated the conjunction of man and machine, and what Hemingway called the ‘driving purity of speed’” (L. Marcus & D. Bradshaw, eds., Moving Modernisms: Motion, Technology, and Modernity, New York, 2016, p. 7). The sudden popularity of the sport spawned by the opening of the Vélodrome would result in the creation of the Tour de France in June of 1903 and give birth to a tradition which continues to captivate viewers around the world.
Cycling also helped define an era in which speed and motion—be it in the form of a picture, activity or mode of transportation—were synonymous with modernity. Like the steam engine trains and powerful ships which captivated the Impressionists in decades prior, the velocity and whirls of motion conjured by the bicycle harked a new period in the modern age. Avant-garde painters would come to view the sport as a beacon of societal and industrial progress, inspiring works by artists as diverse as Signac and Metzinger, as well as their Futurist contemporaries whose compositions were predicated on the power of machines (see figs. 3-5).
Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo bears all the hallmarks of Lautrec’s most defining works, from the radical touches of color and energetic brushwork—notably seen in the stands and sprinting cyclists—to the attuned psychological nuances of his subjects as attested by Bernard’s fast gaze and self-assured posture, to the artist’s quintessential encapsulation of the precise time and place in which the work was created. Perhaps most importantly, Lautrec’s Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo marks the genesis of a pastime which now stands as an integral and seemingly timeless aspect of the French identity—one bolstered by the rich history of cycling tours throughout the country and referenced in countless cultural phenomena since the work’s inception, like Jacques Tati’s bicycle-wielding character Monsieur Hulot and Brigitte Bardot’s iconic light blue cruiser in And God Created Woman (see fig. 6).
On loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for the last decade, the present work originally belonged by Tristan Bernard himself and comes to the market for the first time in more than seventy years from an illustrious family collection.
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