Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: Room 3 London and Paris 1870–1910

Toulouse-Lautrec and his British circles

The 1890s

This is the first of three rooms focusing on the 1890s. It introduces the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his relationship with art in Britain.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the British increasingly viewed French culture as epitomising modern decadence. Toulouse-Lautrec’s work was well known in Britain. His posters conjured up an exciting, exotic world of French theatrical artifice and glamour. The largest show of his work in his lifetime was held in London, at the Goupil Gallery in Regent Street in 1898; a number of works from that exhibition are shown here. Some critics dismissed Lautrec as eccentric and immoral, but there were enthusiastic comments as well.

The British artists Charles Conder and William Warrener moved to Paris and got to know Toulouse-Lautrec well. Some of their startling, unconventional paintings of the Moulin Rouge are displayed here. They presented a thrilling vision of modernity.

His subjects are unlikely to commend themselves to old ladies, but their execution is undeniably clever.
The Art Journal on Toulouse-Lautrec, 1898

Charles Conder The Moulin Rouge 1890 Oil on panel

The Moulin Rouge was an instant success when it opened in the Boulevard de Clichy in 1889. Conder here recreates its vibrancy and excitement. He shows two girls performing the quadrille on the large dance floor, which was surrounded by a promenade and tables.

Conder had arrived in Paris not long after the opening of the famous cabaret. According to the artist William Rothenstein, he visited it almost every night.

William Tom Warrener Quadrille I about 1890 Oil on canvas
William Tom Warrener Quadrille II about 1890 Oil on canvas

The Quadrille was a revival of the cancan. It was often performed on the central dance floor of the Moulin Rouge, a short distance from Warrener’s apartment in Montmartre. Warrener met Lautrec in the 1890. Like him, Warrener often chose his subjects from dance-halls and their flamboyant performers.

For these extraordinary works, Warrener used a ‘wet on wet’ technique, to allow the colours to run into each other, and then added splashes of bright colour.

Conder shows the celebrated dancer, La Goulue (the greedy one), also known as Louise Weber. Weber, who was paid a staggering 3,750 francs a week, was notorious for her provocative performances in Parisian cabarets. Her dancing was compared by one critic to ‘the most unrecognisable steps of the most vile savages’.

Charles Conder La Goulue about 1891 Black chalk on brown grey paper
Arthur Melville Dancers at the Moulin Rouge Paris 1889 Watercolours on paper

This watercolour was made on the pages of a sketchbook which Melville took with him on a trip to Paris in 1889. At first glance they appear abstract, but a closer look shows that Melville is suggesting the spectacle of dancers on stage. The vibrant colours recreate the effects of the electric lighting.

The Moulin Rouge attracted a clientele of mainly middle-class men, who came to see the evening spectacles and were occasionally on the prowl for women.

Charles Conder Dancer at the Moulin Rouge about 1891 Pen and ink on beige paper

Conder often visited the Moulin Rouge and its bars, music and the daily performances with his friends, the artists Toulouse-Lautrec and William Rothenstein. The outline of the famous windmill is visible in the background of this drawing, which is dominated by one of the professional dancers.

Walter Richard Sickert Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford 1892 Oil on canvas

Here the popular music hall performer, Minnie Cunningham, is singing ‘I’m an old hand at love, though I’m young in years’. Minnie was in fact nearly forty when she began performing in London’s music halls. Sickert greatly admired her, describing her as his ‘serio-comic sweetheart’.

She wears a brilliant red dress, echoing Lautrec’s poster of May Belfort, and contrasting with the sombre background of the music-hall.

William Rothenstein Parting at Morning 1891

This drawing of an emaciated woman was shown in an exhibition arranged by Lautrec in Paris in 1892. It caught the attention of Degas, who sent word that Rothenstein should call on him.

The verse inscribed at the bottom right is a quotation from a poem by Robert Browning. It could be taken to suggest either abandoned love or sexual liberation. Her appearance suggests that Rothenstein was trying to draw attention to the poverty on the streets of London and Paris.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Charles Conder: Study for Fashionable People at Les Ambassadeurs 1893 Oil on board

Charles Conder and Lautrec were friends during the 1890s; Lautrec occasionally used him as a model. Here he is dressed appropriately to mix with the wealthy clientele of Paris’s café-concerts. According to a critic of the day, they could ‘only be satisfied by certain specific conditions which live up to their blasé taste and rampant vanity’.

The final illustration, which showed a couple dining at Les Ambassadeurs, was published in Figaro Illustré in 1893.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine 1896 Colour lithograph

This poster was used to promote a tour of Britain by a group of French dancers in 1897. It was commissioned by Jane Avril (the first dancer on the left), one of Lautrec’s favourite dancers.

Wearing their characteristic hats, the four girls are shown performing the cancan. The performance itself was not well received by English critics; Arthur Symons thought Jane Avril had ‘an air of depraved virginity’.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Monsieur Samary, of the Comédie Française 1889 Essence on cardboard

Henry Samary is shown in the role of Raoul de Vaubert in the comedy romance Mademoiselle de la Seiglière by Jules Sandeau. The unusual perspective exaggerates the length of his caricatured figure, set against a vivid backdrop of greens and oranges.

Samary regularly appeared at the Comédie Français, where Lautrec would have seen his performance.

Cha-U-Kao’s name derives from a wild form of cancan called the chahut – meaning uproar or chaos. She was a well known performer at the Moulin Rouge and the Nouveau-Cirque in Paris. Unusually, Lautrec never showed her performing but instead captured her between performances, either in her dressing room or on the Paris streets.

Here (below left) she is wearing her trademark yellow ruffle, with a look of melancholic weariness far removed from the cheerful persona she adopted on stage.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec The Clowness Cha-U-Kao 1895 Essence on cardboard
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Confetti 1894 Lithograph

In this image (above right) a woman smiles blissfully, floating in the paper confetti that is being sprinkled over her. Ever since the 1892 Mardi Gras, plaster confetti had been banned in Paris as it had proved too dangerous when thrown near passers-by. This poster was commissioned by J &E Bella, a British stationery company, which had invented a safer form of confetti, manufactured from paper, rather than plaster.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Woman Curling her Hair 1896

This rapidly executed image of a woman combing her hair echoes a number of pastels by Degas showing women in private, washing or drying themselves. The images were often ambiguous, and it was unclear whether the women were prostitutes.

Woman Curling her Hair was included in Lautrec’s one-man show held in London in 1898. The Art Journal thought ‘His subjects are unlikely to commend themselves to old ladies, but their execution is undeniably clever’.