Toulouse-Lautrec and the Estranged Elegance of “The Laundress”
Despite the many infamous painters of the Post-Impressionist movement, maybe the most unlikely stand-out was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His aristocratic background and short-stature, (he only stood about 4ft 8inches) was perhaps the unique combination that informed his art, and is what ultimately made him an icon. During his life time, Lautrec contributed approximately 737 painted works; his most famous depicted the night life of the theater, both in Paris and London, and frequently featured mysterious redheads who exemplified his fascination of the urban underclass.
Most of Lautrec’s works were created in the central hub of art at the time, Paris. During the 19th century Paris was a haven for bohemian folk, writers, musicians, actors, and painters. It was here that Lautrec rubbed shoulders with infamous artists, such as Emile Bernard, Vincent Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde.
Unfortunately Lautrec was not without his own suffering. Due to his short stature, he was often mocked and ridiculed. As a child he fractured his right leg at the thigh, and likely due to an undiagnosed genetic disorder (his parents were cousins), his legs did not heal, and in fact ceased to grow. Despite his talent far outreaching his short size, many people could not look past his physical appearance. In a way (as with many great artists) we have those who ridiculed him to thank for his art. Since Lautrec could not participate in many of the social activities other men his age enjoyed, he devoted his life to art, producing the beautiful pieces we have today.
My personal favorite Lautrec paintings is the The Laundress, a stunning piece sold in 2005 for an at-the-time record of $22.4 million. This relatively dark piece depicts a beautiful young woman, her bright red hair a sharp contrast to her figure, clothed in white and bathed in shadow. Her face is turned outwards, clearly looking beyond her current situation, seeking something more for her life. It is a piece of haunting beauty, and estranged elegance despite – or maybe due to – the fact that laundresses often worked as prostitutes by night during this time in Paris.
Carmen Gaudin is the laundress/prostitute who most likely sat for this painting and at least 13 others. Lautrec’s fascination with redheads (both natural and artificial) is well known and documented: his preference is said to come from a special “odor” he thought redheads gave off that he found arousing. He was also mesmerized by their “absolute gold” hair.
Painting brown-haired women, for example, with ordinary lives did not interest Lautrec who was straying as far as he could from his aristocratic background by the time he painted The Laundress. As such, Lautrec never portrayed his ladies-of-the-night models in a demeaning way. His paintings are from the perspective of an objective observer whose aim is to accurately capture the spirit of the women with whom he identified with sans moral judgment (even going so far as to ignore the fact that other artists of the time looked down on his work, especially his poster art).
Lautrec died in 1901, largely from the effects of excessive alcohol consumption (he allegedly downed an average of six bottles of absinthe a day). Additionally, his time spent with prostitutes exposed him to syphilis, and maybe due to both affiliations his final years were especially tragic since both are known to cause mental instability.
Please comment about any of Lautrec’s work that you think has a particularly defiant quality to it.