Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC | The clown Cha-U-Kao [La clownesse Cha-U-Kao]

France 1864 – 1901

The clown Cha-U-Kao
[La clownesse Cha-U-Kao]
oil on card
card 64.0 (h) x 49.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Count Isaac de Camondo 1911
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In this interior scene, a dancer known as Cha- U- Kao, is fastening a translucent yellow frill around her waist. Her theatrical role as a female clown or clownesse is indicated by her tiered white wig with yellow hair ribbon and pasty white make-up. A small table completes the scene.

Cha-U- Kao, was one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favourite models of the mid 1890s.  She appeared at the Moulin Rouge and the Cirque Nouveau and derived her nickname from a high-kicking dance popular in Parisian dance halls.

The canvas is covered in Toulouse-Lautrec’s expressive brushwork from the blue over black of the woman’s costume to the red-brown couch she is sitting on. The rear wall is painted in vertical green brushstrokes over an orange under-layer.

The clownesse is captured in a private moment attending to her costume. A man, possibly a client, is reflected in a mirror on the back wall. Cha-U- Kao was also well-known in lesbian circles. Her earlier life spent as a lithe and agile gymnast provides a stark contrast to the ageing, fuller figure depicted here. Lautrec’s preoccupation with physical destruction and the seedy side of Parisian life is reflected in his numerous paintings and colour lithographs recording the sad deterioration of the clownesse.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay