France 1864 – 1901
The clown Cha-U-Kao
[La clownesse Cha-U-Kao] 1895
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
The dancer Cha-U-Kao was one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s favourite models of the mid 1890s. She derived her nickname from the sensational chahut chaos—a high-kicking dance popular at Parisian dance halls of the time, including the newly established Moulin Rouge. Established in October 1889, this was the seediest of venues, and a place where Toulouse-Lautrec became a habitué.
Cha-U-Kao frequented the Moulin Rouge, as well as appearing at the Cirque Nouveau. She appeared in a series of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings dated 18951 and in his 1896 brothel series, Elles, where the artist had taken his cue from the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition of depicting prostitutes in their daily lives (following such examples as Kitagawa Utamaro’s Twelve hours in the Yoshiwara c. 1794).
Described unceremoniously by the artist as the ‘clown with tits’,2 the present painting is one of the more finished that Toulouse-Lautrec made. The composition is covered with visible brushstrokes—in a bright palette of various greens for the wall paper, a mixture of reds for the fabric of the couch, and blue over black for the clownesse’s costume. Most remarkable, and revealing Toulouse-Lautrec’s dextrous brushwork, are the additions of luminous, almost translucent yellows for Cha-U-Kao’s frills, and the pasty whites of her skin. The scene is an intimate one, where the clownesse is not under public gaze. The artist depicts her at an awkward moment, which is emphasised by the cropping of the voluminous folds of her gown to suggest they are billowing out further in the small space, and by the figure’s concentration on the task of dressing. On the wall is a reflection of a man, perhaps a client, although Cha-U-Kao was well known in lesbian circles. This suggests another of Cha-U-Kao’s roles.
In this world of the demimonde, Cha-U-Kao had once performed as a gymnast and had been extraordinarily subtle and slim, as evident in a photograph taken by Toulouse-Lautrec’s close companion Maurice Guilbert, for whom she would pose. By 1895 however, the agile slender figure has metamorphosed into that of the ageing, overweight clownesse.
In some ways Cha-U-Kao’s life—beginning with notoriety as a lithe-bodied performer, and ending with her sad demise and physical ruin—was a perfect example of Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in human physical destruction and decrepitude. This particular obsession of the artist was reinforced by his reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, first published in 1891 in English, and subsequently translated into French. Toulouse-Lautrec had become acquainted with Wilde, and painted Wilde’s portrait in Paris the same year as this portrait of Cha-U-Kao.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- M.G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son oeuvre, vol. 3, New York: Collectors Editions 1971, cats P580–P583, pp. 354–59.
- Letter to Maurice Joyant, Paris, 16 November 1895, letter 439, Herbert D. Shimmel (ed.), The letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1991, p. 283.