Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC | Woman with a black boa [Femme au boa noir]

Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
France 1864 – 1901

Woman with a black boa
[Femme au boa noir]
1892
oil on card
panel 53.0 (h) x 41.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Countess Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec, the artist's mother 1902
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Women who have exaggerated the fashion to the extent of perverting its charm and totally destroying its aims are ostentatiously sweeping the floor with their trains and the fringe of their shawls; they come and go, pass and repass, opening an astonished eye like animals, giving an impression of total blindness, but missing nothing … She is a perfect image of the savagery that lurks in the midst of civilization. She has her own sort of beauty which comes to her from Evil always devoid of spirituality, but sometimes tinged with a weariness which imitates true melancholy.—Charles Baudelaire1

Exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in London in 1898, this work was listed as Portrait of a girl (no. 35).2 The pallid unnamed face which gazes out from the mass of feathers and tulle has a quizzical expression. Her face coated with rice-powder, her painted eyebrows arched, her hair arranged in a rough bun, the fabrics and ruches of her gown suggest the fabulous artifice of the Parisian demimonde.

In this portrait of remarkable economy, Toulouse-Lautrec describes only the essential features of his subject, with just enough detail to capture her personality. The painting is constructed of exceptionally flamboyant, virtuoso brushstrokes. By thinning his paint with turpentine and applying it as a wash, the fluid colours dried rapidly and ensured that Toulouse-Lautrec could work quickly, without having to wait for paint to dry. On a support of brown card, he has sketched the figure using blue oil paint. He has used a thicker brush, and wash-like black and green, to develop the structure of the figure. Streaks of emerald green, blue-grey and electric blue provide substance—around her neck they replicate the texture of the boa and gauzy fabrics. The mid-section of the painting is built up with rich peacock-like colours. The woman’s hair is a delightfully unruly combination of olive and browns, highlighted with purple and maroon and touches of pale pink. Only around her face does the paint actually cover the card.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s thin, spare colours and chalky, matt surfaces suited the darkened, interior scenes he painted. This composition is remarkably traditional: a three-quarter figure, facing front, with none of the cropping and other elements which suggest the fleeting encounters of the cabaret and dance halls, the brothels and cafes inhabited by the artist. The psychological acuity with which Toulouse-Lautrec captures facial expressions and body language—his ability to get behind the surface to expose the petty vanities, and reveal instead his models’ vulnerabilities and vices—is what makes his works so powerful.3 Toulouse-Lautrec’s enigmatic woman, with her knowing smile, has the features of a true femme fatale.

Lucina Ward

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

  1. Charles Baudelaire and Jonathan Mayne (trans. and ed.), The painter of modern life and other essays, London: Phaidon 1964, pp. 35–36. Baudelaire, XII: Women and prostitutes,The painter of modern life 1863.
  2. Toulouse-Lautrec, London: South Bank Centre; Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux 1991, p. 540.
  3. Julia Bloch Frey, ‘Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de’, in Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, vol. 31, London: Macmillan, 1986, p. 213.