Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC | The two friends [Les deux amies]

Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
France 1864 – 1901

The two friends [Les deux amies] 1894 oil on cardboard
47.9 (h) x 34.0 (w) cm
Reference: Dortu P.549 Tate Bequest by Montague Shearman through the Contemporary Art Society, 1940

Fin-de-siècle Paris was the capital of lesbianism. However, until the mid century, and despite the acknowledgment of male homosexuality, female homosexuality had been considered absurd. This scepticism was grounded in the fact that many nineteenth-century psychologists and medical professionals did not believe in female sexual impulse. Thus, when instances of lesbianism were reported in Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet’s 1836 study of prostitution in Paris,[1] lesbianism came to be understood as an activity associated with the Montmartre counterculture and, in particular, with prostitution. Indeed, deluxe houses of tolerance often functioned as specialty brothels that catered for a clientele with particular fetishes, such as tableaux vivants where ‘inmates, entirely naked, abandon themselves to homosexual practices on a large black velvet carpet or in rooms hung with black satin to bring out the whiteness of their bodies’.[2] This was lesbianism as commercial spectacle, performed within a closed environment for male consumption.

Lesbianism in the public realm was a sexual preference that, while common, was negatively judged by French conservative society and for this reason was conducted with subtlety and partially obscured. In fact, many of the biggest stars of the Parisian circuses, dance halls and café-concerts were lesbian or bisexual, including Jane Avril and May Milton (whom, it is generally agreed, had a short-lived love affair), Sarah Bernhardt, Cha-u-ka-o and La Goulue. Whilst these Montmartre celebrities were depicted on multiple occasions by Lautrec, the artist chose to represent them as skilled professionals, never exploiting their sexual preference as the main focus of his compositions. So subtle was Lautrec in his treatment of these themes that art historians such as David Sweetman have gone so far as to argue that ‘It comes as something of a shock to realise that most of the women … were in fact lesbians and that quite a few were lovers. So many, in fact, that it is possible to argue that lesbianism is the hidden subtext of much of the art of Henri’s mature years.’[3]

In The two friends [Les deux amies]Lautrec depicts two prostitutes sitting in the waiting room of a brothel during a brief interval between clients. The women’s skin is rendered in an austere white paint that contrasts sharply with their surrounds.
This exaggerated whiteness – heavily made up with blue eye-shadow and red lipstick – results in two mask-like faces and a concealment of true identity.


The prostitutes appear as geishas within an overly decorated oriental waiting room: maroon curtains and a mirror hang on the wall, the sofa is swathed in dark red velvet with a large purple cushion, the carpet is a garish bright red. The gaudy theatrics of the room establish an atmosphere of tawdry luxury, a staged affluence that corresponds to reportage of the interiors of such houses of tolerance in the writings of the day.

The two are a lesbian couple. One places her right arm across the other in a caring, cradling action that draws their bodies closer together. The two friends is not lesbianism as spectacle for the male gaze, nor is it celebrity lesbianism concealed, but a portrayal of two unknown women sharing a moment of private tenderness and meaningful sincerity. With his sensitive treatment of this theme Lautrec reveals a glimpse of real intimacy in an otherwise constructed world of sexual extravagance and simulated fantasy.

JB

 

[1]See Jane Kinsman, ‘Houses of tolerance’, infra, p. 109–119.

[2] Alain Corbin Women for hire: Prostitution and sexuality in France after 1850, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 124, as cited in Ashley Bruckbauer, Flânerie and the lesbian gaze: Female spectatorship in the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, The Laurie and Bobbi Weil Undergraduate Research Awards Documents, Paper 3, 2009, p. 5.

[3]David Sweetman, Explosive acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénéon and the art and anarchy of the fin de siècle, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999, p. 358.

Fin-de-siècle Paris was the capital of lesbianism. However, until the mid century, and despite the acknowledgment of male homosexuality, female homosexuality had been considered absurd. This scepticism was grounded in the fact that many nineteenth-century psychologists and medical professionals did not believe in female sexual impulse. Thus, when instances of lesbianism were reported in Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet’s 1836 study of prostitution in Paris,[1] lesbianism came to be understood as an activity associated with the Montmartre counterculture and, in particular, with prostitution. Indeed, deluxe houses of tolerance often functioned as specialty brothels that catered for a clientele with particular fetishes, such as tableaux vivants where ‘inmates, entirely naked, abandon themselves to homosexual practices on a large black velvet carpet or in rooms hung with black satin to bring out the whiteness of their bodies’.[2] This was lesbianism as commercial spectacle, performed within a closed environment for male consumption.

Lesbianism in the public realm was a sexual preference that, while common, was negatively judged by French conservative society and for this reason was conducted with subtlety and partially obscured. In fact, many of the biggest stars of the Parisian circuses, dance halls and café-concerts were lesbian or bisexual, including Jane Avril and May Milton (whom, it is generally agreed, had a short-lived love affair), Sarah Bernhardt, Cha-u-ka-o and La Goulue. Whilst these Montmartre celebrities were depicted on multiple occasions by Lautrec, the artist chose to represent them as skilled professionals, never exploiting their sexual preference as the main focus of his compositions. So subtle was Lautrec in his treatment of these themes that art historians such as David Sweetman have gone so far as to argue that ‘It comes as something of a shock to realise that most of the women … were in fact lesbians and that quite a few were lovers. So many, in fact, that it is possible to argue that lesbianism is the hidden subtext of much of the art of Henri’s mature years.’[3]

In The two friends [Les deux amies]Lautrec depicts two prostitutes sitting in the waiting room of a brothel during a brief interval between clients. The women’s skin is rendered in an austere white paint that contrasts sharply with their surrounds.
This exaggerated whiteness – heavily made up with blue eye-shadow and red lipstick – results in two mask-like faces and a concealment of true identity.


The prostitutes appear as geishas within an overly decorated oriental waiting room: maroon curtains and a mirror hang on the wall, the sofa is swathed in dark red velvet with a large purple cushion, the carpet is a garish bright red. The gaudy theatrics of the room establish an atmosphere of tawdry luxury, a staged affluence that corresponds to reportage of the interiors of such houses of tolerance in the writings of the day.

The two are a lesbian couple. One places her right arm across the other in a caring, cradling action that draws their bodies closer together. The two friends is not lesbianism as spectacle for the male gaze, nor is it celebrity lesbianism concealed, but a portrayal of two unknown women sharing a moment of private tenderness and meaningful sincerity. With his sensitive treatment of this theme Lautrec reveals a glimpse of real intimacy in an otherwise constructed world of sexual extravagance and simulated fantasy.

JB

 

[1]See Jane Kinsman, ‘Houses of tolerance’, infra, p. 109–119.

[2] Alain Corbin Women for hire: Prostitution and sexuality in France after 1850, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 124, as cited in Ashley Bruckbauer, Flânerie and the lesbian gaze: Female spectatorship in the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, The Laurie and Bobbi Weil Undergraduate Research Awards Documents, Paper 3, 2009, p. 5.

[3]David Sweetman, Explosive acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénéon and the art and anarchy of the fin de siècle, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999, p. 358.

Fin-de-siècle Paris was the capital of lesbianism. However, until the mid century, and despite the acknowledgment of male homosexuality, female homosexuality had been considered absurd. This scepticism was grounded in the fact that many nineteenth-century psychologists and medical professionals did not believe in female sexual impulse. Thus, when instances of lesbianism were reported in Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet’s 1836 study of prostitution in Paris,[1] lesbianism came to be understood as an activity associated with the Montmartre counterculture and, in particular, with prostitution. Indeed, deluxe houses of tolerance often functioned as specialty brothels that catered for a clientele with particular fetishes, such as tableaux vivants where ‘inmates, entirely naked, abandon themselves to homosexual practices on a large black velvet carpet or in rooms hung with black satin to bring out the whiteness of their bodies’.[2] This was lesbianism as commercial spectacle, performed within a closed environment for male consumption.

Lesbianism in the public realm was a sexual preference that, while common, was negatively judged by French conservative society and for this reason was conducted with subtlety and partially obscured. In fact, many of the biggest stars of the Parisian circuses, dance halls and café-concerts were lesbian or bisexual, including Jane Avril and May Milton (whom, it is generally agreed, had a short-lived love affair), Sarah Bernhardt, Cha-u-ka-o and La Goulue. Whilst these Montmartre celebrities were depicted on multiple occasions by Lautrec, the artist chose to represent them as skilled professionals, never exploiting their sexual preference as the main focus of his compositions. So subtle was Lautrec in his treatment of these themes that art historians such as David Sweetman have gone so far as to argue that ‘It comes as something of a shock to realise that most of the women … were in fact lesbians and that quite a few were lovers. So many, in fact, that it is possible to argue that lesbianism is the hidden subtext of much of the art of Henri’s mature years.’[3]

In The two friends [Les deux amies]Lautrec depicts two prostitutes sitting in the waiting room of a brothel during a brief interval between clients. The women’s skin is rendered in an austere white paint that contrasts sharply with their surrounds.
This exaggerated whiteness – heavily made up with blue eye-shadow and red lipstick – results in two mask-like faces and a concealment of true identity.


The prostitutes appear as geishas within an overly decorated oriental waiting room: maroon curtains and a mirror hang on the wall, the sofa is swathed in dark red velvet with a large purple cushion, the carpet is a garish bright red. The gaudy theatrics of the room establish an atmosphere of tawdry luxury, a staged affluence that corresponds to reportage of the interiors of such houses of tolerance in the writings of the day.

The two are a lesbian couple. One places her right arm across the other in a caring, cradling action that draws their bodies closer together. The two friends is not lesbianism as spectacle for the male gaze, nor is it celebrity lesbianism concealed, but a portrayal of two unknown women sharing a moment of private tenderness and meaningful sincerity. With his sensitive treatment of this theme Lautrec reveals a glimpse of real intimacy in an otherwise constructed world of sexual extravagance and simulated fantasy.

JB

 

[1]See Jane Kinsman, ‘Houses of tolerance’, infra, p. 109–119.

[2] Alain Corbin Women for hire: Prostitution and sexuality in France after 1850, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 124, as cited in Ashley Bruckbauer, Flânerie and the lesbian gaze: Female spectatorship in the work of Toulouse-Lautrec, The Laurie and Bobbi Weil Undergraduate Research Awards Documents, Paper 3, 2009, p. 5.

[3]David Sweetman, Explosive acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénéon and the art and anarchy of the fin de siècle, New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999, p. 358.




Image detail: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge [La Goulue entrant au Moulin Rouge] 1892
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Mrs David M. Levy