Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC | These ladies in the refectory [Ces dames au réfectoire]

Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
France 1864 – 1901

These ladies in the refectory [Ces dames au réfectoire] c.1893–94 oil on cardboard
60.3 (h) x 80.5 (w) cm
Reference: Dortu P.499 Szépmuvészeti Muzéum, Budapest Purchased from the exhibition of the Ernst Museum, 1913

These ladies in the refectory [Ces dames au réfectoire], painted in the middle of Lautrec’s artistic campaign in the brothels of Paris, most clearly demonstrates the ease with which he engaged with prostitutes. While his friend and partner-in-crime, the writer Roman Coolus, refuted the claim that the two ever actually lived in the brothels, the point becomes moot as this painting shows the level of trust garnered by Lautrec. The artist was obviously able to study his subjects, at their ease during their rare moments of leisure.

Lautrec strove to achieve something beyond that of a ‘tourist’. Many authors of the day, including Emile Zola and the Goncourt brothers, used prostitution as a social allegory; the prostitute became a metaphor for society in decline and the rotten state of fin-de-siècle
Paris. The artists, too, who preceded Lautrec – Gustave Courbet’s titillating images, Edouard Manet’s voyeurism, and even Edgar Degas’ raw personal images, never meant for public exhibition – all subscribed to a different intent from Lautrec’s. Even his contemporaries, such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, felt the need to leave Paris in search of a pure reality and real people – Gauguin to Brittany and then the South Seas, and Van Gogh to Arles. Lautrec found those raw qualities right in the heart of Paris in the routine of daily life in a brothel.

The artist concentrated on capturing the often depressing realities of this aspect of modern life, yet his works shift in tone from picture to picture – sometimes stately, other times tragic, droll or impish, and only occasionally salacious. In 1894 Edmond de Goncourt complained of Lautrec’s approach: ‘One has no right to push the cult of the ugly so far.’[1] This brutal frankness and untempered, even exaggerated candour was used by Lautrec to great effect in These ladies in the refectory. He stresses the pedestrian nature of the scene – the modest repast, the women’s hunched shoulders and tightly folded arms clearly reinforce an air of resignation and boredom. The banality of the bordello scene is writ large on the faces of many of Lautrec’s prostitutes, especially those depicted here. Lautrec is known to have described such faces as ‘gargoyles’.[2]

Intense patches of colour are used in the juxtaposition of the bright pink gowns against the luminous, ghostly white of the women’s faces. Both stand out against the dull brown of the bare cardboard that simulates the wall behind, creating the especially striking mask-like faces of the models.

The mirror behind the women serves to repeat the bleak face and hunched shoulders and, along with the white sleeve of another red-headed prostitute on the far left, it suggests that there are women lingering in every direction. The almost vicious reflection of the woman with grotesque and swollen lips, like the artist’s own, who sits opposite the trio out of the frame of the canvas, seems at odds with the languid faded beauty at the head of the table. That once beautiful prostitute is also the subject of a drawing, Head of woman
in profile to the left
[Profil de femme].[3]

SM

 

[1]Quoted in Charles F. Stuckey, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1979,
p. 229.

[2]Quoted in Stuckey, p. 229.

[3]See p. 129. 

These ladies in the refectory [Ces dames au réfectoire], painted in the middle of Lautrec’s artistic campaign in the brothels of Paris, most clearly demonstrates the ease with which he engaged with prostitutes. While his friend and partner-in-crime, the writer Roman Coolus, refuted the claim that the two ever actually lived in the brothels, the point becomes moot as this painting shows the level of trust garnered by Lautrec. The artist was obviously able to study his subjects, at their ease during their rare moments of leisure.

Lautrec strove to achieve something beyond that of a ‘tourist’. Many authors of the day, including Emile Zola and the Goncourt brothers, used prostitution as a social allegory; the prostitute became a metaphor for society in decline and the rotten state of fin-de-siècle
Paris. The artists, too, who preceded Lautrec – Gustave Courbet’s titillating images, Edouard Manet’s voyeurism, and even Edgar Degas’ raw personal images, never meant for public exhibition – all subscribed to a different intent from Lautrec’s. Even his contemporaries, such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, felt the need to leave Paris in search of a pure reality and real people – Gauguin to Brittany and then the South Seas, and Van Gogh to Arles. Lautrec found those raw qualities right in the heart of Paris in the routine of daily life in a brothel.

The artist concentrated on capturing the often depressing realities of this aspect of modern life, yet his works shift in tone from picture to picture – sometimes stately, other times tragic, droll or impish, and only occasionally salacious. In 1894 Edmond de Goncourt complained of Lautrec’s approach: ‘One has no right to push the cult of the ugly so far.’[1] This brutal frankness and untempered, even exaggerated candour was used by Lautrec to great effect in These ladies in the refectory. He stresses the pedestrian nature of the scene – the modest repast, the women’s hunched shoulders and tightly folded arms clearly reinforce an air of resignation and boredom. The banality of the bordello scene is writ large on the faces of many of Lautrec’s prostitutes, especially those depicted here. Lautrec is known to have described such faces as ‘gargoyles’.[2]

Intense patches of colour are used in the juxtaposition of the bright pink gowns against the luminous, ghostly white of the women’s faces. Both stand out against the dull brown of the bare cardboard that simulates the wall behind, creating the especially striking mask-like faces of the models.

The mirror behind the women serves to repeat the bleak face and hunched shoulders and, along with the white sleeve of another red-headed prostitute on the far left, it suggests that there are women lingering in every direction. The almost vicious reflection of the woman with grotesque and swollen lips, like the artist’s own, who sits opposite the trio out of the frame of the canvas, seems at odds with the languid faded beauty at the head of the table. That once beautiful prostitute is also the subject of a drawing, Head of woman
in profile to the left
[Profil de femme].[3]

SM

 

[1]Quoted in Charles F. Stuckey, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1979,
p. 229.

[2]Quoted in Stuckey, p. 229.

[3]See p. 129. 

These ladies in the refectory [Ces dames au réfectoire], painted in the middle of Lautrec’s artistic campaign in the brothels of Paris, most clearly demonstrates the ease with which he engaged with prostitutes. While his friend and partner-in-crime, the writer Roman Coolus, refuted the claim that the two ever actually lived in the brothels, the point becomes moot as this painting shows the level of trust garnered by Lautrec. The artist was obviously able to study his subjects, at their ease during their rare moments of leisure.

Lautrec strove to achieve something beyond that of a ‘tourist’. Many authors of the day, including Emile Zola and the Goncourt brothers, used prostitution as a social allegory; the prostitute became a metaphor for society in decline and the rotten state of fin-de-siècle
Paris. The artists, too, who preceded Lautrec – Gustave Courbet’s titillating images, Edouard Manet’s voyeurism, and even Edgar Degas’ raw personal images, never meant for public exhibition – all subscribed to a different intent from Lautrec’s. Even his contemporaries, such as Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, felt the need to leave Paris in search of a pure reality and real people – Gauguin to Brittany and then the South Seas, and Van Gogh to Arles. Lautrec found those raw qualities right in the heart of Paris in the routine of daily life in a brothel.

The artist concentrated on capturing the often depressing realities of this aspect of modern life, yet his works shift in tone from picture to picture – sometimes stately, other times tragic, droll or impish, and only occasionally salacious. In 1894 Edmond de Goncourt complained of Lautrec’s approach: ‘One has no right to push the cult of the ugly so far.’[1] This brutal frankness and untempered, even exaggerated candour was used by Lautrec to great effect in These ladies in the refectory. He stresses the pedestrian nature of the scene – the modest repast, the women’s hunched shoulders and tightly folded arms clearly reinforce an air of resignation and boredom. The banality of the bordello scene is writ large on the faces of many of Lautrec’s prostitutes, especially those depicted here. Lautrec is known to have described such faces as ‘gargoyles’.[2]

Intense patches of colour are used in the juxtaposition of the bright pink gowns against the luminous, ghostly white of the women’s faces. Both stand out against the dull brown of the bare cardboard that simulates the wall behind, creating the especially striking mask-like faces of the models.

The mirror behind the women serves to repeat the bleak face and hunched shoulders and, along with the white sleeve of another red-headed prostitute on the far left, it suggests that there are women lingering in every direction. The almost vicious reflection of the woman with grotesque and swollen lips, like the artist’s own, who sits opposite the trio out of the frame of the canvas, seems at odds with the languid faded beauty at the head of the table. That once beautiful prostitute is also the subject of a drawing, Head of woman
in profile to the left
[Profil de femme].[3]

SM

 

[1]Quoted in Charles F. Stuckey, Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1979,
p. 229.

[2]Quoted in Stuckey, p. 229.

[3]See p. 129. 




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