Despite being a perceptive painter of portraits, Lautrec received few society commissions for grand women, the femmes de luxe. Known for his penetrating eye and skill in characterisation, often verging on mockery, Lautrec gaineda reputation as an artist likely to depict his subjects as ugly or inelegant.The artist’s friend Maurice Joyant reflected:
It was in vain. After a few sessions, the great ladies, first attractedby a curious legend, fled from the tyranny of the painter, who cruellyand mercilessly stripped them down to a look that was not pretty.
Many of Lautrec’s female models were less fortunate in life: a choice that reflected his fascination with the city's underbelly and his rejection of academic art. One of Lautrec’s first important models was Carmen Gaudin, whom he met during his student days. He was enamoured by her golden hair and her modest, almost world-weary appearance. Over a number of years Lautrec created a series of paintings of Carmen. Early compositions were in a Realist style with a dark background, whilst later works were in an Impressionist manner using a lighter palette, or a Pointillist style incorporating smaller brushstrokes.
Lautrec sought out friends to pose as characters in narrative scenes inspired by tales of the demi-monde in music or literature. To this end, Jeanne Wenzagreed to sit for him, posing as a solitary drinker at a bar. As Lautrec furtherdeveloped his own artistic style, he became more interested in the personalitiesof his sitters, such as a courtesan posing as herself.