Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC | Redhead (Bathing) [Rousse (La toilette)]

Henri de TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
France 1864 – 1901

Redhead (Bathing)
[Rousse (La toilette)]
1889
oil on card
card 67.0 (h) x 54.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Pierre Goujon 1914
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Redhead (Bathing) had long been thought to be another example of the artist’s obsession with brothels at this time.1 More recent research, however, has suggested an earlier date of 1889 for this work. From his home on the Rue Caulaincourt, Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec wrote to an art dealer in August 1890 about two paintings he had recently shown in Brussels with Les XX (The Twenty), a group of avant-garde Belgian artists. He described the work, listed as Redhead in the catalogue, as being: ‘a red-haired woman seated on the floor, seen from the back, nude’.2 The bright palette of blues, reds, greens and yellows, with highlighting in white, along with the loose brushwork, would support this date. At this time Toulouse-Lautrec often painted a finished work on cardboard. His technique of adding turpentine to thin the oil paint allowed him to develop the sketchy look seen in this painting.

What may have prompted Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in the subject at this time was the group of pastels that Degas displayed in the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1886.3 In 1889, Toulouse-Lautrec met Degas through their mutual friend the bassoonist Désiré Dihau.Toulouse-Lautrec was already a fan of Degas, and since the mid 1880s had adopted the subject-matter and style of the older artist.

Redhead reveals the artist’s debt to Degas, but instead of the ungainly figures found in Degas’ pastels, Toulouse-Lautrec has created a beautiful, slender figure with her back to the viewer and her rich red hair tied in a knot. The artist had a predilection for red-headed models and it has been proposed that a favourite model, Carmen Gaudin (1866?–1920), sat for this particular painting.4

As there are no known preliminary drawings for this work, it is likely the composition was painted directly from life. The wicker furniture and wooden floorboards suggest the likely location was Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio, rather than a brothel. The selection of a favoured model, rather than a prostitute, would also indicate this. A photograph of the artist at work on Training the new girls by Valentin ‘the Boneless’ (Moulin Rouge)5 in his studio at 7 Rue Tourlaque at this time shows a similar wicker chair and wooden floor to those seen on the left of Redhead.6

Certain props and clothing, however, imply that the woman was a courtesan—her state of undress, partially wrapped in a towel, while evidently wearing at least one dark stocking. The rest of her clothing is piled on a cane chair nearby, indicating she has recently disrobed. These details, loaded with innuendo, suggest she is in the business of doing sexual favours—another ‘Nana’ with a sponge.7

Jane Kinsman

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. M.G. Dortu, Toulouse-Lautrec et son œuvre, vol. 3, New York: Collectors Editions 1971, cat. P609, p. 374; Toulouse-Lautrec, Paris: Réunion des muées nationaux; London: South Bank Centre 1992, cat. 128, p. 412.
  2. Letter 104, Lucien Goldschmidt and Herbert Schimmel (eds), Unpublished correspondence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, London: Phaidon 1969, p. 117; Toulouse-Lautrec, London: South Bank Centre; Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux 1991, cat. 128, p. 412. Gale Barbara Murray, ‘Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: a checklist of revised dates, 1878–1891’, Gazette des Beaux-arts, 6th series, vol. 95, 1980, pp. 77–90.
  3. Shown washing and drying themselves, they shocked many in the art world because of their lack of idealisation. See Jane Kinsman, Degas: the uncontested master, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2008, pp. 30–31.
  4. Julia Block Frey, ‘Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de’, in Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, vol. 31, London: Macmillan 1996, p. 215. For the dating of some other images of Carmen Gaudin, see Murray, pp. 90–96.
  5. Dressage des nouvelles, par Valentin le Désossé (Moulin Rouge), 1889–1890, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ill. in Gale B. Murray, Toulouse-Lautrec: The formative years 1878–1891, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991, ill. 80.
  6. Photograph by Maurice Joyant.
  7. Nana: the main character in Emile Zola’s novel of that name (pub. 1880).