Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

A-Montrouge Rosa la Rouge, 1886-1887, Oil on Canvas, 28.5 x 19.25” (72.4 x 48.9 cm), The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania

You are a young man of some personal means because your family is important, so important it looks to itself to grow. Your grandmothers are sisters, your parents, first cousins. You are an aristocrat all the way to your bones, specifically your right and left femurs which shatter like chicken sticks when you are thirteen and fourteen. They never heal together as they should. Happy Birthday, little guy.

Little forever. Because your family is important, your mother can ensure you study with the great Bonnard who paints loving portraits of his beautiful wife. He teaches you, helps you grow in your art and the great artist and his beautiful wife pity you but they do not love you. You are grotesque with the torso of a grown man and the legs of a child. And so you slip each day after work into the streets of Montmarte, adventure in the grand saloons and brothels and cabarets where even the truly lovely are grotesque just because they are so large in their beauty and appetite.

Always you are drawn to the women. It is the women you most admire for their strength and mystery. Your men are cut-outs, but your women sing with power and strength and tragedy and character. Whores and dancers are your favorites, usually, but this woman you will paint more than once. She is harsh; she is thin. She shares nothing with the languid

La Goulue, Oil on Canvas, 31.25 x 23.25″ (79.4 x 59cm). Museum of Modern Art. New York City

whores who drape themselves across the bed in camouflage like pillows made of flesh and blood and cake. She is nothing like the laughing dancer La Goulue, “the Glutton,” who invented the Can-Can, who swirls from table to table downing the drinks of the gentlemen there, flashing her panties to a lucky few, letting them see the bright embroidered heart that is her trademark. The Glutton is the most famous person in all of Paris, while Rosa is just another woman in the world.

She is Rosa la Rouge. Her real name is Carmen Gaudin. She is a laundress and she will be your favorite model until 1887 when she will return to obscurity. Some will claim she is a prostitute as well, and this disturbs you. You have never made a secret of your fascination for prostitutes. If she were one, you would simply say so. Poor girl, to be so tarnished. This picture may be part of the problem as it was inspired by a friend’s song about a prostitute who kills her lover. The woman in this portrait is certainly strong enough to kill anybody. This is what fascinates you. She has nothing. Nothing! No family, no talents, no future. Yet there is that quality and strength within her that draws your eye to paint her again and again. She is like a razor-edged blade in a drawer full of spoons. This is a woman presented with zero sentimentality, zero judgment, and zero design. It is your greatest act of love. Look at her. Is she not real? Is she not complete? She is angry, and weary, and filled with contempt. And she is unbowed.

By 1887 you are done with her. You come from a great family. You are a great drunk. You sit in your favored seat at the Moulin Rouge and watch Jane Avril dance. At your table you look just like a normal man. You can drink and drink and imagine that no one knows your deformities. Your friends are many, but they laugh at you, as well. Only the prostitutes can be counted on now, for they look at all men equally, as meat and nothing more, a meal ticket. You show that in your art because you are sensitive to these things being from a great family. A family that will soon come for you and scrape the syphilitic, drunken greatness of you off the urine stained floor and carry you to a sanitarium. You have created over seven hundred canvases, nearly three hundred watercolors, hundreds of prints and posters, and you are only thirty-six years old. And as you are dying do you think again of what you said when you first saw your favorite model? You turned to your friend Henri Rachou and said, “She’s a stunner! What an air of spoiled meat she has!”

Now you are dead at thirty-six. And Carmen is immortal, which is good for I prefer her company to yours.

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2 Responses to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

  1. CMStewart says:

    I can see Rosa twist her head, chest rising and falling, and I can hear her breathe through her nose. So Henri knew her intimately, and he wanted me to know this.

  2. Pingback: Aubrey Beardsley | The Automat

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