The Streetwalker, c. 1890–1891

Details     Description
Artist Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Marie

Portraiture is fundamental to the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. From his most whimsical sketches to his elaborately prepared lithographs, all his images are based on closely observed, carefully noted figures with whom he had direct contact. Even in his most ambitious canvases, such as Ball at the Moulin Rouge, virtually all the participants can be identified. And if this vast accrual of personages has, for us in this century, merged into an anthology of all that was typical of Paris at the turn of the century, it is only at the sad cost of the merging of these assorted characters into typicalness, which was never Lautrec’s intent. For him the descriptive recording of the individual was paramount, even given his great, innovative powers to unite his surfaces through seemingly effortless patterns of plastic lines. Some hundred years after their creation, Lautrec’s posters advertising the nightclubs of the Moulin Rouge immediately bring to life La Goulue and Valentin le Désossé, Jean Avril in the Divan Japonais, or Aristide Bruant in the Ambassadeurs. Many of these people, along with others, appear and reappear in his works as they did in Lautrec’ late-night prowling in cafés and dance halls in Montmartre, a newly emerging quarter on the outskirts of Paris, after his move there in 1882 (he would have a series of apartments and studios there for the remainder of his life). Other people, such as the subject of this picture, appear only once, although from the reports of his friends—and from the pictures themselves—there is no doubt that the distinction between a model and an intimate (however fleeting the acquaintance) was never drawn. “He only made revealing portraits of people he professed to like.”

In several cases, such as here, the facts surrounding the person portrayed—for all the startling candor of the image—have been lost. This disarmingly pert yet somehow vulnerable woman is known only by the nickname she bore in honour of her pile of golden hair, swept up on the top of her head to resemble a helmet, “La Casque d'Or.” It was a style probably made fashionable among the demimonde of Montmartre by the dancer La Goulue (Louise Weber); we know that wigs in vivid colours were produced in imitation of it and worn by dancers in clubs. Her profession is known from the title the picture has borne since it was first shown at Joyant’s in 1914: “La Pierreuse” (The Streetwalker). The belief that she was called Amelie-Elie seems to be without substantial documentation.

She was tremendously successful at her profession, first as a semi-independent when her lover and protector (and probably pimp) was the infamous police assassin and anarchist Liaboeuf, who was eventually guillotined. Her allure was such that she caused fights on the streets among her pursuers, sometimes to the point of drawn knife and pistols; one incident resulted in two deaths and a wounded bystander. She became the submistress of a brothel on the rue des Rosiers; thereafter, presumably in the late 1890s, her fame (and, one sadly suspects, her fortunes) faded.

As engaging as these few biographical notes are in expanding our romantic sense of Lautrec and his life in the underworld of Paris, there is little in the picture itself to confirm a novelistic reading of it. The Casque d'Or sits in a garden before a patch of saplings, a dirt path extending up a hill on the right. Her legendary sensuality is denied by the high-collared, buttoned-up brown coat she wears; only the crest of her hair, beautifully worked in orange shadows and lavender highlights, suggests her flamboyant reputation. It is pulled down nearly over her strongly pencilled eyebrows; is it indeed a wig. Her limpid eyes are unblinking; her slightly crooked mouth is firmly set. She has the strong presence of nearly all of Lautrec’s portraits; many have attempted to characterize the compelling sense of presence that she conveys. Fritz Novotny comes closest, drawing an analogy between Lautrec and Chekhov. In his view, whatever their roles in the drama, the characters remain somehow outside, larger than the painting or play itself, through the power of their intrinsic reality. If the Casque d'Or moves us with her Piaf like poignancy, tempered by a determined tenacity, we must also draw back from her, because of the consistent balance of sympathy and distance with which Lautrec portrayed all his characters. His great genius is that he never merely characterized; he made his seemingly limitless fascination with his characters our own.

The hair and features are carefully modelled in fine, delineated strokes. The working of the surfaces releases outward into broader and looser application, the lower section of the coat and sleeve depending for definition almost entirely on the colour of the board support. The trees behind are treated with a broadness that suggests Lautrec’s knowledge of and admiration for the late works of Manet. The wall at the top of the hill is described by a few white and lavender strokes. The picture is structured with concentric degrees of focus, all other elements taking a supporting role to the definition of the face and head.

Although the work has been dated as late as c. 1898, Lautrec’s close friend and eventually his dealer, Maurice Joyant, certainly is correct in placing it at the beginning of the decade.  A date of c. 1890-91 was confirmed by Gale Barbara Murray in her thorough work on revised dating. We know that as early as 1887, Lautrec would often seat his subjects in the little and, by all evidence, rather squalid and undernourished garden of his neighbour Pére Forest in Montmartre. Several similar portraits of women show them seated against the foliage in an assortment of portable chairs; the Gasque d’Or sits on a metal folding park seat. The most striking comparison to this picture within the group is the portrait of Berthe La Sourde, who, like the Casque d’Or, was a creature most likely encountered at night. It is as though Lautrec wished to bring these women whom he had first met in the gaslight of the cafés or brothels into the clear light of day to better subject them to his penetrating observation.

He placed them in shadowless light and exposed their pallid complexions against the verdant green of Pere Forest's feeble saplings. The introduction of landscape was a passing thing for Lautrec, and he used the garden only as a foil to remove his subjects from their more natural setting of moving crowds. As he himself vigorously noted: “Only the figure exists; landscape is and only should be an accessory. The pure landscape painter is only a brute. Landscape can only serve to allow us to better comprehend the figures. The same is true of Millet, Renoir, Manet, and Whistler, and when the painters of figures do landscapes, they treat them like a face. The landscapes of Degas are remarkable; they are landscapes of a dream; those of Carriere are like human masks! Monet has abandoned the figure because he cannot do it!”


c. 1890–1891

Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on cardboard
Dimensions 64.8 x 53.3 cm