Woman before a Mirror, 1897

Details     Description
Artist Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Marie

By the early 1980s, Lautrec becma a stesy visitor to the  celebrated brothels of Paris on the rue des Moulins, the rue des Rosiers, and the rue Richelieu, often taking a room in those luxurious palaces of pleasure for several days, receiving his friends much as he would in his apartment or studio. In 1892 he even designed, at the behest of the proprietress, a room a la Pompadour for an establishment on the rue d’Amboise. The indolent, cloistered lives of prostitutes became the subject of some of his most powerful works, about fifty paintings in all, as well as numerous drawings and prints, including a complex set of lithographs done in series, Elles, of 1896.

To what degree the intention of these sustained visits was, in part, amorous is far from clear; Lautrecs sexuality continues to be as much analysed as it is undefined. But there can be no doubt that he struck up an easy and confidential relationship with these women who allowed him complete access to their twilight world of idle anticipation, naive gaity, and physical intimacy, one to another. Prostitution as a subject for art was, of course, not novel in late nineteenth-century France. Much has been written about the precedents for Lautrec’s pictures in the literature of Baudelaire and Zola or, more specifically, in the work of those artists he admired; Manet, Constantin Guys and, above all, Degas. But if Manet’s Olympia (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and Nana  were done, in part, to confront the falseness of bourgeois standards, just as numerous artists in the 1890s would treat the theme with social and moralizing intent, Lautrec, who drew upon this underworld more than perhaps any other artist in the nineteenth century, consistently withheld judgment, not even straying into the indulgent humour with which Degas showed the madams and mademoiselles in his monotypes.

Here, a woman, nude except for her black knee stockings, stands firmly planted in her room, gazing at herself in a full-length pier glass. Her abundant red hair is knotted high on her head; the pallid whiteness of her skin assures us that her hair is its natural colour. She holds a nightgown in her right hand; her peignoir with embroidered cuffs is flung over the seat of an overstuffed neo-rococo love seat with a carved wooden dolphin ornament. The walls are covered with a rich scarlet cloth, the same material that seems to form a partial baldachin over the head of the unmade bed. The room is carpeted in a dense red and green woven fabric; its reflection in the mirror catches the light across the room (out of our sight) to suggest a window to the left.

It is a disarmingly still and neutral image. The woman’ ample hips and loosely muscled back may suggest a certain poignancy of age, yet the image she contemplates in the mirror is firm and youthful. Her upright stance is that of a model holding a pose—and we know Lautrec would hire women in the brothels for the day to pose for him—with neither coyness nor posturing, Only the heap of bed-clothes at the top of the bed introduces an erotically suggestive image, and it is strange that many have seen bitterness or sharp  in this picture. The profession of the woman is clear; what thoughts she may have about it are unaddressed. The only emotion other than the artists clear pleasure in witnessing this pale woman with radiant hair, posed in a lushly appointed airless bedchamber, is that distant and deeply affecting sense of sadness that pervades this hermetic scene.

In his early brothel pictures and prints, Lautrec delighted in the community of the women, and the majority of his works on this theme are given over to multifigured images of them together, waiting, sleeping, waking, or lovemaking. It is only in his later pictures, which are many fewer in number and very different in character, that the narrative elements fall away, and he depicts these women quite apart from any specific professional context. In this sense, Woman before a Mirror bears a close comparison to two other major pictures from late in his career: Woman before a Bed, of and Woman Adjusting Her Nightgown, done in the year he died. In both cases, the figure is posed centrally in the space against the effects of her room. These two later works may be compared to the single nudes of Renoir, an artist with whom Lautrec remained on good terms throughout the 1890s.  However, the more telling parallel, particularly for Woman before a Mirror, must be drawn to Lautrec’s most profound hero, Degas, whom Lautrec knew through the composer and musician Désiré Dihau and his family, who lived near Lautrec in Montmartre. Lautrec fervently admired the work of the older artist, and related to his friend and dealer Maurice Joyant his immense pleasure when Degas visited his exhibition in 1893: Degas arrived late in the day, silently gazed carefully at all the works while humming to himself, and only when halfway out the door, turned to the young Lautrec and said, “I see you are one of us.” Lautrec’s perceptive understanding of Degas’s technique and methods are no more apparent than here.

In this work of 1897, the vigorous graphic fluidity, the constantly moving plastic lines, and the animated outlines of his earlier work have now distilled into a coloristic unity and evenness of handling that parallel his abandonment of the narrative, genre aspect of his earlier treatment of brothel subjects. While he has given great attention to the beautifully modelled strokes that define the nude herself, these now loosen more gently than before to define the room and furnishings. The preeminence of the figure over her surroundings that occurred in earlier pictures is now diminished; the physical context is given greater weight, just as in Degas’ painted and pastel bathers of the late 1880s and 1890s. The broad strokes that depict the mirrored image—the dark hatching across her reflected stomach and the blurring of the outline of her arm by a series of noncontinuous lines, the absence of any edge to her mirrored face, effacing the distinction between the artificial and real—directly recall the works by the older artists in which the medium takes on an independence from conventional modelling. The denseness of handling and new manipulation of deep tones are unimaginable without the precedence of Degas’ pastels. The very darkness of this picture—the sealed containment of the room in which stands this radiant figure who is, so strangely, neither beautiful nor ugly—is brought about by Lautrec’s understanding of the works of the older artists. The nude before the mirror stands as one of Lautrec’s most hauntingly mute pictures, remarkable even among his abundant outpouring of paintings on this theme. It is not surprising that some critics, in their attempts to explain its effectiveness, have naturally turned for comparison to the nudes of Goya and Rembrandt.



Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on cardboard
Dimensions 62.2 x 47 cm












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