Friend of Suzanne Valadon and Painter of Nightlife : Notes on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Nov. 24 is the birthday of a painter who borrowed techniques from Japanese artists to portray scenes of French women expanding their role in public life.
The title given to this painting by French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) seems wrong to me. It’s commonly called “The Hangover,” which seems to miss the small revolutionary acts we may be witnessing here.
Toulouse-Lautrec shows us a young woman who has the freedom and funds to sit by herself and work through her thoughts over a glass of wine at a cafe. The woman shown here is Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938). She appears to me to be in a pensive mood.
I admit I bring to this interpretation my admiration for Valadon’s determination and grit. The child of a poor unmarried woman, Valadon found a way to become a successful painter, an occupation largely (but not exclusively) limited to men of the middle class even in France’s Belle Époque (c. 1880–1914).
The man who gave this painting its title, Aristide Bruant, had a different take.
As explained on the website of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, Bruant was a cabaret owner and singer who showed Toulouse-Lautrec’s work in his establishment. Bruant’s songs often focused on excessive drinking. It was Bruant who called this painting “Hangover.” (There is a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with an entry for Toulouse-Lautrec. It includes details on this website and other materials used in my research.)
Much of what we see in a work of art is what we bring to it.
The author of the entry on the Fogg’s web site writes: “Here, Valadon’s scowl, slumped pose, and darkened eyes befit Bruant’s title perfectly, while the single glass and half-empty bottle of wine on the table suggest she drinks alone.”
I bring to this painting a bit of knowledge about Valadon, who had a relationship with Toulouse-Lautrec.
I don’t see “scowl” but a face in repose, a woman who has let her mind wander. I wouldn’t call her posture “slumped” as much as relaxed.
Compare Valadon as captured by Toulouse-Lautrec work to the woman shown in “L’Absinthe” by Edgar Degas, seen below on the left.
The woman in the Degas painting better suits the description given to Valadon. While seated next to a man, she seems to be lonely. Her gaze is downcast. Her posture is slumped.
The woman in the Degas painting keeps her almost improbably full glass close to her. In order to leave the table, she will need to drink more of the absinthe or at least move the glass.
Look below to compare her posture to that of Valadon.
You can picture Valadon breaking from her reverie, leaning back, leaving money to cover her drink and walking away, the remains of her glass of wine untouched.
It appears that the woman in the Degas painting is not going anywhere soon. She looks tired and dejected, but her companion stares into the bar with an alert look. He has a pipe going, he appears settled in and ready to spend some time in this bar.
Toulouse-Lautrec gives us a different story for Valadon. She does appear to be on her own, a woman who can decide when she will leave.
Valadon has had a bit of wine, but seems to be done with it. You can read this painting as Valadon having forgotten about the wine as she ponders. She is taking time to think deeply. Her eyes do not seem to me to be darkened. Instead, I see a steady gaze.
Look at the portrait below of Valadon shown in what appears to be a park. Toulouse-Lautrec shows Valadon with a similar expression. As an admirer of Valadon, I read this as a frank look, a steady look.
It’s the same look you see in Valadon’s self-portraits.
The work of Toulouse-Lautrec is so familiar that we lose sight of how bold his artistic choices were.
Born to a pair of wedded first cousins from a well-off clan, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from physical ailments linked to inbreeding. He turned to drawing during his long convalescences.
Like many of his artistic peers in France’s Belle Époque, Toulouse-Lautrec had training in the traditional European-style of painting but instead embraced modernism. And also like his peers, Toulouse-Lautrec borrowed techniques from examples of Japanese arts that had recently made their way to France.
But Toulouse-Lautrec let women command center stage of his works in a way not always seen in the paintings of his peers.
In the work of Degas, for example, dancers tend to be depicted more as decoration than as individuals worthy of their own stories.
Toulouse-Lautrec often showed his subjects in odd lights and in athletic or ungainly poses. But he made us want to know more about them.
“His paintings of dance hall performers and prostitutes are personal and humanistic, revealing the sadness and humor hidden beneath rice powder and gaslights,” wrote Cora Michael in the Toulouse-Lautrec entry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.