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Painting of the Week: Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson at the Theater

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson at the Theater, 1895, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Detail.

Painting of the Week

Painting of the Week: Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson at the Theater

Henri Toulouse Lautrec is famous for the portrayals of Paris nightlife: cabarets, theatres and brothels. He showed us the world of decadence and escape from the urban malaise where his friends, muses, patrons collided.

Toulouse Lautrec Madame Thadée Natanson
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson at the Theater, 1895, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In this sketch, he pictures in one set Misia Natanson and an anonymous stagehand on a second plan. So we have a woman from the elite, a patroness of the artists, and a theatre worker, who manually puts down the curtain.

Madame Thadée Natanson at the Theater, made in 1895, is a drawing for the cover of the final issue of L’Estampe Originale (1893–95), a quarterly album of original prints, where artists like Pissarro, Gauguin, Bonnard, Renoir, Signac, Whistler published.

Toulouse Lautrec Madame Thadée Natanson
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson at the Theater, 1895, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Detail.

The lady in the theatre box, on the left, is glamorous patroness Maria Zofia Olga Zenajda Godebska, called Misia. Her dress is provocative with a big decolletage on her back, revealing her slim, elongated neck. We only see her profile, as she is looking at the stage or the audience. She is alone, seductive, statuesque and mysterious. 

Misia Natanson in Cannes, 1901, photographed by Édouard Vuillard. Francetoday.com

Marcel Proust used Misia as the prototype for the characters of “Princess Yourbeletieff” and “Madame Verdurin” in his novel In search of the lost time. She was “la reine de Paris”, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, painted by Lautrec, Renoir, Vuillard, Vallotton, adored by writers who also were indebted to her like Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.

As it is a study for the cover design, it is not finished, only her torso and head look fully accomplished. Blue color that outlines the silhouette and curves out her body is unusual, softener than black. She doesn’t wear jewelry, only a fan in her left hand is an accessory that gives her a more delicate and sensual look.

On the second plan, there is a technician bringing down the curtain. Toulouse Lautrec only draws his figure next to the rope, pulling down the chains of stage machinery.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Madame Thadée Natanson at the Theater, 1895, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Detail.

This sketch is the rare instance of an artwork depicting the stagehands’ life, so of those who use their technical skills and talent to pull together the show. The roadies, the production technicians, who are the silent heroes of each concert or theatre piece, without whom the magic does not happen. Nowadays the stage is automated, but it still requires riggers, carpenters, light and sound technicians to make a spectacle, an illusion of a world before our eyes.

The drawing was restored a couple of years ago, as it was once sliced into two pieces and framed so as to reveal only Misia in her loge. However, when two fragments of the work are joined, the scene depicted is more interesting. It juxtaposes the worlds on stage, in the box and at the backstage, making the Toulouse Lautrec’s vision more complex and full-bodied.

See 10 photographic reasons why you should fall in love with Toulouse-Lautrec!

Ex political science researcher at the Jagiellonian University. Lover and promoter of Latin American art and design (via blog www.thebananas.pl). In spare time president of the board of FOH Foundation, non profit, pro publico bono organization whose mission is to further safety and professional standards in the entertainment productions industry.

 

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