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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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