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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901

At the Circus: Free Horses (Au Cirque: Chevaux en Libert

Description:Read An Essay On This Drawing

This drawing is one of thirty-nine sheets that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec made in the spring of 1899 while he was in a mental hospital in Neuilly being treated for alcoholism. Although it is popularly held that the series was done entirely from memory as a demonstration that the artist had regained his mental faculties, Perussaux suggested that the artist may very well have been allowed out of the hospital with a companion to visit the Molier circus, which is known to have been performing nearby during his stay there.1 This theory is supported by the conspicuous absence from some of the drawings of an audience, suggesting that the artist may have been sketching during rehearsals. All his earlier depictions of the circus, for example, In the Cirque Fernando: The Ringmaster, 1888 (The Art Institute of Chicago), show spectators. Indeed, the artist's examination of spectatorship as a bourgeois activity at the theater, café-concerts, or dance halls is a hallmark of modernity.

As a member of the aristocracy, and with a physical disability affecting his bones that left him lame, Toulouse-Lautrec was not expected to have a career at all, let alone one that was generally considered a hobby. Drawing was something all well-bred gentlemen knew how to do, but it was never intended to provide a real income. Nevertheless, he persisted in his pursuit until his mother, using her social connections, finally arranged to have her son placed in Léon Bonnat's studio in March 1882. Bonnat, an academic artist known for his portraits of the well-to-do (see Bonnat's portraits of William Walters and George Lucas [wam 37.758 and 37.759]), regarded his new pupil's drawing as "downright atrocious."2 When Bonnat closed his studio in September, Toulouse-Lautrec briefly considered studying with Charles-Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran. He decided against it, believing that the master colorist turned out only mediocre draftsmen, which, he thought, "would be the death of [him]."3 He finally settled on Fernand Cormon, an artist who was enjoying much success at the time with his painting Cain, 1880 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), newly accepted into the Musée Luxembourg. By the time of his death, Toulouse-Lautrec proved himself a consummate draftsman, producing at least 5,084 drawings, 275 watercolors, 368 prints and posters, and 737 paintings.4

It is with the illustrators of mid-century--Constantin Guys, Paul Gavarni, Honoré Daumier, and Gustave Doré-that Toulouse-Lautrec had the most affnity in the spontaneous and calligraphic nature of his work as well as in subject matter. In an effort to cause offense, Degas once quipped that Toulouse-Lautrec was "the Gavarni of his time,"5 a reference to his perceived superficiality. In a psychosexual analysis of Toulouse-Lautrec's circus imagery, Verhagen equates the circus with carnival (see Thomas, cat. no. 100, and Gavarni, cat. nos. 58 and 59), both of which rely on absurdity, inversions, humorous pairings, and sexual nonconformity for their effect.6 Like Gavarni's débardeuse, the costume of a dockworker he contrived for women to wear at carnival, Toulouse-Lautrec's clownesses and circus performers became sexual dominators.

In this drawing, inversion, more than sexual nonconformity, is key. The animal trainer, whip in hand, rehearses his bow and bends forward in the direction of the absent audience. His shadow more closely resembles that of the horses under his control than of a man. Conversely, the horses stand on their hind legs in a row along the back of the ring facing the empty seats, much like a chorus line of dancers seen at the Moulin Rouge. The ambiguity of human and beast, the irony of a trainer whose subjects turn their backs to him, the trainer's submissive posture, and the cropped, elliptical space and high vantage point confound the roles of master and subjugated. In spite of his illness, or perhaps because of it, Toulouse-Lautrec's insights into human psychology make him a quintessential fin-de-siécle artist. Cheryl K. Snay

1. Toulouse-Lautrec: The Circus, thirty-nine crayon drawings in color, with foreword by C. Perussaux (New York, 1953), [2].

2. As quoted in J. Frey, "Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: A Biography of the Artist," in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Images of the 1890s, ed. R. Castleman and W. Wittrock, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art (New York, 1985), 26.

3. L. Goldschmidt and H. Schimmel, Unpublished Correspondence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec(London, 1969), 15.

4. Frey 1985, 19.

5. G. Adriani and W. Wittrock, Toulouse-Lautrec: Das Gesamte Graphische Werk (Cologne, 1976), 54.

6. M. Verhagen, "Whipstrokes," Representations 58 (Spring 1997): 118.

Medium: black and colored crayon on cream, thick, heavily textured wove paper
Dimensions: height: 26.4 cm, width: 36.4 cm.
Date: 1899
Category: genre
Subject: tourism
Inscriptions and Markings: "TL" in black crayon, upper right; "TL" estate stamp in red, lower right
Exhibition History: French Masterworks on Paper, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1992; French Master Drawings, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1997-98
Bibliography: Randall, Richard H. "A Drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec." Bulletin of The Walters Art Gallery 28 (March 1976): [3-4].: n.p. [p. 3].
Provenance: Maurice Joyant, Paris, until 1931; Knoedler (?); Sara D. Redmond, Oyster Bay, until 1975; The Walters Art Gallery, 1975, by gift.
Collection: The Walters Art Museum
Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Sara D. Redmond, 1975
Object Number: WAM 37.2523