Interpretive Resource

Analysis: Lautrec's Unique Composition and Artistic Expression

An analysis of Toulouse-Lautrec's unconventional composition and painting style in his depiction of a Parisian circus.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Studies, 20, 2 (1994), p. 124.

HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC (French 1864-1901)
Equestrienne (At the Circus Fernando), 1887—88
Oil on Canvas; 100.3 x 161.3 cm
Signed, lower left: T-Lautrec
Joseph Winterbotham Collection, 1925.523
This painting, which was widely admired at the time of its creation by artists such as Georges Seurat, has remained one of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s uncontested masterpieces. Although Toulouse-Lautrec was only twenty-four when he painted it, he already possessed a dazzling talent as a draftsman and a keen eye for boldly simplified forms, qualities that were to reach their most distilled form in the famous posters of his later years.

Thinly and rapidly painted, this picture has the confident, improvisational quality of a drawing. Its subject is the Circus Fernando, one of the first permanent circuses in Paris, which provided rich inspiration to many artists, both before and after Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed it. Here the artist has concentrated not on rich color harmonies and a seductive subject (as in Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Two Little Circus Girls of 1878—79, inspired by the same circus, which is now in the Potter Palmer Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago), but on an incisive recording of movement and form, and on the often unflattering but revealing physical idiosyncrasies of his subjects. From Edgar Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec inherited a connoisseur’s eye for gesture and expression, as well as a taste for unconventionally cropped compositions. Especially striking in this painting is the unorthodox cropping of the clowns and the heads of several of the spectators. Toulouse-Lautrec drew inspiration for the flat, linear simplification of forms against a solid ground, as in the figure of the ringmaster at left, from Japanese prints, whose influence was by then ubiquitous among the Impressionists.

The right half of the painting is dominated by the dramatically foreshortened form of a horse, his powerful rump prominently and irreverently presented to the viewer. The horse’s tail billows in a manner that wittily echoes the flapping tails of the ringmaster’s jacket. The equestrienne perches on the horse’s saddle, readying herself for an acrobatic jump through the hoop held by the clown who is partly visible at top. The arch of the circus ring is echoed in the impetuous curve of the ringmaster’s body, as he advances forcefully toward the horse and rider, and in the curve of his whip, which visually links the two main protagonists of the scene. Throughout, the artist shows himself a keen observer of his human subjects, attuned to their every quirk. The pointed portrayal of the figures often verges on caricature, as in the almost brutish determination on the face of the ringmaster, the forced, brightly painted smile of the horsewoman, and the jagged silhouette of the clown at left.

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