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Looking at Toulouse-Lautrec's Lesbians Today

In Gallery 242, there is a small but remarkable collection of works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec showcasing the artist’s portrayal of Parisian lesbian subculture of the late 19th century, which often revolved around some of the artist’s favorite subjects: bars, brothels, and theaters. Not only are these works notable for their clever allusions to self-fashioning, fashionable pets, and safe spaces, but they also contain fascinating relevance to issues of inclusion and sexual freedom—in Toulouse-Lautrec’s own time and today. In fact, recent events directly influenced our interpretation of these works.

The prevailing perceptions of lesbians in 19th-century Paris were anything but favorable. Literature of the time, including works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, and Charles Baudelaire, represented lesbians as symbols of social and moral decay. Indeed, Parisian lesbians were subject to frequent police investigations for what was seen as their indecency and ethical failing. The women of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints, in contrast, are often depicted in a favorable light: he portrayed famous couples such as dancers May Milton and Jean Avril on stage, as well as enjoying affectionate relationships in daily life. Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions were decidedly subversive—both increasing the visibility of the lesbian community in Paris and representing it positively.

Based on a similarity to other portraits, Milton and Avril may be the couple on the cover that Toulouse-Lautrec created for the sheet music for Eros vanné (Eros Exhausted), a popular song performed by famed chanteuse and provocateur Yvette Guilbert that poked fun at the burgeoning lesbian bar scene of Paris during the 1890s. With their suggestive closeness and Milton's exaggerated yet recognizable headgear, the women appear to play a lesbian stereotype of the classic villainess. As an intimate of their circle, the artist may have exaggerated for effect, playfully critiquing popular depictions of lesbians with a wink at the public thirst for scandal while at the same time suggesting the real emotional bond between these women. Meanwhile, the god of love, Cupid (Eros)—only recognizable through his nakedness—takes the guise of a street urchin at the bottom left, apparently worn out from his latest match between female lovers.

This installation was in its final planning stages in June 2016, when a shooter killed 49 people and wounded 51 others—mostly young Latino lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people—at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. As a result, the show took on an increased urgency. While the massacre was not mentioned directly in the wall texts, the curators anticipated that they would be read through a post-Pulse lens.

As curators and educators in the museum, we encourage curiosity and critical thought, making connections between art history and contemporary life. The anti-lesbian sentiment of Toulouse-Lautrec’s time resonates more strongly as we consider his work in the context of continuing discrimination against the LGBT community. This installation has provided us with an opportunity to open up space for visitors to consider the relationship between these two moments—with the hope of working together toward a time when such sentiments are unfathomable.

“Lautrec and Lesbian Subculture in Paris” is on view in Gallery 242 through January 11, 2017.

—Suzanne Karr Schmidt, Assistant Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings and Robert Smith III, Assistant Curator of Adult Learning & Interpretation, Department of Museum Education

Image credit:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. May Milton, 1895. Bequest of Kate L. Brewster (not on view); Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Eros vanné, 1894. Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Divan Japonais, 1893. Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison Collection (not on view).