Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
(Albi, 1864-1901, Ch. de Malromé, Gironde)
Messaline, 1900/01
Oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm
Studio stamp lower right
Dortu P. 703
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec occupies an important position in Emil Bührle's collection, wholly in keeping with the influence that his work exerted on many artists at the beginning of the twentieth century. He himself belonged to a generation of artists for whom Impressionism was already part of history. Furthermore, it was already clear to them that their own art would no longer depend on grants controlled by the State. Toulouse-Lautrec made an especially radical break with the bourgeois world, by depicting subjects taken from the cabaret and brothels. The painting that you see here, Messaline, differs from these in as much as it records the performance of an opera at the Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux. In place of the shabby decadence of the music hall, we are given the opulent decadence of Ancient Rome. Messalina, a Roman empress notorious for her dissipated lifestyle, doubtless reminded Toulouse-Lautrec in more than one respect of the seedy side of Paris that he knew so well. The artist brings out the lighting from below on the cheekbones and necks of the singers to great effect, while leaving the lips of the main figure blood-red. Yet again, Toulouse-Lautrec demonstrates his mastery in abruptly cropping a composition. He shows only the nether regions of the statue in the background, close to Messalina's head, while simply cutting off part of the profile of the singer on the left. This radical break with classical concepts of beauty paved the way for a more modern, direct style of communication – it is no coincidence that throughout his career, Toulouse-Lautrec was also a highly successful advertising and poster artist. Messaline was painted towards the end of his life when, plagued by alcoholism, he went to be cared for by his mother. He did not get around to signing the painting, which instead bears the studio stamp that the family had made after his death, in order to authenticate the works left by the artist.