A rare lithograph that has been described by Götz Adriani as “among the finest works Toulouse-Lautrec ever produced,” La grande loge of 1897 presents a fascinating glimpse into the dazzling world of dancers and performers, bohemian nomads and unconventional figures who populated fin-de-siècle Paris (op. cit., 1988, p. 266). In approach, composition and technique, this lithograph represents a pinnacle of Lautrec’s achievement in this medium.
Like other leading artists of the period, Lautrec was fascinated not only by the activities on the stages of the plethora of Parisian theaters, café-concerts, dance and music halls that he frequented, but also by the “Comedy of Life” that was played out among the audiences themselves. Here, Lautrec depicts Madame Armande Brazier, a one-eyed former courtesan and proprietress of Au Hanneton (also known as The Ladybird Bar), a popular lesbian bar in the Rue Pigalle, where the artist spent much of his time in the late 1890s. She is accompanied by Émilienne d’Alençon, a famous actress and dancer at the notorious Folies Bergère. As with so much of Lautrec’s oeuvre, it is the act of looking itself that comes to the fore in this composition. D’Alençon’s coquettish sideways glance at her companion, Brazier, charges the work with an enigmatic meaning, the viewer unable to decipher the silent language the two share with their gaze.
In the background and separated by an empty box, is the imposing silhouette of Tom, the coachman of Baron de Rothschild, who was well acquainted with the artist from their frequent revels at the Irish American Bar. By contrast to the glittering bourgeois world peopled by besuited men and glamorously dressed women that Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt depicted in their own theater scenes, Lautrec reveled in presenting the denizens of Montmartre whom he had met over the course of the prior decades, remaining firmly of the belief that it was these subjects that would enable him to create an art that was “outside the law” (quoted in Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 1979, p. 18).
Lautrec formulated the composition of the present work in the winter of 1896, with a highly-worked study in peinture à l’essence and gouache (Dortu, vol. III, no. 651), proceeding on the lithographic stones with work in crayon, brush, spatter technique and scraper. He extended the top and bottom of the composition in the lithograph version, allowing him to emphasize the sweeping red stylized outlines of the edge of the loge. The delicate gradations of tone created by the spatter technique allowed only a very small number of impressions to be pulled. As a result the lithograph was issued in January of 1897 at the high price of 60 Francs and in a numbered edition of only 12.
Wittrock cites a signed edition of twelve impressions and two proofs; and a further nine trial proofs, unsigned. Of these 17 are in public collections: Bibliotèque nationale, Paris (trial proofs: Wittrock I, two imp.; II, two imp.; III-V; VII); Albertina, Vienna (4/12); formerly Kunsthalle Bremen (5/12; lost in the war, whereabouts unknown); Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur (6/12); Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. (7/12); Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden (8/12); Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (9/12); Kunstgewerbemuseum, Hamburg (10/12); Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest (11/12); and the Art Institute of Chicago (12/12). Another impression is in the Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection (2/12).
This fine, signed proof was the publisher Gustave Pellet's own impression, and was acquired by Franz Koenigs from Maurice Exsteens, Pellet's son-in-law, after 1919.
Our thanks to Wolfgang Wittrock for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.