Toulouse-Lautrec's Views of French Prostitutes to be Focus of Clark Exhibition

For Immediate Release

January 21, 2000

Late nineteenth-century France was a world of class and status, where high society men and women did not publicly mix with those of lower standing. Yet the business of prostitution, in which rich men sought pleasure in the daughters of the poor, was legal and accepted. In these houses of ill repute, many artists found a fine source of female models.

The French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was fascinated with the women of prostitute houses, and actually took up residence in Parisian brothels of the Rue de Moulins for weeks at time. His studies from these sojourns recording the everyday lives of prostitutes came together in the 1896 lithograph series Elles. All twelve of these lithographs, as well as images of prostitution by other artists of the same era, will be featured in the exhibition Those Women: Toulouse-Lautrec's Elles and French Images of Prostitution, on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute from February 13 to April 23, 2000.

"Toulouse-Lautrec was the most brilliant French graphic artist working at the turn of the last century, and the Elles Portfolio certainly represents the height of his achievement in color lithography. The Clark's portfolio is in a pristine state of preservation, the colors fresh and unfaded. It has not been on view here since 1992," says James A. Ganz, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Clark. Toulouse-Lautrec was raised in one of the leading families in France, but his ideas about art and humanity did not reflect those of his aristocratic upbringing. Contrary to the prevailing view that art was for the privileged, he believed that true art arose from the simple and the everyday. His models were often people he noticed on the street who captured his fascination.

Toulouse-Lautrec believed art should reach audiences beyond the bourgeois collectors, and frequently contributed newspaper illustrations to achieve this end. His paintings and prints often depict the "fallen" women of society with honesty and beauty, while his aristocratic models appear grotesque in their affectations. In the dance halls and houses of prostitution, Toulouse-Lautrec discovered some of his most favored subjects. Packing his bags and bidding farewell to his friends as if for a long journey, he would proceed a few hundred yards down the street to the prostitution houses of the Rue de Richelieu or the Rue des Moulins and set up his studio.He became known and liked among the residents because he treated them with respect, befriended them and discussed their lives and experiences. Uninterested in shock value, Toulouse-Lautrec avoided painting sexual encounters, and instead observed and recorded the prostitute's day to day life as honestly as possible. "

Though not images of classic beauty, his depictions of Parisian prostitutes embrace the richness and poignancy of unique human personalities," says Ganz. In addition to the Elles lithographs, Those Women includes drawings by Toulouse-Lautrec and related works by his contemporaries, including drawings by Descamps, prints by Edgar Degas, and a recently acquired photograph by Eugene Atget, Versailles, Maison Close, Petit Place (1921).

All works on view are from the collection of the Clark Art Institute. Those Women was organized by Katherine Bussard, a student in the Clark Art Institute/Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art. The exhibition will open with a Valentine's Day party on Saturday, February 12, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 ($20 for members). For more information or reservations, call 413-458-2303, extension 505. Also opening February 13 is "A Fresh and Large Assortment": American Silver from the Burrows Collection (through April 30), exploring the use of silver in the Colonial America, and Truth and Beauty: Peter Henry Emerson's Life and Landscapes on the Norfolk Broads (through April 23).

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is located at 225 South Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  The galleries are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free through May.  For more information call 413-458-2303 or visit

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