Spotlight on a Masterpiece: Toulouse-Lautrec's Au Lit

Whilst this summer’s show Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from The Courtauld Gallery has now left our shores, having been lovingly packed into bespoke transportation crates, it has found a very happy resting place at The Frick Collection in New York until 27 January 2013.

The exhibition has received some wonderful reviews including the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

One of the masterpieces in the exhibition is Au Lit (c.1896) by Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec, so this edition of Spotlight on a Masterpiece will take a look at this work in more detail.

Toulouse-Lautrec: Au lit, c1896

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Au lit, c. 1896

Created using black chalk for the sweeping lines and graphite for the facial details, this drawing shows a woman, lying in bed, looking straight back out at the viewer.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s masterful foreshortening and energy keeps the eye dancing across the page but you keep getting drawn back to her face, in transfixing detail yet described in only a few, choice, graphite marks.

But what is she thinking about? This drawing is likely to have been made from life and the sitter is probably a prostitute from one of the brothels of Montmartre which he spent time in.

The confident, dynamic marks could suggest a dominance over the sitter and some commentators argue that his approach to female sex workers was exploitative, but her comfortable and un-sexualised pose suggests a familiar and friendly relationship to the artist.

She is abundantly aware of the artist’s gaze, and really doesn’t seem to mind or care.

Not only her expression, but also her crossed legs and unkempt hair capture her direct nonchalance.

The bedclothes pulled up to her chin, yet exposing her feet, only increase the enigmatic nature of her pose.