Toulouse Lautrec’s Lithograph of Madame Rejane (1898)

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Portrait of the head and shoulders of a woman of the 1890s dressed in a man's top hat, tie, and jacket
Madame Réjane, by Toulouse Lautrec (1898)

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec produced this lithograph of Madame Réjane, the internationally celebrated French actor, in 1898. It is currently housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Lautrec is well known for his work as an artist of modern life in Paris, portraying portraits of actresses and dancers, including Gabrielle Réjane, Yvette Gilbert, and Louise Weber, and creating lithographic posters for the Moulin Rouge cabaret. Lautrec’s decision to portray Mme Réjane in the male attire of a top hat and jacket speaks to her challenge to late-nineteenth century gender norms as an independent woman who ran her own theatre company, played numerous roles on the stage, and traveled across Europe and North America. Lautrec’s lithographic portrait of the actress makes an interesting comparison with Aubrey Beardsley’s “Portrait of Madame Réjane” for The Yellow Book, vol. 2 (July 1894), a line drawing reproduced by photomechanical process engraving. The French artist’s lithograph depicts his compatriot in a half-portrait (head and shoulders), with a bold frontal view. The actress looks amused, confident, and slightly mocking as she glances sideways. In contrast, Beardsley’s line drawing shows the actress in a full-figure profile portrait, in costume as the working-class hero of Madame Sans-Gene. She appears fragile and vulnerable rather than in control, her figure lost in the clothing she wears, and her posture suggesting movement away from (or toward?) the spotlight. Lautrec’s portrait of Madame Réjane seems more celebratory than Beardsley’s ambiguous image.

Lorraine Janzen Kooistra