Think of Toulouse-Lautrec and the first thing that springs to mind may be exuberant scenes filled with black stockings and white underskirts, wide hats and red scarves, dancehalls crowded with theatrical revellers. Somewhat lesser known, though no less memorable, are his more intimate studies — such as this series showing prostitutes together in bed, painted sometime between about 1892 and 1895.
Towards the end of 1892, a Paris brothel on the rue d’Ambroise commissioned Lautrec to decorate its salon, which he did in a series of sixteen panels each centring on an oval portrait of a different woman who worked there. During this time Lautrec would apparently spend extensive periods living in the brothel itself, where he was apparently accepted as a friend and confidant, which allowed him to observe the everyday lives of the women more closely. He ended up producing hundreds of related artworks, with this intimate bed series perhaps encapsulating his fascination most acutely.
Lautrec’s depiction of lesbianism is particularly notable because it doesn’t fetishise sexual intimacy between women or present it as spectacle for the male gaze. Lautrec was trying to capture small, tender moments in the lives of the women he met, and he did so with humanity and sensitivity. In a world of constructed sexuality and fantasy, he finds the real relationships, and reveals to us the hidden lives of queer women in the nineteenth century.
It’s also worth noting these pictures were made in a brothel catering to heterosexual male customers, adding another layer to our interpretation. By emphasizing these women’s individuality and mutual affection, Toulouse-Lautrec provides us, in the words of a curator at the National Gallery of Australia, “a glimpse of real intimacy in an otherwise constructed world of sexual extravagance and simulated fantasy”.