David Norman was for more than 30 years a senior specialist at Sotheby’s in Impressionist and Modern art. Here he discusses the context of Parisian nightlife in the making of Picasso’s Au Lapin Agile (above) which is now in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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In 1875, the artist Andre Gill, painted a sign for a well known Montmartre tavern known as the Cabaret des Assasins. It took its name from the fact that its walls were lined with portraits of famous murderers. Homicide aside, Cabaret’s were exciting venues for performances and nightlife, decadent behavior, the mingling of the upper and lower classes and often the nexus where artists, writers and progressive thinkers gathered.
Around the turn of the last Century, Cabarets were the home to the avant-garde in Germany, Poland, Sweden, America, Holland and England, but none so popular and singular in the social history of emerging modernism as the famed Parisian night spots of the Belle Epoque and after. Some of the great early landmarks of Impressionism are the great cafe-concert scenes—Renoir ’s Bal de Moulin de la Galette (Musée d’Orsay), Manet’s Bar aux Folies-Bergère (Courtauld Institute of Art, London) and the many great paintings and graphics by Toulouse-Lautrec of rollicking nightclub scene.
This is the story of a very different kind of cabaret scene and the winding road that led Picasso to one particular establishment and to the painting he created for it: Au Lapin Agile.
The image on Gill’s sign was of a rabbit wearing a chef’s hat and a red sash about his waist, balancing a bottle wine on his paw while jumping out of a saucepan. The place was originally referred to as “le Lapin a Gill,” referring to the chef’s style of preparation. Through a play on the pronunciation and reference to Gill’s sign, locals began to refer to it as Lapin Agile (the Agile or Nimble Rabbit). At the time, the cabaret could draw a rough crowd of local thugs and vagrants as well as students and political agitators. After innumerable brawls, general rowdiness and the occasional shooting, the restaurant was almost closed down, only to be saved by the intervention of a famous cabaret singer (more to come on this point).
There was clearly room for more such establishments, particularly of a slightly better nature. On November 18, 1881, the great Belle Époque, nightclub, Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) opened its door’s on the Boulevard Rochechouart in Montmartre. Thought to be the first modern cabaret, the place became the very epicenter of the Parisian avant-garde and bohemian culture.
Both the upper class and working class rubbed elbows as they enjoyed all forms of entertainment and excited conversation. It was also the essential place to be if you were a performer, poet, writer or emerging artist. This group of bohemians and non-conformists were often referred to as Les Hydropathes – those who feared or were sickened by water and chose instead to drink wine and beer in great quantities. This was an elegant term for a hard drinking crowd.
One of the many artists who frequented the club and contributed to its publications and advertisements was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the greatest painters, draughtsman, printmakers and illustrators of his generation. His raucous pictures often depicting the demi-monde of cabarets and bordellos were characterized by sinuous lines, exaggerated profiles and flattened spaces that literally defined the visual look of the era. Amongst his best known images are those depicting the great chansonnier, Aristide Bruant (the very singer who saved Lapin Agile).
On June 12, 1897, Pere Romeu, a waiter and emcee at Le Chat Noir, so taken by the idea of a tavern with cheap food and wine to fit the budgets of students and artists, providing entertainment and serving as the de facto center for the burgeoning avant-garde, opened his own establishment in Barcelona which he named, Els Quatre Gats (the feline theme again, four cats.)
Some time in 1899, the 17 year old Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (which we can blessedly shorten to Pablo Picasso!) walked in the door of Els Quatre Gats. He drank with like-minded progressive artists and staged his first exhibition there. Like Toulouse-Lautrec at Le Chat Noir and other cabarets, he designed the title page for the restaurants menu. There he met a fellow Spanish painter, Carlos Casagemas, who became his closest of friends. Together they moved to Paris in 1900.
The two Catalan artists sought out a replacement for their beloved Els Quatre Gats. At the turn of the century however, Le Chat Noir was not really the place for the newly arrived Picasso, Casagemas and their brethren of struggling young artists and writers with little money for fancy entertainments and expensive fare.
In a letter to a fellow painter , Ramon Reventos, Casagemas wrote about the problems finding the right place for the artists to convene:
There’s nothing as good (as Els Quatre Gets) nor anything like it…The Moulin de la Galette (made famous in yet another great painting of artists and patrons at a famous cafe, the 1876 painting by Renoir in the Musee d’Orsay) has lost all its character and l’idem Rouge costs 3 francs to enter as some days 5…”
(quoted in Volume 1 of John Richardson’s great biography on the Life of Picasso, p. 161)
As every generation of young painters seems to invariably need a special place to convene, drink and share ideas, Picasso and his group discovered the Montmartre dive, The Lapin Agile.
Casagemas Brings On the Blues
While in Paris, the Catalan painter, Isidre Nonell, introduced both artist’s to three popular models, Germain, Antoinette and Odette. Germaine Pichot, by day a laundress and seamstress, had masses of thick dark curls, penetrating eyes and an hourglass figure. Undeterred by the fact that she was a married woman, Casegemas embarked on a love-drunk quest to win her heart. Even though she never returned his affections and continuously spurned his advances, Casegemas pursued her relentlessly.
On February 17, 1901, Casegemas went out drinking and dining with friends. During dinner, he stood up to say a few words. Instead of speaking, he suddenly pulled a revolver from his pocket and fired on Germaine.
Casagemas was a half-hearted murderer. His bullet only grazed Germaine’s temple. But he was much more determined suicide. He did not miss when he shot himself.
The memorial service in Barcelona took place without Picasso. Although the artist was in Madrid, he remained deeply affected by the loss of his friend. We can see this in several paintings from his celebrated Blue Period: works such as The Death of Casagemas, Casagemas in his Coffin and two major compositions, The Dead Man and The Burial of Casagemas (also referred to as Evocation).
Picasso was upset by his friend’s suicide but it did not make him at all sentimental. When Picasso returned to Paris, he lived in Casegemas’ old apartment and thought nothing of sleeping with Germaine when the opportunity presented itself.
Back to the Rabbit
In 1905, Bruant turned over The Lapin Agile to a burly, bearded eccentric guitar playing musician name
Frédéric Gérard. Most often seen in the company of his pet donkey, Lolo, Frédé drove out the criminal element and opened the doors to both a more civil clientele and a brilliant coterie of artist and writers whom he often let run up large bills. Later he might settled them in exchange for artworks or other payments in kind.
Amongst that crowd—or any crowd, for that matter—the 25-year-old Pablo Picasso was
the brightest light. Gérard wanted Picasso’s patronage; he also wanted his work. Picasso was offered free drinks and any meal he liked in exchange for a painting that might be hung in the restaurant. Picasso chose as his subject a melancholic and estranged couple in the persons of a harlequin and a femme fatale standing at a bar with drinks in hand. The figures are unmistakably Picasso dressed in the familiar diamond-patterned costume of the harlequin and Germaine Pichot in a bright orange-red dress with a powdered white face , a beaded necklace and feather boa. In a nod to his patron, Frédé Gerard is shown in the background playing his guitar.
Each of three figures also sports a hat: Picasso wears the tricorn, Germaine a feathered hat and, painted in far less detail in the murky brown background, Frédé wears his familiar dark hat, worn and shapeless.
The only indication of the setting is a corner of the flat plane of the bar upon which their drinks rest and a small stage in the background where the guitarist sits strumming his guitar. The place is Lapin Agile (hence the work’s title, Au Lapin Agile) and the somber scene, painted in washy browns with restrained tones of red, green and a muddied gold, is the setting for a Picasso’s very personal drama.
Picasso positions his own brooding figure in the extreme foreground, giving his harlequin the largest presence in the picture and, thereby, giving Picasso himself a prominent (and, for a time, permanent) presence in the main room of the tavern itself. That’s where the painting was to be hung.
Get to the Met
The composition itself is very sparing since, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art website describes it, “…the painting would be seen across a crowded and smoky room, Picasso’s composition was of poster like simplicity” (the painting is now in the Museum’s collection). This manner of composition and in particular the caricatured face of Germain, is entirely reminiscent of the work of Toulouse-Lautrec. The Museum’s entry on the painting also notes that Au Lapin Agile was the only work by Picasso on public view in Paris from the time of its creation up until Frédé’s sale of the painting in 1912 to the great German art dealer, Alfred Flechtheim.
The art historian, Theodore Reff, gives a succinct and complete analysis of the haunting and mysterious mood this painting evokes: Thus he imagines himself in a milieu of bohemian gaiety, but in the company of a woman associated with the earlier tragedy. Hence no doubt his total estrangement from her and his brooding expression, whose somberness is enhanced by the use of cool blue and tan tones in contrast to the brilliant red, yellow, and green tones of his costume and the gaudy feathers and jewels of hers. This typically modern sense of alienation is of course already found in Degas’ L’Absinthe and in the café and dance hall pictures of Toulouse-Lautrec, whose influence on Picasso is so evident around 1900 and appears here, too, in the diagonal composition, the shrill coloring, and above all the incisive drawing-witness Columbine’s sharply etched profile…
Au Lapin Agile stylistically inhabits the transition period between the Blue and Rose periods (1904-05). As the tonalities of Picasso’s painting progressed from deep blues to a lighter palette of reds and pink, so did his subject matter. Instead of the impoverished, the downcast, the beggars and destitute women of the Blue Period, the Rose Period is populated with circus performers, saltimbanques (traveling/street entertainers) and harlequins. Such performers have appeared frequently in French art from the 18th Century canvases of Watteau to the 19th century works of Daumier, Degas, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec. In populating his picture with these figures, Picasso is following a grand tradition in French art. He’s also becoming more like the French Toulouse-Lautrec whose style is particularly evident in the sharp profile, sinuous lines and flat, unmodulated whiteness of Germaine’s face. Latching on to chronicler of familiar cabaret scenes and so re-imagining them by turning into a stage for autobiography, introspection, and loss, Picasso began to transform the course of French painting after 1900.
A version of this essay appeared in the Octavian report, a subscription magazine for investors with articles on politics and the economy.