(b. 1864, Albi, d. 1901, Château Malromé, Langon)

The Sofa

Oil on cardboard, 63 x 81 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Towards the end of 1892 Lautrec was commissioned to produce decorations for the salon walls of the Rue d'Amboise brothel, and he decided to design 16 panels in the style of Louis XV, each one centring on an oval portraits of one of the girls. It was during this time that Lautrec had the opportunity to study their lifestyle at close quarters.

He was fascinated to discover that many of them were deeply in love with each other, and he frequently made these couples the subjects of his paintings. He thereby succeeded in portraying the genuine depth of these lesbian relationships without exposing the girls' tenderness and helplessness to voyeurism.

The woman half turning away in the foreground was known by the name of Gabrielle, and she modelled for Lautrec in a number of his paintings. It is not certain whether she was a prostitute or a model, or both, and it is therefore not clear whether the scene portrayed here was one observed by chance in a brothel, or a pose set up in the studio. It is possible that Lautrec was simply hinting at the current fashion in the brothels for guests of both sexes to pay to watch the lesbian love-play of the prostitutes.