IN A PRIVATE DINING ROOM or AT THE RAT MORT (EN CABINET PARTICULIER)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
Oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm
Courtauld Institute, London
Known for his penchant for Parisian nightlife, here Toulouse-Lautrec presents Lucy Jourdain, a famous demi-mondaine, accompanied by her lover, the Baron de W. The term cabinet particulier refers to the “small dining rooms one could reserve in the best restaurants of Paris, evocative of wanton behaviour and often subject to caricature,” Danièle Devynck, head curator of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, stresses before adding: “the painting depicts a café-restaurant that Toulouse-Lautrec frequented at the end of the 1890s. It’s the “Rat Mort”, rue Pigalle opposite the Nouvelle-Athènes, an establishment favoured by many writers. In its early years, the “Café Pigalle” (its original name) was extremely modest; but that was before a happy coincidence brought it into the limelight. Many of the Nouvelle-Athènes’s customers, having argued with the manager, began frequenting the café opposite. The paint was still fresh, the plaster not yet dry, and the first floor smelt so appalling that one of the new patrons remarked that the place “smelt of dead rat”. Thus the café was baptised. Soon the deserters’ friends came to join them. The Rat Mort (Dead Rat) was to become the meeting-place of everyone who mattered: journalists, writers, painters and women, both accompanied and alone.
In 19th-century France, the term “demi-mondain” signified a woman kept by one or several wealthy Parisian men. “These gentlemen were wealthy enough to support both a wife at home and a mistress for show. By adding a demi to their other half, they reinvented bigamy.” The Belle-Époque was the heyday of famous demi-mondains, including Emilienne d'Alençon, Cléo de Mérode, Caroline Otero and Liane de Pougy. Tribute was paid to these individuals by some of Paris’s most famous aristocrats. The lives of these kept women wouldn’t have been the same without champagne!
It was their drink of choice. When Balzac describes, in The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans, the Baron de Nucingen moving Esther in and toasting her over dinner, the female protagonist exclaims: “Very good, charming! What a pleasure it will be to drink the wine of Champagne here!” Not to mention Nana, titular heroine of Zola’s champagne-soaked classic! Note how the author depicts his heroine in her carriage at the Longchamp races: “Standing, she began to pour glasses of champagne for the men who greeted her”. High-class ladies rubbed shoulders with these coquettes in every fashionable spot, both of them sipping champagne. The former sometimes visited cabinets particuliers with their lovers or husbands when they wished to hide their antics from prying eyes (Source: UMC, Union des Maisons de Champagne).
A FEW MORE EXHIBITED TOULOUSE-LAUTREC'S PAINTINGS
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