APRIL 5: The Seated Clowness makes its America…


On this day in 1999, The
Seated Clowness
by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was first exhibited in the
U.S. The 1896 painting depicts Cha-U-Kao, a popular French cabaret performer of
the time, sitting alone and stealing a quick moment of silence in between her
performances. Cha-U-Kao was a lesbian and it was her unabashed presentation of
her sexuality and non-conventional gender expression that made her one of Latrec’s
favorite subjects.

The Seated Clowness (Cha-U-Kao) by Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, painted in 1896 (x).

Henri de Toulouse-Latrec made his name on depicting the
women who lived in the underbelly of Paris. Some of his most famous pieces
depict women dancers, circus performers, and prostitutes in loving
embraces with each other. Legend has it that the artist was first exposed to
lesbianism in the brothels of Paris, where he discovered that many of the women
who worked there were in romantic relationships with each other. The Seated Clowness stands out from the crowd
in that it depicts a named lesbian subject who was a famous artist in her own

The only known photograph of Cha-U-Kao was captured by Maurice Guilbert, who was also a close friend of Henri de Toulouse-Latrec (x). 

Cha-U-Kao got her stage name from a dance craze called the chahut
that was making its way around French dance halls at the time when she was starting her career. She was a frequent performer at both the Moulin Rouge and the Nouveau
Cirque throughout the 1890s. Little is known about Cha-U-Kao’s past or where
she ended up in life, but Latrec was reportedly fascinated by her enthusiastic approach
to her clown persona, a title that was traditionally reserved for the men in the entertainment world. Cha-U-Kao
is also depicted in Latrec’s Elles
series where he depicts the daily lives of prostitutes and lesbian love within
Parisian brothels.