La Vie en Rose: Picasso and Au Lapin Agile

Essential to the development of modern painting were the cheap, slightly seedy cabarets of Paris, where artists in a creative ferment met, drank, smoked tobacco and opium, loved, fought, lost, sang, and in some cases died. Pablo Picasso, who arrived in Paris in 1900, lost the close friend who had brought him there one year later to suicide. That death and its emotional fallout formed a central themes in Picasso’s work in the ensuing years, and culminated in what might be the ultimate “cabaret” painting: the three-figure portrait Au Lapin Agile (now part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). David Norman, art historian and former co-head of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s — and part of the team that sold the picture at auction — explains in the lucid and passionate essay the intertwined histories of the cabarets and the art their habitués produced.

Picasso's masterwork of cafe life <em>Au Lapin Agile</em> has a rich backstory.

Picasso’s masterwork of cafe life Au Lapin Agile has a rich backstory.

In 1875, the artist Andre Gill painted a sign for a well-known Montmartre tavern called the Cabaret des Assassins. (It took its name from the fact that its walls were lined with portraits of famous murderers.) The image Gill put on the sign was a rabbit wearing a chef’s hat and a red sash about his waist, balancing a bottle of wine on his paw while either dancing on or jumping out of a saucepan.

Based on that sign, the cabaret was renamed “Le Lapin a Gill,” referring at once to a popular rabbit dish the tavern’s chef was famed for and to the name of the sign-painter. Through a play on the pronunciation, locals began to refer to the place as the “Lapin Agile” (the Agile or Nimble Rabbit). At the time, the cabaret drew a rough crowd of local thugs and vagrants as well as students and political agitators.  Brawls and general rowdiness were the rule.

But there was clearly room for more such establishments, particularly those aimed at a more upscale (and ideally more peaceable) clientele. On November 18, 1881, the great Belle Époque nightclub Le Chat Noir opened its doors on the Boulevard Rochechouart in Montmartre. Thought to be the first modern cabaret, the place became the very epicenter of Parisian nightlife, the avant-garde, and bohemian culture. Both the upper class and working class rubbed elbows as they enjoyed all forms of entertainment and excited and exciting conversation. It was an essential place to be if you were a performer, poet, writer, or artist. The group of bohemians and non-conformists who frequented the place were often referred to as Les Hydropathes, loosely translated as “those who fear or are sickened by water” — an ironic reference to their love of wine and beer in great quantities. An elegant term for simply a hard-drinking crowd.

Among 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 cabarets as well as the demi-monde and its brothels, were characterized by sinuous lines, exaggerated profiles, flattened planes of color. These graphic design principles came to quite literally define the look of the era. Amongst his best-known images are those depicting the great chansonnier, Aristide Bruant (who plays a further role in this narrative).

On June 12, 1897, Pere Romeu — a waiter and emcee at Le Chat Noir —  was so taken by the idea of a tavern with food and wine priced to fit the budgets of students and artists, a tavern that could provide entertainment and serve as the de facto center for another city’s burgeoning avant-garde, opened his own establishment in Barcelona. He called it he Els Quatre Gats. Sometime 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, he designed the title page for the restaurant’s menu. There he met a fellow Spanish painter, Carlos Casagemas.

In a letter to another painter, Ramon Reventos, Casagemas would write about the problems finding the right place for the artists to convene (his letter is quoted in the first volume of John Richardson’s great biography of Picasso):

There’s nothing as good (as Els Quatre Gets) nor anything like it . . . The Moulin de la Galette has lost all its character and l’Idem Rouge costs 3 francs to enter and some days 5 . . .

Casagemas and Picasso moved to Paris in 1900. Once there, the two were invited by Catalan painter Isidre Nonell to share his vast studio on the Butte de Monmartre, an area which was home to many of the Catalan community of artists and center of bohemian culture. Nonell not only introduced them to the whole community of young progressive painters, as well as three noteworthy good-time girls, politely referred to as “models:” Germaine Pichot, her sister Antoinette Fornerod, and Louise Lenoir, known as Odette. Germaine, 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, Casagemas went on a love-sick quest to win her heart. While she never returned his affections and continuously spurned his advances, Casagemas pursued her relentlessly.

At the time, 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. So where else to go? The Lapin Agile was on the verge of being shut down due to the constant brawls (and occasional shootings) that occurred there. The place was saved when it was acquired by the aforementioned Le Chat Noir performer Aristide Bruant. As each generation of the avant-garde invariably needs its own familiar watering hole to frequent with their colleagues and girlfriends, Picasso and his group discovered the recently rescued Lapin Agile as a place to drink, carouse, and excitedly exchange ideas.

On February 17, 1901, Casagemas went out for a round of drinking and dining with friends, stood up to say a few words, and then pulled out a revolver and fired on his beloved Germaine, only to graze her temple. He was much more successful, though, when he shot himself. Picasso was in Madrid and missed the memorial, but the loss of his friend became a recurring theme in his celebrated Blue Period: The Death of Casagemas, Casagemas in his Coffin, The Dead Man, and The Burial of Casagemas (also referred to as Evocation) all take it as their subject. As affected as Picasso was, the trauma did not go so far as to prevent him from having an affair with Germaine upon his return to Paris (where he lived in Casagemas’ old apartment).

In 1905, Bruant turned over the tavern to a burly, bearded, eccentric guitarist named Frédéric Gérard. Most often seen in the company of his pet donkey, Lolo, Frédé (as he was affectionately called) continued to drive the criminal element out of the Lapin Agile and opened the doors to both a more civil clientele and a brilliant coterie of artists and writers whom he often let run up large bills to be settled in exchange for artworks. Amongst that crowd was the brightest light of the young painters, Picasso, now 25. He was offered free drinks and meals in exchange for a painting to be hung in the restaurant. Picasso chose as his subject a melancholic and estranged couple, in the persons of a harlequin and a courtesan or 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 a feather boa. In a nod to his patron, Frédé 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, worn, and shapeless dark hat.

The only indicator 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 interior is that of the Lapin Agile (hence the works title, Au Lapin Agile or At the 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; he holds a glass of the powerfully intoxicating absinthe. The placement gives his harlequin the largest presence in the picture and thereby gives Picasso himself a prominent (and for a time permanent) presence in the main room of the tavern itself where the painting was to be hung. The composition itself is very spare: given that the painting would hang in a dim public space, its artist no doubt wanted to catch and hold the observer’s eye with bold simplicity. This manner of composition is deeply reminiscent of the work of Toulouse-Lautrec; this is particularly evident in the sharp profile, spontaneity and flat whiteness of Germaine’s face.

Columbia University 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 transitional space 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 pinks, 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 (travelling/street entertainers), and harlequins. Such performers have appeared frequently in French art, from the 18th-century canvases of Jean-Antoine Watteau to the 19th century works of Honoré Daumier, Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec. With Au Lapin Agile, Picasso takes up a major strand of a great tradition in French art — a tradition adapted to relay the intense introspection, estrangement, and loss that followed in the painter’s life after the death of his friend.