Young woman at a table, 'Poudre de riz', 1887
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
This painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec shows a young woman seated at a table, a red jar of some kind in front of her. She looks directly at the viewer. It is difficult to identify exactly where the scene takes place. Is it a café or other public place, or a room in a house? The dark green patches at the upper right could be a painting, or perhaps a window.. The woman’s role and identity is also unclear: is she a model posing for the painter, or has he depicted a real situation from memory?
Thanks to the painting’s title, however, we do know something about the contents of the little red jar. It is filled with perfumed rice powder, which women used to give themselves a fashionably pale complexion.
It was not considered good manners for women to sit alone in cafés, and even less so to put on their make-up in public. That kind of behavior was associated with the prostitutes Toulouse-Lautrec often depicted. This soberly dressed woman, however, does not appear to be of that profession. It has often been claimed that the work depicts Suzanne Valadon, the artist’s mistress. Valadon was also a painter, and Toulouse-Lautrec encouraged her to pursue her art. He also made several portraits of her.
The work belongs to Toulouse-Lautrec’s early period, when he was strongly influenced by Impressionism. The artist has built up his canvas in short, colorful stokes; these loose dots were meant to merge in the viewer’s eye, forming coherent areas of color. The artist also made numerous drawings at this period, many of which are more sketchy in character.