The strange lure of Toulouse-Lautrec’s red-haired muse

Toulouse-Lautrec, the supreme dwarf artist of late 19th-century France, created my current favorite painting, a moody, sullen portrait of a downcast prostitute titled “A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge.” The woman, standing/slumping, face in a clenched-jaw profile as if looking stage left at nothing in particular, is the Rosa La Rouge of the title, and she is a sight to behold: beset, bedraggled, strangely beautiful.

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“A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge” 1886-87 at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

I recently saw the medium-sized but imposing painting in its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia — my third visit in a short period of time. It might be the outstanding canvas for me at a museum so clogged, so Louvre-esque crammed, with modern masterpieces it makes your head twirl. Lautrec isn’t my favorite painter, but this is my favorite painting by him.

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Barnes Foundation, one of a zillion art-jammed rooms.

Like so many great works of art, something ineffable defines the portrait of Rosa (Lautrec painted several pictures of her in varying poses and moods). She’s just there, her white blouse loosely buttoned, lank red hair pulled back but shagged out in front, mouth tight (is that lipstick?), eyes completely obscured. She’s like a specter, a little petulant, maybe resentful, not entirely pleased to be there. She looks almost bratty, and scandalously young.

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Another portrait of Rosa.

She probably had good reason to cling to a sour mood. Life was surely hard — she was also a laundress — though posing for one of your johns may have been a smidge better than sleeping with him. Lautrec died of alcoholism and syphilis, which, it’s said, he contracted from Rosa.

My appreciation for “Rosa La Rouge” — the rouge is for her red hair, of course — is hardly unique. The picture is a verifiable masterstroke and it’s one of the most reproduced paintings in the Barnes gift shop (I got a nifty bookmark of lovely, enigmatic Rosa). Google it and it pops up like crazy — a repetitious gallery of Rosa in various shades of reproductive quality. (I took the picture of the painting on this page at the Barnes last month.)

But while the image is abundant, almost nothing is written about its subject. What I’ve noted here is all I know about Rosa and her life. On canvas, she’s enshrined in mystery, maybe incensed, maybe indifferent, glancing determinedly away from our enthralled gaze.

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