Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo (Tristan Bernard at the Buffalo cycle track)

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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo (Tristan Bernard at the Buffalo cycle track)
1895
Oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. • 65 x 81 cm

Provenance

Tristan Bernard, Paris, by whom acquired directly from the artist. Wildenstein & Co., New York, by whom acquired from the above in 1937. Private collection, New York, by whom acquired from the above, in February 1946. Acquired from the above by the previous owners.

Further Information

In his brief but storied life, the famously eccentric French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - who died in 1901 at the age of 36 - created paintings and drawings that glamourized the nightlife of fin-de-siècle Paris. Lautrec is best known for his lithographs and posters popularizing dance halls, such as the two-meter poster for the Moulin Rouge (Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, 1891) which made him famous in Paris with spectacular speed. His vibrant depictions of cabaret performers, dancers, and streetwalkers have since come to epitomize the Bohemian metropolis. An irreverent and resolutely modern artist, who once submitted a portrait of a Camembert cheese to the official Salon, Lautrec's work is difficult to categorize. Early in his career he was influenced by the Impressionists, but he ultimately moved beyond their interest in the optical veracity of the visual field to focus his singular, and simplified, formal language on contemporary society.

Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo is one of a number of works the artist created capturing his friends and acquaintances. As Colta Feller Ives asserts, 'the faces of people who amused or were dear to him were always at the centre of Lautrec's art. It was as if by portraying them, he drew them closer and made them uniquely his' (Toulouse-Lautrec in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exh. cat., New York, 1996, p. 26). The present work captures the artist's friend, the playwright Tristan (born Paul) Bernard, then the directeur sportif at the new bicycling racetrack the Vélodrome Buffalo. As in his depictions of Parisian dramatis personae - dancers on their stages, courtesans in their maisons closes - Lautrec has here captured his friend ensconced in his professional environs. Bernard stands comfortably upright, surveying the track that is his demesne. He wears the newly fashionable knickerbockers that became popular towards the end of the nineteenth-century among the sporty set, particular with cyclists, further cementing his position in this arena. Bernard was reportedly so pleased with the painting that he hung it in his living room for years. Among all his successive activities - lawyer, industrialist, journalist, writer - Tristan Bernard was certainly proudest of his role as a sporting director in the heroic days of cycling. This is one of the rare portraits in which Lautrec adopted a horizontal (or 'landscape') format; in this case the shape permitted him to show the race. Another example is Le Cycle Michal (W.P.25, poster, Musee Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi) and the respective preparatory drawing (D.4252). Tristan Bernard au Vélodrome Buffalo is one of Lautrec's most ambitious works. Bernard is shown in a decidedly virile and flattering pose, emphasizing his powerful build and well-turned calf. It was his unique sporting achievement to have pursued, in parallel, this muscular science and the most brilliant of careers as a writer and dramatist. In profile, the artist accentuated the impressive nose that suggests Bernard's undoubted ability to sniff out talent, both sporting - in cyclists or in boxers - and literary. The sharp eye that never deceived him is reduced to a thin green line. Lautrec again showed Bernard, together with the racing cyclist Zimmermann, in a pen drawing of 1895 (D.3.913); he returned to the same clear-cut profile, with its luxuriant beard, in a dry point of 1898.

The late nineteenth century saw a rise in public interest for organised sporting events. Alongside established horse races, the first automobile race was held in France in 1894 - the same year that French historian Pierre de Coubertin began to campaign for the modern Olympic games. The Vélodrome Buffalo was built in 1892 to host the increasingly fashionable sport of bicycle racing. By 1900, it had become 'the most popular spectator sport in France' (H. Pearson, 'Chain reaction,' Apollo, vol. 192, no 690, October 2020, p. 67) and was often depicted by the most fashionable artists of the time such as Paul Signac. In his recollections, Bernard remembered the artist's frequent presence at the Velodrome: 'Lautrec often came to the races. He would meet me on Sunday, we would lunch together and go off to one of the stadiums. I would let him into the enclosure along with the officials, but he usually went off and sat on the lawn. I think the race results interested him little, but he was fascinated by the setting and the people' (quoted in J. Bloch Frey, Toulouse-Lautrec: a life, 1994, p. 353).