Nightclub in Paris. 1887. Absinthe. Garish lightning. Harmony of orange, yellow and indigo. Clinking sound of glasses. Distant laugh. Air is heavy with smell of cigarettes, perfume and sweat. Twenty-three years old Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Across him sits thirty-four years old Vincent. A few light, sensitive strokes in pastel and Henri creates the most lyrical and most emotional portrait of van Gogh ever.
Henri and Vincent met in February 1886, soon after Vincent arrived from Antwerpen where he stayed with his brother Theo, and despite their different temperaments and origins, they soon befriended. Both of them attended painting course in studio of Ferdinand Cormon and both of them were outsiders. As soon as talkative Henri noticed Vincent’s strange and wistful personality, he approached him and undoubtedly helped him to make friends with other young painters at the studio, such as Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Eugene Boch and Louis Anquetin who soon became Vincent’s friends as well.
One evening in 1887, Henri and Vincent were sitting in a nightclub, probably the last ones to stay out drinking. With only few pastel strokes on cardboard, Henri captured the manic and passionate personality of this interesting red-haired stranger. This portrait, impressionistic but not quite, is the most emotionally charged portrait of van Gogh, and it managed to capture something that Vincent himself never did; physical accuracy. Henri precisely drew Vincent’s hooked nose and thin, light, almost nonexistent eyebrows: traits common in van Gogh’s family. At the same time he captured his rich inner life, his intensity, excitement and anxiety, his outsider chic. Intense yellow and purple-blue colours and striking brushstroke, as if they were taken in a hurry, all bring intensity to van Gogh’s appearance and his very position in that nightclub, dressed in battered clothes, sitting in silence, with a glass of absinthe in front of him. Henri drew Vincent as everyone saw his; as a wild animal waiting to jump at every second.
As I am writing this, a picture of David Bowie and Iggy Pop in a nightclub in Berlin in the late 1970s comes to my mind. Iggy is to be blamed though, and his song ‘Nightclubbing‘ from the album The Idiot (1977):
”Nightclubbing we’re nightclubbing
We’re what’s happening
Nightclubbing we’re nightclubbing
We’re an ice machine
We see people brand new people
They’re something to see
When we’re nightclubbing
Oh isn’t it wild?”