Museum Moments: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Waitress

I was in Canberra for the weekend and had some free time late on Saturday morning. With no real fixed agenda, I found myself drifting towards the National Gallery of Australia carpark (mainly because I knew how to get there and it’s a convenient location for a few institutions). Almost on a whim I decided to buy a ticket for the Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris and the Moulin Rouge exhibition. While obvious in hindsight, I hadn’t thought about how crowded a blockbuster exhibition would be at 11.30am on a Saturday until I was in and amidst the throng. Crowds might not lend themselves to a contemplative experience, but they offer a ripe opportunity for people watching.

One of the first things I noticed was an interesting example in crowd “training”. In the first gallery, I leaned toward a painting to get a closer look and felt something brushing against my shin. I looked down to see a low barrier set about 50cm off the wall – the clear message was to keep my distance! So I stepped back and continued along the wall, maintaining that distance as I turned the corner. About halfway along the next wall, I noticed there was no longer a physical barrier at shin level, but I still instinctively had kept the same 50cm distance from the gallery wall. And here’s the interesting thing – everyone else had as well! I don’t know if this was a deliberate tactic by the gallery or just a coincidence, but I don’t remember seeing those barriers in the rest of the exhibit and nonetheless visitors kept a reasonably constant distance from the works throughout.

The exhibition was broadly chronological with some sub-themes exploring how Toulouse-Lautrec came to be interested in Parisian street life and brothels. The work that captured my attention the most was not the famous posters (they were as expected), but rather this work about halfway through the exhibition depicting Jeanne Wenz as a waitress:

At the Bastille, Jeanne Wenz, 1887, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

I found this work totally captivating in the flesh (the online images don’t quite convey the light and texture of the original). It’s hard to put my finger on why – perhaps it’s her direct, piercing gaze or the slightly enigmatic expression. Nonetheless this work was the stand-out piece of the exhibition for me (giving my novice, untutored-in-art-history perspective). This triggered my curiosity regarding how other visitors perceived it. And as I was looking at it I overheard another woman discussing the work with her companion, speculating about the woman’s strange half-smile and the likelihood of her sore feet at the end of a hard shift. I made a mental note to come back and have another look once I saw the rest of the exhibition.

Coming back, I sat on a bench near the work and watched. It did appear to be a popular work, with most people stopping at it and reading the label, and some people seemingly drawn to it from across the room as I was. It was a brief and highly unsystematic study though, and I was not able to compare its relative attracting and holding power to the rest of the exhibition.

While I was watching visitors come and go, oblivious to this other visitor in their midst, I noticed that I too was being watched. I had obviously sparked the interest of the security guard positioned near the work and for whom my seat was in the direct line of view. He watched me with a look of slightly amused curiosity. I wonder what he thought I was up to? Did something about me give the game away that I somehow wasn’t an ‘ordinary’ visitor? I guess I’ll never know, but I shot him an enigmatic half smile of my own as I walked on.



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