Messalina, 1900–1901

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1864–1901

Messalina, 1900–1901

Oil on canvas
The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on long-term loan to the Princeton University Art Museum
photo: Bruce M. White

While spending the winter in Bordeaux, Toulouse-Lautrec went to the Grand Theater to see the opera Messaline. Contemporaries reported that he shouted “beautiful” from his seat, to the great annoyance of the other theater patrons. The artist’s passionate response was reminiscent of what he called his furias, intense obsessions with certain entertainers, usually of the dance-hall variety. He would return to see them perform over and over, capturing their particular gestures and performance styles in his art.

While rarely produced today, Messaline premiered to enthusiastic reviews at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo in 1899 and was subsequently produced throughout Europe.

The opera Messaline follows the sordid tale of the Roman Empress Messaline, who seduced the poet Harès. She soon tired of his devotion and transferred her affections to his brother, the handsome gladiator Hélion. Harès vowed revenge against his unfaithful lover. The final scene takes place in the imperial box at the Circus Maximus. Confronted by Hélion, Messaline confesses that she is the cause of his brother’s estrangement from him. Meanwhile, Harès has entered stealthily and attempts to kill Messaline, but he is struck down by Hélion. Realizing that he has murdered his brother, Hélion rushes to his death in the arena, where he is torn apart by lions. The Pearlman work illustrates the moment just before Harès attempts to assassinate Messaline.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French 1864–1901. <em>The Opera 'Messalina' at Bordeaux (Messaline descend l'escalier bordé de figurants)</em>, 1900–1901. Oil on canvas, 99.06 x 72.39 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. George Gard De Sylva Collection (M.46.8.3)