Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Désiré Dihau:

Portraits of a Bassoonist and his Bassoon

by Mindy Keyes
Nashville, Tennessee

Appendix A--Degas' L'orchestre de l'opéra
Appendix B--Toulouse-Lautrec's: Les Vielles Histoires...Pour Toi
About the Writer
End Notes

The year was 1886. Twenty-two-year-old Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec entered the Dihau family apartment off the rue Frochot. He had come again to the apartment to chat with the Dihaus, his cousins, and to stand and gaze at a painting that had been given to the Dihaus 15 years earlier by its creator, Edgar Degas. Toulouse-Lautrec found the canvas striking. He was always ready "to say his prayers before it."[1] The painting was Degas' L'orchestre de l'opéra. Its central subject was bassoonist Désiré Hippolyte Dihau.

As Toulouse-Lautrec stood there, a germ of an idea for two new paintings and a lithograph of his cousin may have found its way into his consciousness. For within the decade, he would try his own artistic hand at three portraits of Dihau.

Degas' and Toulouse-Lautrec's portraits of Dihau may reveal a link between the two artists, a link that extended beyond nationality and artistic technique. The link was an interest in a bassoonist and his bassoon. Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec chose to befriend and paint or etch Dihau, a French bassoonist who had made his reputation as performer at the Paris Opera. Both artists attempted to portray Dihau playing his bassoon. And both artists turned from Dihau to onstage performers for subjects in their artwork.

What drew the two artists to Dihau?

Dihau was born in Lille in 1833. He studied bassoon at the Lille Academy and the Paris Conservatory. He played bassoon in the orchestras of such Paris opera houses as the Théâtre Lyrique, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens and the Opéra. Dihau was solo bassoonist in Paris concert halls like the Eldorado, the Concerts Pasdeloup and the Concerts du Chatelet. He also composed music. In the 1890s, he wrote music for song lyrics by musician friends.[2]

Little has been written about Dihau's playing skills. A search through books about the history of the bassoon does not tell us much about his performance style or his musicianship. Author Will Jansen notes that Dihau won first prize in 1857 and second prize in 1865 in competitions at the Paris Conservatory. Jansen also says that few bassoon players of the past have become so world-renowned after their deaths. Dihau, he writes, was immortalized by Degas.[3] Music writer Lyndesay Langwill's The Bassoon and the Contrabassoon and author Gunther Joppig's The Oboe and the Bassoon do not list him as one of history's great bassoonists. But an issue of The Double Reed calls him a "well-known Parisian bassoonist."[4]

However strong his musical talents, Dihau captured the imaginations of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Both artists found Dihau's friendship, musicianship or physical presence compelling enough to devote several works, in full or in part, to him. I suggest that friendship may explain the portraits of Dihau without his bassoon. But something more, some curiosity about the bassoon or this bassoonist, led Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec to paint or etch pictures of Dihau with his instrument. Consider the artists' relationship with and portraits of Dihau.

Degas lived near Dihau in Montmartre, the artists' quarter of Paris. Writer Hélène Couturier comments that the two men often traveled home together after evenings at the opera and spent their spare change on roasted chestnuts. They also ate breakfast together in the restaurant mere Lefebvre, on the rue de la Tour d'Auvergne.[5] Degas wrote to his "cher Dihau" from New Orleans during a trip to the United States.[6]

In 1868 Degas began plans to paint a portrait of Dihau seated alone and playing his bassoon. But by 1869, Degas decided to expand the scope of the portrait by showing Dihau in the Paris Opéra.[7] He completed the oil painting L'orchestre de l'opéra that year. (See Appendix A.) Dihau sits with his bassoon in the orchestra pit of the opera house. Around him are other of Degas' friends, both musicians and non-musicians, portrayed as orchestra members. Couturier says that Degas saw the painting as a means to show off "an extraordinary collection of portraits."[8]

Why did Degas choose to make the bassoonist the focus of the painting? Degas' notes on painting portraits tell us that he believed in making "portraits of people in familiar and typical attitudes and especially [giving] the same choice of expression to the face that one gives to the body."[9] L'orchestre de l'opéra lets us see the bassoonist in his natural environment, the orchestra pit. Perhaps Degas tried to capture Dihau's playing posture and embouchure. The painting shows Dihau puffing his cheeks as he blows into the instrument's reed and fingers the keys of the bassoon. Jansen comments that the instrument looks like a Buffet bassoon and calls the position of Dihau's fingers "all true to life and masterly."[10]

Degas' decision to paint Dihau with his bassoon in the orchestra pit is not surprising given the painter's background. Degas' well-to-do family, influential bankers and businessmen, loved music, and Degas had known musicians all of his life. Degas biographer Roy McMullen writes that Degas' father, Auguste, set up Monday evening concerts in the Rue de Mondovi: "[Auguste] would be remembered circling up through the ninth Arrondissement in a hackney coach to pick up Edgar, Marie Dihau and her brother, Désiré."[11]

Musicians like Dihau served as Degas' link to the onstage world of opera. The master commented in 1880, "1 thought I would sneak into the opera among the stage mothers."" And because most mid-nineteenth-century operas offered ballet sequences, musicians like Dihau were also Degas' link to the onstage world of ballet.

For from paintings of musicians, Degas began to move in the 1870s to paintings of ballet dancers. Works such as Le ballet de "Robert le Diable" show us Degas' artwork's transition from the musician to the dancer, from the orchestra pit to the stage. In Le ballet de "Robert le Diable," Dihau is again in the orchestra pit, but he is no longer the focus of the work. Degas devotes only half of the painting to the musicians. He devotes the other half to the dancers on the stage.

While Degas spent much of his later life painting the dancer, another young artist picked up where Degas left off with the musician. Toulouse-Lautrec was about 30 -years Degas' junior, and his fascination with the older master led him to Montmartre, to the opera and to the doorstep of his cousin Dihau. In a letter dated "Paris, Autumn 1885," Toulouse-Lautrec wrote to his mother:

. . . Paris is dark and muddy, which doesn't prevent me from trotting in the streets after the musicians of the Opéra, whom I'm trying to charm so as to sneak into the temple of the arts and of boredom.[13]

Writers Jean Adhemar and Theodore Reff comment that although he says he tried to charm musicians like Dihau out "of boredom," Toulouse-Lautrec was really in love with music and the "spectacle" of the opera.[14] Toulouse-Lautrec and Dihau would become good friends, and in 1889 Dihau would introduce him to Degas, the creator of the striking painting in the Dihau apartment.

In 1890 Toulouse-Lautrec painted two portraits of the bassoonist. He called the first work Monsieur Désiré Dihau, basson de l'opéra and the second work simply Monsieur Désiré Dihau. The first work shows Dihau in suit and top hat, facing us. The second painting shows Dihau in profile, reading the newspaper. At the time, Toulouse-Lautrec may perhaps have had too much respect for Degas' painting to attempt a portrait of the musician with his bassoon.[15] Art historian Parker Tyler suggests that Toulouse-Lautrec was trying to impress Degas with his own artistic technique.[16]

If Tyler is right, Toulouse-Lautrec seems to have succeeded. Soon after he met the master, Degas said to him, "I see you too are one of us."[17] In 1893 Toulouse-Lautrec mustered enough courage to etch a lithograph portrait of Dihau with his bassoon. He may have lacked the courage to try the same medium that his idol had used. The lithograph Les Vieilles Histoires . . . Pour Toi shows Dihau in a posture similar to his pose in L'orchestre de l'opéra (See Appendix B.) We see Dihau's right side; we see his fingers in motion and his cheeks puffed.

Though we cannot be sure of Toulouse-Lautrec's exact interest in the bassoon or the bassoonist, we find a hint about his feelings toward this particular instrumentalist and instrument by looking at the upper right-hand corner of the lithograph. Above Dihau's music stand floats the bust of a devil. Did Toulouse-Lautrec consider the bassoon the devil of the orchestra? Or was the artist attracted to a sadistic bent in the bassoonist's character? We must guess the answers to these questions. Toulouse-Lautrec left us no explanation of the devil's presence.

We know that Toulouse-Lautrec and Dihau enjoyed working and spending time together. Through the 1890s, Dihau commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to design lithograph covers for Dihau's published songs.[18] Toulouse-Lautrec's friendship with the bassoonist continued until the artist's death in 1901. Likely, Toulouse-Lautrec never forgot his "debt" to Dihau for his introduction to his idol Degas: Writer Jean Sutherland Boggs tells us that when Toulouse-Lautrec gave his two paintings of Dihau to Marie Dihau, he "inquired timidly and humbly whether they did not look ridiculous beside those of Degas."[19]

Like Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec moved on to consider onstage performers and settings after completing his works on Dihau. Posters of Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert, May Belfort and the dancing girls at the Moulin Rouge emerged in the '90s.

Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec went on to paint the subjects that would make them worldrenowned. But the two artists shared a common beginning. Early in their careers, they both noticed a certain bassoonist and his bassoon. They used the bassoonist and bassoon as a subject in their artwork. And they used their artwork as a springboard to paintings of onstage performers. Degas moved on to paint ballet dancers, and Toulouse-Lautrec moved on to paint the dancers at the Moulin Rouge. The artists have left us no written account of their fascination with the bassoon. But they have left us their work. And we can always stand in front of, ponder and "say our prayers before" their portraits of a bassoonist and his bassoon.

Mindy Keyes is a free-lance music writer and the daughter of bassoonist James Keyes. Mindy graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in June 1990. This fall she travels to Toulouse, France, where she will work as research assistant to Haydn and Mozart scholar H.C. Robbins Landon.

End Notes

1 Jacques Lassaigne, Lautrec (New York: Crown Publishers, 1972), p. 35.

2 Will Jansen, The Bassoon: Its History, Construction, Makers, Players and Music (Buren, The Netherlands: Uitgeverij Frits Knuf, 1978), p. 1720.

3 Ibid, p. 1720.

4 Ron Klimko and Daniel Stolper, ed., "About the Cover," The Double Reed, Volume 8, Number 3 (Idaho Falls, Idaho: International Double Reed Society, Winter 1985), p. 2.

5 Hélène Couturier, "About Degas's L'Orchestre de L'Opéra," The Double Reed, Volume 8, Number 1 (Idaho Falls, Idaho: International Double Reed Society, Winter 1985), p. 2.

6 Edgar Degas, Lettres de Degas. Marcel Guerin, ed. (Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1945), p. 15.

7 Couturier, p. 2.

8 Ibid, p. 2.

9 George T. M. Shackelford, Degas, The Dancers (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1984), p. 173.

10 Jansen, p. 2041.

11 Roy McMullen, Degas: His Life, Times and Work (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984), p. 173.

12 Ibid, p. 19.

13 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Unpublished Correspondence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1969), p. 95.

14 Jean Adhemar and Theodore Reff, Intro., in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Unpublished Correspondence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, p. 16.

15 Gerstle Mack gives us an interesting anecdote about Toulouse-Lautrec's admiration for Degas. Mack comments that Toulouse-Lautrec saw Degas as "the supreme master, the shining example of all that was best in painting." Mack refers us to an article written by painter Vuillard for L'Amour de l'Art in April 1931. In the article, Vuillard remembered a luncheon that Toulouse-Lautrec gave in 1898 or 1899. The banquet was "elaborate," Vuillard says. At the end of the meal, Lautrec led his friends down the street to the Dihau apartment. Vuillard writes: "Lautrec led us before the portrait of Dihau playing the bassoon in The Orchestra of the Opera, by Degas, and announced with a flourish: 'There's thy dessert!' He could conceive of no more exquisite treat for the entertainment of his friends than the contemplation of a canvas by Degas." Gerstle Mack, Toulouse-Lautrec (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938), pp. 59-60.

16 Parker Tyler, Degas/Lautrec (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1968), p. 126.

17 Jean Sutherland Boggs, Portraits by Degas (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), p. 62.

18 Mack, p. 261.

19 Boggs, p. 62.


Boggs, Jean Sutherland. Portraits by Degas. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962.

Bouret, Jean. Degas. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

Couturier, Hélène. "About Degas's L'Orchestre de L'Opéra," The Double Reed. Volume 8, Number 1. Idaho Falls, Idaho: International Double Reed Society, Spring 1985.

Degas, Edgar. Lettres de Degas. Marcel Guerin, ed. Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1945.

Hanson, Lawrence and Elisabeth. The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Lautrec. New York: Random House, 1956.

Jamot, Paul. Degas. Paris: Editions de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1924.

Jansen, Will. The Bassoon: Its History,Construction, Makers, Players and Music. Volume IV. Buren, The Netherlands: Uitgeverij Frits Knuf, 1978.

Joppig, Gunther. The Oboe and the Bassoon. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1988.

Joyant, Maurice. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: 1864-1901. Paris: Henri Floury, 1926.

Klimko, Ron and Stolper, Daniel, ed. "About the Cover," The Double Reed. Volume 8, Number 3. Idaho Falls, Idaho: International Double Reed Society, Winter 1985.

Langwill, Lyndesay G. The Bassoon and Contrabassoon. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1965.

Lassaigne, Jacques. Lautrec. New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1972.

Mack, Gerstle. Toulouse-Lautrec. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938.

McMullen, Roy. Degas: His Life, Times and Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1984.

Le Musee d'Albi. Catalogue: Musee "Toulouse Lautrec " Albi. From exhibition June Il, 1964 - September 15, 1964.

Rouart, Denis. Degas: In Search of His Technique. New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 1988.

Shackelford, George T. M. Degas, the Dancers. Washington, D. C.: National Gallery of Art, 1984. Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de. Unpublished Correspondence of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Lucien Goldschmidt and Herbert Schimmel, editors. Jean Adhemar and Theodore Reff, Intro. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1969.

Tyler, Parker. Degas/Lautrec. Garden City' New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1968.

Venturi, Lionello. Impressionists and Symbolists. Volume 11. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950.

Table of Contents