Visiting the Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington, D.C., one is greeted by numerous colorful buildings and several striking murals. One of these murals, stationed above the now-defunct Cafe Toulouse, portrays a mysterious and proud-looking man wearing a floppy black hat and a red scarf. Who is this fellow and what on earth is he doing so brazenly adorned upon a brick wall in America’s capital city?
Come to find out, the image is a replica of an Art Nouveau portrait created by the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) of his friend, the Parisian caberet peformer and club owner Aristide Bruant. According to Michael L. Wilson, a scholar at the University of Texas at Dallas, this portrait “of Bruant is among the most recognizable of Lautrec’s images and has come to be emblematic of the Belle Époque in the popular imagination.”
In their article, “Aristide Bruant: The Man in the Red Scarf,” authors Eric C. Johnson and Chris Whitten write, “Bruant was famous for wittily insulting and degrading his audiences, to their great amusement. His customers were regularly greeted as ‘scoundrel,’ ‘prostitute,’ ‘sonofabitch,’ and ‘pig.’ They were warned. The sign at the door read: ‘For people who like to be told off.’
Lautrec was the only patron consistently treated with respect. When Lautrec entered, Bruant would silence the house and proclaim, ‘Here comes the great painter Toulouse-Lautrec with one of his friends … and a punk I don’t know.'”
Now, nearly two centuries later, the former caberet performer’s face graces the wall of a vacant building in one of D.C.’s hippest neighborhoods, a smirk on his lips as if to say: “I refuse to be forgotten, you sons of bitches.”