- - Toulouse-Lautrec, The Bicycle and the Women's Movement

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Bicycle and the Women’s Movement


Article by Philip McCouat of the Journal of Art in Society


In 1891, aged only 26, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [1] created his first commercial poster Moulin Rouge, La Goulue (Fig 1). This lithographic print, the first of a wide range that he would produce over the next five years, would make him famous virtually overnight, eclipsing the growing but more moderate success of his earlier paintings and drawings.

The posters’ instant popularity derived from Lautrec’s brash, energetic style, married to his acute powers of observation and high level of artistic skill. With Lautrec’s characteristic cropped edges, flat areas of a limited range of bold colours, distorted or surprising perspectives and often caustic or caricaturist representations, the posters disregarded many of the conventions of traditional academic painting. At the same time, they marked a contrast to earlier more conventional posters produced by artists such as Jules Chéret.

Fig 1: Toulouse-Lautrec: Moulin Rouge, La Goulue (1891)

It was true, as his disapproving aristocratic family were quick to point out, that posters could hardly be considered to be “high” art in the traditional sense. They were cheap, common, unfinished-looking, impermanent and commercial, suitable to be stuck up on grimy city walls or sandwich boards, not – at this stage – to be hung in galleries. What’s more, many of the subjects of the posters that Lautrec would produce had a decidedly common tone – popular nightclubs, louche or outrageous cabaret and concert hall performers, commercial products as varied as alcohol, books and confetti. But, of course, these features were precisely what contributed to their popular appeal. In many ways – in subject matter, style, market orientation and distribution – the posters recalled the “floating world” woodblock prints that had become so popular in Japan a hundred years before (see our article on Floating Worlds ).

The particular poster that we will be examining in this article, La Chaine Simpson (Fig 2), is, at first glance, rather an odd departure from Lautrec’s normal subjects. What could be so appealing about cyclists riding round a track? Why on earth would someone hire an famous artist to advertise something as seemingly boring and prosaic as a bicycle chain? And why would Lautrec – a crippled dwarf with no sporting pretensions whatsoever – be interested in sport in any event?

Fig 2 : Toulouse Lautrec, La Chaîne Simpson (1896)

The short answer to these questions is that, for Parisians in 1896, bicycling was undergoing an extraordinary boom, cyclists were the latest superstars, the Simpson Chain was a cause célėbre, and Lautrec was a passionate sports fan. In Part 1 of this article we’ll explore how it was that this rather surprising combination of circumstances came about. And in Part 2, we’ll analyse some of the even more unexpected consequences of the cycling boom for the seemingly-unrelated topic of women’s rights.


The cycling boom

Although bicycles had been around in various forms for decades, they did not achieve mass popular appeal until the development of the safety cycle, featuring equal-sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel, and the introduction of pneumatic bicycle tyres [2]. These developments, perfected in the 1890s, made bicycles that were lighter, more comfortable, speedier and more manoeuvrable – contributing to a boom in sales, particularly among the upper and middle classes in Europe and the United States. Bicycles were used both for transport and for leisure, and the rapid development of velodromes made sophisticated races a popular spectator sport, at its peak rivalling horseracing.

Some cycling races were straight-out sprints, some were based on distance covered over a set time (such as an hour), while others covered vast distances and were spread over a number of days [3]. For example, a 12-hour race might be conducted over three days, with two hours cycling on the first day, four hours on the second and six hours on the third. In many high level track competitions, “pacers” were used to assist riders by shielding them from air resistance, producing a slipstream effect. The pacers were generally organised into teams, who would ride on three-person “triplet” bicycles, four-person “quads” or five-person “quints”. Pacing was crucial in high level events – without it, a competitor usually had little chance.

Some flavour of the English cycle racing scene can be gained from a letter from an Australian cyclist, R W Lewis, who was visiting England at the time. He reported that “the pacing here in wonderful. Over 70 men are engaged on the track by the different firms to do nothing but pacing”[4]. But pacing could also have its dangers. As Lewis noted, “Accidents are numerous. First a tyre will break, then a tyre will burst, then a chain will break, but the most dangerous, as well as the most frequent, is the forks going… Last week Johnston [5] was going for the mile record when the tyre of the quad burst and the riders all on one side were terribly cut about. Johnston himself had bit of luck in missing them….”.

The “Simpson Chain”

The cycling and racing boom promised rich rewards for manufacturers who could develop more efficient designs or technical improvements. One of the most hyped and sensational of these was the so-called Simpson Lever Chain, developed in 1895 by the Englishman William Spears Simpson (Fig 3). This was claimed to deliver greater power by improving the leverage between the chain and the wheel. Simpson was so confident about its effectiveness that he offered 10:1 odds that riders using Simpson chains would beat riders with regular chains.

Fig 3: The design of the Simpson Chain

The heavily promoted “Chain Matches”, designed to test Simpson’s claim, took place in London on 16 June 1896 at the Catford Velodrome, supposedly the best cycle track in England, before a crowd estimated at 10,000 to 15,000. In a scene described as “altogether unprecedented”, the large Gladiator pacing team, hired for the Simpson riders, and clad in their distinctive light and dark blue costumes, gave the crowd an impressive pre-race show of strength by slowly riding four abreast round the banked track [6].

As the Chain Matches were designed to test both speed and endurance, they consisted of three races: a five mile match (won by the non-Simpson chain rider), a one-hour match (won by the Simpson rider) and the deciding 50-mile match, won by the Simpson rider Constant Huret, who set a number of records in the process [7].

The 2:1 result meant that there was no denying the success of the Simpson team, but there was still considerable scepticism in cycling circles about whether this was due to the Simpson chains, or to the natural superiority of the Simpson riders themselves and the skilled pacing provided by the Gladiator teams. Huret himself was reported as openly saying that he did not like the Simpson chain [8]. Wheeling magazine considered that the results “were the outcome of a man-to-man struggle, and its is quite probable that were the contestants all similarly mounted, or reversed as regards their chains, the [results] would remain the same. As a critical test of chain against chain, the races were valueless”[9]. Similarly, the Cyclist magazine considered that it was the pacing, not the chains, that proved crucial. It reported that:

“the plain chain riders certainly suffered from a lack of quadruplet pacing. The Simpson chain men had the services of nine quads [twelve according to some sources], two triplets, and a quint, while their opponents were served none too well by four quads and six triplets. Triplet pacing is all very well in a still atmosphere, but with a strong wind like that which blew down tho winning straight, the superiority in quads, to say nothing of the quintuplet, was greatly .in the. favour of the Lever chain riders” [10].

An unlikely cycling fan

What would Lautrec make of all this? He was not at first sight a traditional sporty type. In this era, way before the Paralympics had even been contemplated, his short stature and restricted movement would rule him out of any popular sporting pursuits.

Lautrec’s physical problems had begun early in his life. There had been significant intermarriage within the Lautrec extended family – his own parents were first cousins – resulting in a range of congenital health problems. Lautrec’s brother Richard died before his first birthday, and Lautrec himself was small and slow to develop, plagued by frequent illnesses. Increasingly painful problems with his legs and joints severely restricted his mobility. One of his few pleasures, apart from painting, became his tricycle which enabled him to move around and escape confinement in bed.

By the time Lautrec was 11, it had became clear that he had a crippling form of dwarfism, which was subsequently compounded by two accidental leg fractures His condition [11] involved an enlarged cranium, nose and lips, brittle bones in his legs and feet, and a height limited to 150 cms (4’11”). Its meant that while his upper body was relatively normally proportioned, his legs were abnormally short (Fig 4). He spent a good part of his early life in bed, and even later in his life, when his condition stabilized somewhat, he walked with difficulty.

Fig 4: Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa

Lautrec’s largely bed-ridden state during childhood meant that drawing and painting, which he loved, became his main recreation. In his limited world at the time, “engaging in art was a means to engage in life” [12]. He may have acquired his artistic talent from his largely-absentee father, Count Alphonse, who was an amateur artist [13]. The Count was also obsessed with hunting and outdoor sports, and this combination of interests in art and sport would reappear in Lautrec’s early works. One of his favorite (and lifelong) subjects was the horse. This was also probably influenced by Lautrec’s first teacher René Princeteau, who specialized in sporting pictures.

Despite his limitations, or possibly partly because of them, Lautrec would go on in adult life to develop an obsessional interest in action-based sports. The time was certainly ripe for it – in the 1890s, there was a general upsurge of interest in all sports in Europe, leading to the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. As Julia Frey notes, Lautrec, the frustrated athlete, became compulsively familiar with the vocabulary and technical aspects of a variety of sports in which he could participate as a spectator – horse riding, wrestling, yachting, bullfighting. “He watched them all with the same intensity that he watched a line of dancers or a circus bareback rider, attracted by the beauty of movement, but also by the smells, sounds and excitement of the spectacle” [14]. And the latest of Lautrec’s passions was provided by the exciting new boom sport – cycle racing.

The Simpson Chain poster

Lautrec was encouraged in his interest in the cycling scene by his friend Tristan Bernard [15], a journalist and comic writer for the art and literary magazine La Revue Blanche [16]. Bernard was heavily involved in cycling – he managed two velodromes in Paris, and edited the cycling magazine Le Journal Vélocipedistes [17]. Lautrec often went with him to watch and sketch cycle riders, and became acquainted with many of them. During this period, Bernard introduced Henri to Louis Bouglé, the Simpson company’s French representative. Bouglé also ran a bicycle shop called “Spoke”, which became his nickname.

A little later, in 1896, presumably as a result of these connections, Bouglé commissioned Lautrec to produce a poster advertising the controversial Simpson Lever Chain. Bouglé actually escorted Lautrec on a trip to London, where he met members of the Simpson racing team. Lautrec returned after his three day trip, enthused about the poster commission and the Simpson chain itself, which he considered, with considerable overoptimism, “may be destined to be a sensational success.” [18].

Lautrec’s first attempt at the poster, however, was rejected. Featuring the Welsh champion Jimmy Michael, Lautrec’s draft failed to accurately show details of the Simpson chain itself, to make specific reference to its name, or depict a competitive race (as distinct from a training session) or, for that matter, to feature a French champion. His second attempt, La Chaîne Simpson (Fig 2), was far more focused and dynamic in all respects, and was approved. It shows the champion French cyclist Constant Huret – of Chain Matches fame – in full flight at a Paris velodrome, energetically crouched over the front wheel of his bike, hard on the heels of another multi-bike.

In the far left background, are two pacing teams on five-seaters quints [19]. In the centre of the field are the company owner Simpson, Bouglė with his hands in his pockets and, adding to the sense of occasion, a musical band playing on the infield. The address of the Spoke shop appears in the left foreground, with the letters “L.B.” representing Bouglė’s initials.

The precise role of the multi-bike in front of Huret is not really clear [20]. Usually, it is referred to merely as “unidentified cyclists”, or as pacing team, or as Huret’s “trainers”. However this may be, the back rider appears to be cautiously turning their head to track Huret’s movements. As Huret’s bike is fitted with a precisely executed (and relatively accurate) Simpson chain, the implication may be that Huret with a Simpson chain is more than a match for an entire team. Alternatively, it may be that the backward looking rider is simply checking to see that Huret is keeping up with them.

Intriguingly, it seems clear, from the lipstick, bust and the curly locks escaping from under her cap, that the rider on the multi-bike is a woman. It may seem surprising that back in the 1890s women in skimpy modern-looking racing gear were scudding round velodromes with world champion male riders. But what is even more surprising is that Lautrec, who one presumes would wish to portray anyone whom Huret is chasing to be a worthwhile opponent, would show that opponent as an unknown woman, whom most of the viewing public at the time would not rate as competitive. This point has even more force, given that – as would be expected for a celebrity poster – the other main players in the poster are real-life persons. So the question arises – who is the woman rider?

One possible suggestion is that the rider is the teenaged Belgian champion and world record-setting cyclist Hélène Dutrieu (Fig 5). Hélène, later known as the “human arrow”, was in fact closely connected with the Simpson company, being a contracted member of the Simpson racing team, and featuring in other Simpson chain advertisements (Fig 6).

Fig 5: Hélène Dutrieu

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                                 Fig 6: Hélène Dutrieu in advertisement for the Simpson Chain

It is true that the Dutrieu’s brunette hair is darker that the yellowy ochre that Lautrec has given the rider. But Lautrec has done the same with Huret, transforming his dark-looking crew-cut hair (Fig 7) to a pale yellow. Lautrec was notorious for his disdain for literal color accuracy, especially when he had an opportunity to use his favorite orangey shades. In any event, as the print is limited to three basic colors, yellow, red and blue, using yellow for brown seems to be the only feasible alternative [21].


Fig 7: Constant Huret

As we shall see, Dutrieu’s extraordinary later career would, in fact, put all her male cycling contemporaries well in the shade But before we consider this in more detail, we need to understand the wider question of just how women’s participation in cycling – and sport in general – were commonly viewed in the 1890s.


The perils of female cycling…

The developments in cycling design which had contributed to the 1890s boom proved particularly attractive to women, especially with the introduction of lighter women’s models with a “drop” frame, which made it easier for them to mount and ride the bike. But, perhaps predictably, the idea of women riding bikes met with considerable opposition in some circles. This conformed to the traditional view that exercise and sport were simply not appropriate for women.

In the West, this attitude went at least as far back as the ancient Olympic Games, in which women could not compete and were not even allowed to watch, on pain of death [22]. Nor were any women invited to the first of the modern Olympics in 1896 – coincidentally the year in which The Simpson Chain appeared [23]. The prime mover behind the modern Olympics, Baron de Coubertin, shared the fairly general distaste at the time for the idea of women competing, or even perspiring, in public. Women’s traditionally-ascribed virtues of purity, shy beauty and submissiveness seemed to be incompatible with any demonstrations of unrestrained energy.

As late as 1912 the Baron defined the Olympics as “the solemn and periodic exhaltation of male athleticism with internationalism, as a base, loyalty as a means, art for its setting, and female applause as reward” [24]. Echoes of this attitude have continued to be felt for decades – women were not allowed in Olympic track and field events until 1928. Even then, they were not permitted in any event longer than 400 metres until 1960, and were not able to compete in the marathon until 1984. In the specific case of cycling, women could not compete at all in the Olympics until 1984. Women’s track cycling was not introduced until 1988, almost 100 years after it had been available for men.

Many of the concerns relating to cycling were couched in medical or pseudo-medical terms. So, for example, it was feared that cycling could lead to ailments such as “bicycle stoop” (from crouching over the handlebars), “cyclists’ sore throat” (from dust thrown up by the wheels) or the alarming-sounding “bicycle face” (supposedly caused by the constant worry of staying upright) [25]. It was also argued that the vigorous exercise would disturb women’s menstrual cycles, that the delicate balance of their constitutions would be damaged, and that their fragile strength would be depleted. A number of doctors and commentators also argued that the intimate contact between saddle and groin inherent in bike riding could actually be sexually stimulating for women, which – it went without saying – was a very bad thing. To counter this unwholesome result, “hygienic” saddles, with a rather suggestive gap where the offending contact would otherwise be made, were devised, and upright handlebars recommended.

The hypocrisy implicit in many of these reactions was obvious. As an 1894 Chicago Daily News article pointed out, “When a woman wants to learn anything or do anything useful or even have any fun there is always someone to solemnly warn her that it is her duty to keep well. Meanwhile, in many States she can work in factories ten hours a day, she can stand behind counters in badly ventilated stores from 8 o’clock to 6, she can bend over the sewing machine for about 5 cents an hour and no one cares enough to protest. But when these same women, condemned to sedentary lives indoors, find a cheap and delightful way of getting the fresh air and exercise they need so sorely there is a great hue and cry about their physical welfare.” [26].

… and the attractions

It may be difficult today to appreciate just how refreshingly liberating the bicycle could appear to be for many women and girls. As a sporty pastime that required neither excessive skill nor great strength to master, it offered a rare opportunity for them to indulge in an outdoors, physical and relatively safe but often exciting activity. As an essentially solo activity, cycling also provided an opportunity for them to be self-reliant, unchaperoned and independent, and its mobility gave them the freedom to travel anywhere they wished, outside the confines of the home. In a very real sense, bicycles could act as adventurous “freedom machines” for many women, and this was explicitly recognized in their marketing (Fig 8) [27]. For many men, of course, this could represent a challenge to traditional male/female relationships (Fig 9).

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Fig 9: “Her Choice”, Puck magazine                    

In an often-quoted interview in 1896, Susan B Anthony commented, “Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance” [28]. She later elaborated, “the moment she takes her seat [a woman] knows she can’t get into harm while she is on her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood”.

Some woman took this new sense of liberation to extremes. The self-described “new woman”, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky, a working married mother of three, left her family in 1895 to became the first woman to cycle around the world (more or less). Carrying only a change of clothes and a pearl handled revolver, and despite never having ridden a bicycle before, she earned her way by turning herself into a mobile advertising billboard [29]. She announced in her New York World column, “I am a journalist and a new woman, if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do”.

Fig 10A; Cecelia Beaux, “After the Meeting” (1914). Its bold depiction of the independent, vigorous ‘New Woman’ caused a sensation.

The other, related, attraction of bicycling for women was that it provided an opportunity to avoid the restrictive, heavy clothing that was normally required of them by current fashions and public expectations. The customary corsets, wasp waists, cover-all clothing, starched hoop petticoats and long heavy skirts were plainly impossible to reconcile with bicycling (or indeed most forms of exercise). Instead, bloomers (or “rationals”) in the form of baggy Turkish-style trousers became popular, shocking the sensitivities of many conservative onlookers [30].

As a committed bloomer enthusiast [31], Kopchovsky considered that the advent of the bicycle would create a reform in female dress that would be beneficial to the cause of womens’ rights. Similarly, the American suffragette Susan B Anthony commented approvingly on the bicycle’s role in promoting “sensible dress reform” [32] and considered that the stand that women were taking in the matter of dress was “no small indication that she has realised that she has an equal right with a man to control her own movements.” Referring to male opposition, she argued that “they changed their dress to suit themselves and we didn’t interfere. They have taken in every reef and sail and appear in skin tight garments. We did not bother our heads about their cycling clothes, and why should they meddle with what we want to wear?”[33].

It was this new freedom offered by bicycling – in dress, healthy movement, independence and a sense of equality – that prompted many involved with women’s rights, including the right to vote, to eagerly endorse it as an important step forward in their political cause. The suffragette Frances E Willard gloried in the exhilarating freedom and sense of achievement provided by bicycling after taking it up at the age of 53. She had been inspired to do so when a naval office told her, “You women have no idea of the new realm of happiness which the bicycle has opened up to us men”. In a telling phrase, she described her bicycle as an “an implement of power” and she “rejoiced … in perceiving the impetus that this uncompromising but fascinating and illimitably capable machine would give to that blessed ‘woman question’ ” [34].

Susan B. Anthony went further, arguing that the bicycle also educated women in the necessity for female suffrage, by encouraging them to actively participate in issues that mattered to them. She said that “When bicyclists want a bit of special legislation, such as side-paths and laws to protect them, or to compel railroads to check bicycles as baggage, the women are likely to be made to see that their petitions would be more respected by the law-makers if they had votes…. From such small practical lessons a seed is sown that may ripen into the demand for full suffrage, by which alone women can ever make and control their own conditions in society and state”[35]. Similarly, Maria E. Ward linked riding to both autonomy and responsible citizenship: “Riding the wheel, our own powers are revealed to us …. You have conquered a new world, and exultingly you take possession of it…. You feel at once the keenest sense of responsibility…. You become alert, active, quick-sighted, and keenly alive as well to the rights of others as to what is due yourself…. To the many who wish to be actively at work in the world, the opportunity has come” [36].

The human arrow

Against this background, let us return to the remarkable teenage cyclist Hélène Dutrieu. She was born in Belgium in 1877 [37]. Following a sharp reverse in her family’s fortunes, she had left school at 14 to earn a living. But she was not interested in typical Belgian women’s occupations of lace-making and embroidery. Instead, inspired by her brother Eugene, himself a champion bicyclist (and circus administrator), she took up cycling with a passion. She found that her diminutive, almost elfin and compact size [38], coupled with her natural coordination, her daring nature, and a surprising strength developed by hours on the bike, quickly made her a standout in the ranks of women cyclists. A way of earning a living thus presented itself. She turned professional.

Hélène enjoyed immediate success. As already mentioned, she became a track cyclist for the Simpson Lever Chain team, and in 1895, still only aged 18, broke the world record for distance travelled in one hour. She later easily won the prestigious 12 Days’ Lady Cyclists International Race in London (Fig 10) [39], twice won the women’s world sprint championships [40], won the Grand Prix d’Europe and was decorated for her cycling achievements by King Leopold II of Belgium.

Fig 10: 12 Days’ Lady Cyclists International race (1896), won by Hélène Dutrieu by a total of over 15 miles.

Hélène later began performing at special exhibitions and variety shows all over Europe, after perfecting some outstandingly daring cycling stunts. In a performance reported as being “probably the apex of cycling sensation”, Hélène’s Flying the Flume, presented in Berlin, Paris and London, was described this way:

“Mounted on a bicycle, the girl slides down a steep shoot, some seventy feet long, like a flash, and then up a short incline. Then there is a gap of 40 feet wide in the track. So terrific is their momentum, however, that bicycle and girl take one blood-curdling leap over this 40 foot of space, alight on the track on the other side, and then dash into a rope stretched across the path. When Mademoiselle does this feat there is only one unconcerned person, and that is herself”[41].

In words that would prove prophetic, Hélène, now billed as “the human arrow” [42], commented, “To go flying through the air is a delightful sensation”[43]. Soon, however, she further upped the ante by performing the stunt with a motor cycle, and later – even more alarmingly – with an automobile. Her popularity kept on rising. By 1908, she was reported to be earning £16,000 a year [44]. In this same year, however, while performing the stunt, Hélène suffered multiple serious injuries when the automobile fell on her.

During her months of convalescence from this accident, far from being daunted, Hélène decided that she would like to face a new, even more daring challenge – the heavier-than-air flying machine, newly invented by the Wright Brothers [45]. As soon as she had recovered, Hélène vowed, this would be her new challenge – she would become an aeroplane pilot.

A female tradition of flying

Actually, the concept of women flying was not new. Women, particularly in France, had been flying in lighter-than-air balloons for more than a hundred years [46]. So Hélène did have some role models to follow.

Possibly the most popular, and daring, of the early French balloonists – male or female – was the diminutive Sophie Blanchard. Her life had been transformed when her future husband, the balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, took her on her first flight in 1798 [47]. In his book Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes describes how the 20-year-old Sophie’s normal nervousness and shyness disappeared as soon as she experienced the “sensation incomparable” of entering the air. In the balloon, she became “confident and commanding, a natural entertainer and a provoking exhibitionist, daring to the point of recklessness” [48].

Sophie quickly developed into a skilled professional, specializing in night ascents with spectacular firework displays which drew huge crowds. Her entrepreneurial flair was extraordinary. Instead of using the usual large canopy and wicker basket, her performances came to involve an ascent in a terrifyingly-exposed, tiny decorative silver gondola/cradle, suspended from a silk balloon. As Holmes describes it, “it was virtually like standing in a flying champagne bucket” (Fig 11) [49].

Fig 11: Illustration, Sophie Blanchard balloon ascent, Milan, 1811.

Holmes goes on to record how, as Sophie’s ambitions and skills increased, her small balloon lifted more and more complicated pyrotechnical rigs, with long booms carrying rockets and cascades, and suspended networks of lights, all of which she would skilfully ignite with extended systems of tapers and fuses. Dressed in her trademark huge, extravagantly-plumed hat and an elegant white tight-fitting gown with low décolletage, “her small white figure would appear like some unearthly airborne creature or apparition, suspended several hundred feet overhead in the night sky, above a sea of flaming stars and colored smoke”[50].

Despite competition from her rival Ėlisa Garnerin [50A], Sophie became Napoleon’s Aéronaute des Fétes Officielles, with responsibility for organizing ballooning displays at all major public events in Paris. Later, after Napoleon’s fall, King Louis XVIII appointed her Official Aeronaut of the Restoration. She gave displays throughout Europe – ascending as high as 12,000 feet, enduring icy conditions, all-night and marathon flights, occasional crash landings and even bouts of unconsciousness. After a 15 year career, however, she had her last, fatal crash. Falling onto rooftops when her hydrogen balloon ignited during a display, she became the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.

Sophie’s daredevil tradition was revived towards the end of the century, particularly in England, where dozens of celebrity women aeronauts and “artistes” began performing at county fairs and festivals [51]. One of the most famous was the 20-year-old Dolly Shepherd, who popularised a particularly daring balloon act in which she ascended several thousand feet hanging onto a trapeze, from which she released herself and dropped back to earth by parachute. Echoing Sophie Blanchard’s experience, Dolly said she “never lost that sense of wonderment and ecstasy whenever [she] floated alone in the awesome silence” [52].

The popularity of ballooning, however, was already in some decline, a trend that was hastened by the invention of the aeroplane. And this is where Hélène Dutrieu, now newly recovered from her accident, and with a “terrible thirst to fly” [53], re-enters our story….

The human arrow becomes the “girl hawk”

At this primitive stage of their development, aeroplanes were highly unsafe, fragile, unreliable and challenging. With castor oil being used as the main motor oil, flying could also be nauseating. At this stage, there was virtually no training; it was strictly a case of “at your own risk”. With her small size [54], her extensive biking and her stunt background, Hélène had the ideal credentials to be a natural flier. But in aeroplanes, she was forced to use every skill that she possessed, just to stay alive.

Oddly enough, there seemed to be less conservative opposition to women flying than there had been to women bicycling. Possibly the critics had been softened up by the bicycling experience, or by the previous history of female balloonists. Maybe many men felt that they could hardly criticize women who were undeniably achieving things that they themselves would have too terrified (or sensible) to even try. And it was an undeniable fact that women’s lightness of weight and touch could be assets in flimsy aeroplanes. In 1910, for example, at a time when there were only five women in the world licensed to fly, one newspaper conceded,

“Given a woman with sufficient nerve to withstand the buffeting inseparable from first experiments, her natural swiftness of movement, her sense of touch, and her ‘intuition’ enable her to equal, if not excel, men rivals in the delicate manipulation of the levers of an aeroplane in flight” [55].

Even matters of dress were more muted. Although there was a minor scandal when the shocking fact was revealed that Hélène did not wear a corset while flying, it seemed to be now fairly well accepted that knickerbockers or trouserettes were suitable clothing for “lady aviators”.

Hélène herself had a rather ignominious start to her flying career. She crashed badly on her maiden flight testing the newly-developed, ultra light Demoiselle monoplane (Fig 12). Several flights (and several emergencies) later, she graduated to a heavier and more stable plane, inadvertently setting a women’s record for longest time spent on a flight – 20 minutes – due to her disconcerting discovery that was easier to keep flying than to land [56]. She carried her first passenger a few days later, possibly becoming the first woman pilot to do so [57].

Fig 12: Hélène Dutrieu with Demoiselle, before first unsuccessful flight

Shortly after, she acquired her official license from both Belgium and France, becoming the first Belgian woman to do so, and the fourth in the world [58]. From 1910, she was piloting the more sophisticated Farman aircraft in exhibitions and competitions before excited crowds in Belgium, France, England, Italy, Russia and the United States, setting a remarkable series of world records (altitude reached, distance covered, and time in flight) She beat her highly competitive rivals to win the inaugural Coupe Fémina (“Women’s Cup”) for long distance flights, and her fame continued to spread. In 1913 she was named a member of the French Legion of Honor. The “Human Arrow” had become the “Girl Hawk” [59].

“Flying is my greatest pleasure’” she once declared. “I believe it will be as common among women as it is becoming among men. In fact, I feel certain that women as well as men will use flying machines to travel from town to town”. And she lay down the gauntlet: “The man who wants me must catch me in the air” [60].

The outbreak of the First World War put a sudden and permanent halt to Hélène’s active flying career. Women were of course forbidden on active service, and Hélène became an ambulance driver, and later the director of a military hospital. After the war she married Pierre Mortier, a journalist, novelist and playwright who later became a radical-socialist member of the French Chamber of Deputies. After taking French residence and nationality, Hélène became vice president of the women’s section of the Aero Club of France and in 1953 was awarded the Medaille de l”Aeronautique. She later created the Hélène Dutrieu-Mortier Cup for the French or Belgian woman pilot who made the longest non-stop flight each year.

Hélène’s extraordinarily varied life came to a close in 1961 [61]. She had outlived Toulouse-Lautrec, whose physical ailments had been compounded by acute alcoholism, by a full 60 years.


Lautrec’s Simpson Chain poster has led us into a story of odd connections. A story of a severely physically disabled artist that still got his metaphorical kicks from watching others compete in sports. Of a woman who was performing death-defying feats on bicycles and in aeroplanes at a time when women were regarded as too delicate to run more than one lap of an oval. And of a movement devoted to advancing womens’ rights that embraced an activity that would outwardly appear to be totally divorced from politics.

Possibly, too, in totally different ways, Lautrec’s and Dutrieu’s stories can be seen as exemplifying the triumph of the human spirit over the obstacles – physical, psychological and social – that can often be thrown into the pathway towards worthwhile achievement.



This article was reproduced with permission from Philip McCouat and Journal of Art in Society © 2016

Journal of Art in Society

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