Maxime Dethomas

Maxime Dethomas (1896) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Maxime Pierre Dethomas (October 13, 1867 - January 21, 1929) was a painter, draughtsman, pastellist, lithographer, illustrator, and was "among the best known metteurs en scene and decorators" of theatres.[1] As an artist, Dethomas was highly regarded by his contemporaries and exhibited widely, both within France and abroad. During the later part of his career, he is best remembered for his work overseeing set and costume design for the Théâtre National de l'Opéra and the Théâtre des Arts, Comédie-Française. The Musée d'Orsay (Paris), the Pushkin Museum (Moscow) and the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg) hold works by Dethomas, but the majority of his best work remain in the private collections of his descendants. A large collection of Dethomas's theatrically related work is held at the Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra National de Paris. Dethomas is also remembered for his close friendship with the artists Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, his brother in-law Ignacio Zuloaga and his association with Les Nabis and other important Symbolist and Post Impressionist artists and writers. Dethomas died in 1929 and was buried at the Passy Cemetery in Paris.[2]


Born in Garges-lès-Gonesse, Val-d'Oise, Maxime Dethomas came from a long line of painter-printers on one side of his family and of lawyers on the other. His father, Jean-Albert Dethomas (1842–1891), was an important Parisian politician. His step mother Louise Thierree (Jean-Albert married twice – Maxime was of the first marriage) belonged to the affluent middle-class of Bordeaux.[3]

Dethomas enrolled at the École des Arts Décoratifs in 1887 at which he studied for a brief time, followed by a more varied course, from 1891 onwards, at the Académie de La Palette (104 Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre) directed by Henri Gervex, Puvis de Chavannes and Eugène Carrière.[4] Carrière's influence played a significant part in the early development of Dethomas's art, and he would go on to be a close friend of both the artist and his family. Dethomas passed much of his time at the bookshop of the Revue Indépendante run by Edouard Dujardin, and it was here that Dethomas first met Louis Anquetin and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Dethomas worked primarily as an artist from the early 1890's until his appointment in 1910 as the director of design at the Théâtre des Arts.


Dethomas's early style owes most to the influence of Carrière and Degas, whilst later works tend more towards that of Toulouse-Lautrec, Legrand and Forain.[5] Dethomas claimed that his inspiration was guided by artists of earlier generations, particularly Goya, Delacroix and Manet, but his individuality of style ensured he would "not be influenced in his work by any methods or thoughts other than his own".[4] He realised vigorous pastel and charcoal drawings, (and some few oil paintings) showing cafe scenes, views of Paris and Venice, as well as portraits of his friends and associates. He primarily worked with broad strokes in charcoal and pastel, often enhanced by the masterful use of the splatter brush, with drizzles and sprays of colour reminiscent of Lautrec lithographs.

Degas, an avid supporter of Dethomas, spoke highly of his work asserting "it has weight". Described by Philippe Berthelot as "le meilleur fils de Degas", Dethomas none-the-less exhibited sparingly during the 1890's. Contemporary accounts suggest a "supercilious modesty prevented him from over exhibiting his work though no artists merchant forbade him". In a letter written by Lautrec in the summer of 1895 to Joseph Ricci, Lautrec refers to Dethomas as his dear friend and compliments him as a painter "who doesn’t talk about his paintings, something that is be admired". Despite his early reluctance to exhibit, he participated in some of the most significant exhibitions of the 1890's. His first solo exhibition in 1900 marked a turning point in his willingness to accept notoriety, leading to both considerable accolades and public recognition.

Dethomas was also a prolific lithographer. By 1895, he was producing programmes for the Théâtre de l'Œuvre and exhibition and advertising posters with Edward Ancourt and Auguste Clot. Through his close connections in literary circles, many of his lithographs were published in print. With his illustrations engraved by Léon Pichon and Emile Gasperini, he illustrated works by many influential authors including Maurice Donnay and Octave Mirbeau.

Dethomas marketed his art via Galerie Durand-Ruel and Galerie Druet. Consequently, many of his works were acquired by influential collectors such as Olivier Sainsére and Sergei Shchukin. Dethomas is known to have had his works framed by the frame-maker and art dealer Pierre Cluzel (1850–1894), and his successor L. Vivien. In 1912, Dethomas was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur.


Dethomas worked under Jacques Rouché during his tenure at the Théâtre des Arts (1910–1913). Upon assuming management of the theater, Rouché enlisted the talents of several artists of Les Nabis who had contributed to his magazine, La Grande Revue, including Jacques Dresa, René Piot and Maxime Dethomas, none of which had previously worked for the stage.[6] As director of the Services Plastiques, Dethomas embarked on a career that would last for the remainder of his life. The Théâtre des Arts represented a major shift away from facile acting, shallow content and the painted-canvas drawing rooms of commercial theater that were the norm. The inaugural production, Carnaval des Enfants (1910), marked a major theatrical revolution by which Dethomas's settings accentuated line and colour, rather than a focus on painted detail and endless props. Against blue, ochre, grey and steel, black costumed characters created striking pictorial compositions in lighting effects that "varied like inflections in a conversation." The Théâtre des Arts went on to present nearly twenty plays, including Jacques Copeau's adaptation of Brothers Karamazov (1911), and the production of La Tragédie de Salomé (1912), both a popular and critical success.[7] Due to the small size of the theater, it eventually ran into financial trouble and closed.

Hired to direct and design at the Paris Opera (1914–1936), Rouché and Dethomas went on to offer fresh interpretation of old material and to make inroads into stale scenic convention.[8] By 1917 Dethomas was also designing sets for the Comédie Française.[9] Dethomas's reputation as a set and costume designer was such that in early 1912, he was commissioned by the British aristocracy to design a set and costumes for a London masked ball with some 2000 guests.[10] Guillaume Apollinaire declared that Dethomas's influence on French Theatre had "transformed the art of scenery, costume design and staging .[11] In 1926 the Opéra-Comique in Paris celebrated Manuel de Falla's 50th birthday with a program consisting of La Vida Breve, El Amor Brujo, and Master Peter's Puppet Show, with new designs by Falla's close friend Ignacio Zuloaga, and new marionettes carved by Dethomas.[12] Dethomas once wrote that above all else decor should be a good servant of the play and that a designer must get beyond a painterly "feel" to something more solid.[13]

Associations and Friendships

Lautrec, always drawn to physical eccentricity, nicknamed him Grosnabre (the big tree) for his imposing height and dead-pan face; Thadée Natanson described him as a gentle giant, polished and discreet – "He was so frightened of wearing anything that might draw attention to himself that even the black of his clothes seemed duller than that worn by others." Paul Leclercq states that Lautrec was fascinated by Dethomas's "ability to preserve an impassive appearance even in a place of amusement ".[14] Dethomas's placidity, corpulence and extreme shyness (he always blushed when he had to raise his voice) endeared him to Lautrec.[15] Philippe Berthelot recalled that Lautrec playfully attributed his companion super-human strength and would loudly declare with mock seriousness that Dethomas "could have anyone's hide at his leisure!".

In 1887 Dethomas began frequenting the library of La Revue Indépendante, a favorite haunt of artists and writers, in which he first befriended Louis Anquetin and Toulouse-Lautrec. Dethomas and Lautrec's friendship blossomed – so much so, that Dethomas would go on to become Lautrec's "favourite companion" and "closest friend".[16] They lived but streets apart, often visiting the cafes, cabarets, shady bars and brothels of Montparnasse, including extended stays at the notorious Rue de' Amboise or in the Rue Joubert. On the 16th February, 1895, an infamous soiree was held by the Natanson's to celebrate the unveiling of murals by Vuillard. Dethomas and Lautrec, tending bar with absurd costumes and flourishes of theatrical drama, served over two thousand cocktails to three hundred guests. The event was long remembered as one the most debaucherous evenings of the fin-de-siècle. These escapades inevitably played an essential role in the development and themes of Lautrec's art.[17]

Dethomas and Lautrec's adventures together were not only limited to the streets of Paris. They traveled extensively throughout the 1890's, visiting exhibitions, museums and mutual friends or exploring towns such as Dinard, Granville and Arromanches. During the summer of 1895, they journeyed to the coast of Normandy together.[14] From photographs taken by Dethomas on one such visit to St. Malo with the Natansons, he later modeled two portraits of Lautrec, both of which now hang at the museum in Albi.

In 1897 (June 20 - July 5), Dethomas and Lautrec sailed Holland's canals on a barge, visiting Utrecht and the Frans Hals Museum at Haarlem and the island of Walcheren. The trip had been the suggestion of Dethomas in a vain attempt at moderating Lautrec's increasing reliance on alcohol. Accounts differ, but the trip appears to have ended early at Lautrec's behest. Before long, Lautrec went into a furious rage and refused to go ashore; children were running behind the barge on the bank of the canal, taking them to be the giant and dwarf that would perform circus tricks for their delight.[18]

Lautrec featured Dethomas in his artistic works a number of times. On April 6, 1895, the former Moulin Rouge dancer Louise 'La Gouloue' Weber commissioned two large canvases to adorn her travelling show's tent. Dethomas appears on the left-hand panel with his back turned to the viewer. In 1896, Lautrec declared "I will capture your immobility in places of pleasure", painting the now famous portrait of Maxime Dethomas at the Bal de l'Opera (N.G.A., Washington). Another portrait of his friend took the form of a risque lithograph entitled Debauche Avec Dethomas, later used on the cover of an exhibition catalogue of June, 1896. During the final years of Lautrec's decent into full-blown alcoholism, Dethomas and Romain Coolus would rarely leave his side, often escorting him to his Montmartre home at the end of long sessions of drinking. Lautrec's convalescence at Madrid-les-Bains and Bordeaux prompted Dethomas to make the journey for his old friend. Their friendship lasted until the end of Lautrec's life.[19]

Dethomas had a number of prominent writer friends, one of which was Marcel Proust. Proust made a glowing mention of Dethomas's landscapes of Venice in The Sweet Cheat Gone and discussed the quality of his work at an exhibition held at Galerie Durand-Ruel.[20] In a March, 1903 letter to Dethomas, Proust wrote that after having seen his exhibition, he received "a profound initiation to the understanding of nature and love of life." He continued, "it seems that one has gotten from you new eyes to look at life and men and even down to those little windows on the Grand Canal that I would love to juxtapose with yours."[21]

During 1889/90, Dethomas formed a life-long friendship with the Spanish artist Ignacio Zuloaga.[22] Zuloaga studied in Paris under Eugène Carrière with Dethomas. Dethomas invited Zuloaga to stay with his family for some period, during which Zuloaga formed a bond with Maxime's Half-Sister, Marie-Valentine. Zuloaga went on to marry Marie-Valentine on May 18, 1899, with Eugène Carrière and Isaac Albéniz as witnesses.[3]

The author Pierre Louys was also a close companion of Dethomas and had collaborated with him on the first edition of Le Centaure in 1896. During August and September 1898, Dethomas acted as a marriage broker of sorts, attempting to bring together his sister Germaine and Pierre Louys, a plot that was thwarted by Dethomas's Stepmother.[23]



Dethomas made an important contribution to the renaissance of book production in France.[28] The following list, though incomplete, gives a broad representation of Dethomas's contribution to published works:

  • Collectif, Le Centaure, Vol 1 and 2, 1896
  • Jean de Tinan, Aimienne, Ou le Detournement de Mineure, 1899
  • Collectif, Vers et Prose, No.6, 1906
  • Henri de Regnier, Esquisses Venetiennes, 1906
  • Collectif, Art et Decoration, Fevrier 1909
  • Paul Adam, Le Trust, 1910
  • Collectif l'Art Décoratif, May 20, 1912
  • Collectif, Excelsior, various issues, 1916
  • Jean Giraudoux, Amica America, 1918
  • François Chateaubriand, La Campagne Romaine, 1919
  • Jean Giraudoux, Adieu à la Guerre, 1919
  • Rudyard Kipling, La Plus Belle Histoire du Monde, 1919
  • Collectif, Comoedia, various issues, 1920-2
  • Jean and Jérome Tharaud, Dingley l'illustre écrivain, 1920
  • Paul Claudel, Tete D’or Drame, 1920
  • Andre Lebey, Jean de Tinan, 1921
  • Boileau Despreaux, Le Lutrin, 1921
  • Jaques Cazotte, Le Diable Amoureux, 1921
  • Jean de Tinan, Noctambulismes, 1921
  • Andre Maurois, Ariel ou la Vie de Shelly, 1922
  • Arthur Gobineau, Scaramouche, 1922
  • Molière, Theatre Complet, 1923
  • Albert Touchard, La Mort du Loup, 1924
  • Edmond Jaloux, Le Reste est Silence, 1924
  • Jean Giraudoux, Le Couvent de Bella, 1925
  • Ouvers Completes Illustrees de Anatole France, 1925
  • Charles de Saintcyr, Sous le Signe du Caribou, 1928
  • François Mauriac, La Nuit du Bourreau de Soi-meme, 1929



  1. Huddleston, 126
  2. Prade, 131
  3. 1 2 Milhou, 1979
  4. 1 2 Taylor, 78
  5. Wright, 221
  6. (Garafola, 86)
  7. Garafola, 154
  8. (Londre, 498)
  9. (Carson, 79)
  10. (Howard, 92)
  11. (Bruenig, 221)
  12. (Agen, 150,180)
  13. (Cheney, 5, 92)
  14. 1 2 Cooper, 130
  15. Lassaigne, 119
  16. Craven, 280
  17. Neret, 133
  18. Cooper, 130; Gauzi, 27; Southbank, 538
  19. Cooper, 152
  20. (Carter, 337)
  21. 1 2 Bucknall, 178
  22. (Boone, 179)
  23. Neideraruer, 71-73
  24. J.Huncker, N.Y. Times, September 1911
  25. See: Burlington Magazaine, Apr., 1911
  26. (Burlington Magazine, Feb., 1912).
  27. Blotkamp, 81
  28. Garner, 113


  • Agen, Manzani Diaz. Manuel de Falla: His Life and Works. Omnibus Press, 1999.
  • Apollinaire, Guillaume. Apollinaire on Art: Essays and Reviews, 1902-1918. Viking Press, 1972
  • Blotkamp, Carel. De Stijl: The Formative Years, 1917-1922. MIT Press, 1986.
  • Boone, Elizabeth. Vistas de España: American Views of Art and Life in Spain. Yale University Press, 2007
  • Bucknall, Barabara. Critical Essays on Marcel Proust. G.K. Hall, 1987.
  • Carson, Lionel. The Stage Year Book. Carson & Commerford, 1917.
  • Carter, William. Marcel Proust: A Life. Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Cheney, Sheldon. Stage Decoration. Blom, 1966.
  • Cooper, Douglas. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. H.N. Abrams, New York, 1956
  • Craven, Thomas. A Treasury of Art Masterpieces. Simon and Schuster, 1958
  • Dortu, M.G.. Lautrec by Lautrec. Galahad, New York, 1964
  • Garafola, Lynn. Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance. Wesleyan University Press, 2005
  • Garner, Philippe. Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts. Galahad Books, 1982.
  • Gauzi, François. My Friend Toulouse-Lautrec. Spearmen, London, 1957.
  • Gold, Arthur. Misia: The Life of Misia Sert. Knopf, 1980
  • Hecht, Anne. Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings, Drawings, Posters, and Lithographs. Museum of Modern Art, N.Y. 1956.
  • Howard, Jean. Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Routledge, 2005.
  • Huddleston, Sisley. France and the French. Cape, 1928.
  • Huntington Wright, Willard. Modern Painting - Its Tendency and Meaning.
  • Lassaigne, Jacques. Lautrec: Biographical and Critical Studies. 1972.
  • Londre, Felicia. The History of World Theatre. Continuum, 1999.
  • Milhou, Mayi. Ignacio Zuloaga et la France, These d'Histoire de l'Art, October 1979, Bordeaux III.
  • Neiderauer, David. Pierre Louÿs, His Life and Art. Canadian Federation for the Humanities, 1981.
  • Néret, Gilles. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864-1901. Taschen, 1999
  • Prade, Guy de la. Le Cimetière de Passy et ses Sépultures Celebres. Editions des Ecrivains, 1998.
  • Taylor, E.A. The Studio - Vol 84, No 353, August 1922, London.
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