Yvette Guilbert (1867–1944) was a French cabaret singer of international fame who performed in the avant-garde café culture in the late nineteenth century. She frequently took the stage at venues such as the Moulin Rouge, located in the Montmartre district of Paris—home to many writers, painters, musicians, intellectuals, and artists, including Medardo Rosso. Audiences were captivated by Guilbert’s distinctive performance style which incorporated both song and spoken word, and clothing that accentuated her unfashionably tall and lanky physique.
In 1885, Guilbert sat for Rosso, which resulted in the portrait pictured above. In this sculpture he rendered her eyes and mouth partly closed with her head tilted down at an angle, suggesting that Rosso may have captured her in a fleeting moment, perhaps while singing an emotional or introspective song. Her famous features—a pointy nose and chin—are present but deemphasized. The pink-tinged yellow paint on the sculpture’s plaster surface may refer to stage lighting washing over the singer’s face or reference Guilbert’s signature strawberry-blonde hair color. The sharp cuts along Guilbert’s neck may indicate a necklace, which she often wore to accentuate her long neck. A well-known figure of Paris nightlife, Guilbert was the subject for several artists, most famously Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who immortalized her café posters.