A dancer and clown at the Nouveau Cirque and the Moulin Rouge, Cha-U-Kao owes her Japanese sounding name to the phonetic transcription of the French words "chahut" (an acrobatic dance derived from the cancan) and "chaos" referring to the uproar that occurred when she came on stage.
Like La Goulue, Cha-U-Kao is a recurring figure in the painter's work and belongs to the world of Parisian showbiz in the late 19th century. Her work as a clown and sometimes even an acrobat nonetheless brought her closer to the circus tradition – which also fascinated the painter – than to the cabarets.
Unlike the series of drawings or lithographs in which Cha-U-Kao appeared under the spotlights, Toulouse-Lautrec here offers a more private view of his character, shown in her dressing room or a private room. Painted in oils on card, Cha-U-Kao is trying to fasten a large yellow ruffle to the bodice of her stage costume. The outsized ruffle, which takes up a large part of the surprising composition, is echoed by the yellow ribbon which almost ironically attaches the clown's white toupee.
Above a small table we can see a portrait or mirror in which there is a reflection of an elderly man who could be a close friend, an admirer or a customer.Toulouse-Lautrec has covered the entire surface of the painting with a series of lively, colourful brushstrokes, green for the walls or red for the sofa. The unusual cropping and the studied treatment of textures go well with the trivial and private nature of the scene.