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Toulouse-Lautrec, Chronicler of the Belle Epoque

A major exhibition at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts will explore Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s depiction of the stars and entertainments of 19th-century Montmartre, the bohemian center of Parisian nightlife.

The exhibition examines how Toulouse-Lautrec pushed his art in new directions to portray the celebrities of his time — cabaret stars Yvette Guilbert and Aristide Bruant, dancers Jane Avril and Loïe Fuller, actress Marcelle Lender — many of whom were his personal friends, and contributed to their fame through his hugely popular prints and posters.

“To think that I would never have been a painter if my legs had been a little longer.” Thus mused Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec about the disability that had confined him to bed for long stretches as a child, prompting him to turn to art to pass time that might otherwise have been spent horseback riding or engaging in another of the outdoor pursuits favored by members of his social class. Born into an ancient aristocratic family in the southern French town of Albi in 1864, he suffered from what is now believed to have been a genetic disorder that left him with severely stunted legs. He might well have remained merely a talented amateur draftsman like his father and grandfather before him had his infirmity not given him the leeway to pursue a career considered so unseemly that he was urged to use pseudonyms to protect the family name.


Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris in 1882 and studied with academic painters but soon fell under the influence of more forward-looking artists, notably Degas. His innate genius for caricature refused to be stifled by the academic practice of copying the Old Masters. As his friend the painter François Gauzi explained, “in spite of himself, he exaggerated certain details, sometimes the general character, so that he distorted without trying or even wanting to.”

Within two years, he was renting his own studio in Montmartre, an area home to many avant-garde artists and a louche nightlife scene booming thanks to a newly expanded middle class with money to burn on entertainment and an 1880 law that made it much easier to open bars and cabarets. The prosperity fueled by industrialization led in turn to an explosion of advertising. Artists were able to increase both their income and their audience as new techniques such as lithography allowed for the mass reproduction of images. The affiche artistique was born, and affichomanie took hold, with the city becoming a giant outdoor exhibition space and collectors tearing down posters as soon as they went up.


Aristide Bruant in his Cabaret, 1893. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The stars could not have been more aligned for an artist with Toulouse-Lautrec’s particular set of skills. Enjoying both personal and professional relationships with the local nightclub owners and performers, he created some of the most enduring images of the Belle Epoque. As Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott has written, “among Toulouse-Lautrec’s many talents was the ability to divine a performer’s trademark affectation or gesture, and give it succinct visual form. He helped brand the angle of a dancer’s leg in the famous poster advertising La Goulue’s performances at the Moulin Rouge, and the red scarf and imperious sneer of the singer and café owner Aristide Bruant.” Indeed, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, his very first affiche, brought him overnight success; some 3,000 impressions of it were printed. Yet his images are so much more than masterful pieces of marketing; they are also deft character studies and astute works of social commentary.

Museum-goers can come face to face with La Goulue, Jane Avril, and other celebrities of the era at Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris, which brings together more than 200 paintings and works on paper by the artist and his contemporaries, among them Degas, Bonnard, and Vuillard. In addition to summoning up fin-de-siècle Paris — the city by day and by night and the microcosm of cafés, cabarets, and theaters with their mashup of social classes–the show examines Toulouse-Lautrec’s formal innovations, the undeniable modernity of his work. While the simplified forms and heavily outlined, flat areas of color owe a clear debt to Japanese woodblock prints, they also look forward to Pop Art, as does, even more obviously, the subject matter and blending of “high” and “low” culture. As Cora Michael, a former curator of prints and drawings at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has observed, “It is fair to say that, without Lautrec, there would be no Andy Warhol.”

Toulouse‑Lautrec_jane-avrilJane Avril, 1893. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Bruant at  the Mirliton, 1893. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston



Jane Avril, 1899. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Toulouse‑Lautrec_May_MiltonMay Milton, 1895. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Divan Japonais, 1893. © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris

From April 7 through August 4, 2019
Museum of Fine Arts
Boston, MA

Article published in the April 2019 issue of France-Amérique

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