Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) wasn’t actually a dwarf. He’d inherited several congenital diseases that caused him to break both his legs at a young age; they didn’t heal properly. For the remainder of his life, he’d have legs of child size but adult proportions otherwise. A denizen of the Montmartre demimonde, his fine-art works (all comparable to Degas) are obscure compared to the revolution he created in lithography, and in commercial posters that epitomized the decadence of 1890s Paris.
Parisian actress Marcelle Lender had been appearing in a series of comic operas, principally at the Théâtre des Variétés, since 1889. Utterly enamored with the performer, Lautrec did many drawings of her in a variety of her roles. Here, she is depicted in Chilpéric, an operetta-revue that was revived in 1895. “The main attraction in Chilpéric was the bolero, danced by Marcelle Lender as the Galaswintha at the court of King Chilpéric. It was not so much the flimsy plot of this medieval farce as the actress … who led Lautrec to sit through the operetta nearly twenty times. Always watching from the same angle, from one of the first tiers on the left, he would lie in wait with his sketch pad” (Adriani, p. 157). Lautrec’s attentions were well repaid. His half-length portrait of Lender in her fantastic Spanish costume, bowing to the audience applause, is considered a lithographic masterpiece. “No other lithograph is printed with such a wealth of subtle color combinations, and none embodies, as this does, the opulent decoration of an age moving towards its close” (Adriani, p. 161). This is the Pan edition.
An English dancer at the Moulin-Rouge, May Milton was in an affair with May Belfort (see following lot). Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of her is so subtly bizarre that Picasso included it in the background of his early painting “The Bath” (1901). “Milton is shown in a seemingly impossible position,” Ebria Feinblatt writes. “Lautrec so twists the position of Milton’s right leg that, instead of a back kick, the foot emerges from the side. At the same time, this pose answers the artist’s need to continue the unbroken, undulating pattern that starts with the wavy hair hanging down to her puffed shoulder sleeve… the undeniable presence of the figure [is] arresting” (Wagner, p. 27).
“May Belfort, whom [Lautrec] represented in at least ten works, had gained a reputation for corrupt innocence by appearing onstage dressed as a baby holding a black kitten in her arms, and ‘miaowing or bleating’ her popular song, “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,” whose lines had a double meaning which was not lost on the French-speaking audience: ‘I’ve got a pussycat, I’m very fond of that’” (Frey, p. 382). This would have been particularly amusing for the audience, as Belfort was in an openly lesbian affair with the English dancer May Milton.
Pictured at the Divan Japonais café concert, Jane Avril “appears to be almost smiling, as if the whole thing were an inside joke. Jane is accompanied – or, more likely, being accosted – by noted critic Edouard Dujardin, no doubt with amorous intentions, but Avril’s faintly bemused expression indicates that she is used to this, and will be able to handle him without any trouble. Note that the performer – although it is a great celebrity, the famous Yvette Guilbert – is not the focus of the poster, and Toulouse-Lautrec makes sure of it not only by placing her somewhat indistinctly in the poorly-lit background, but even by going to the length of deliberately cutting her head off … Toulouse-Lautrec has made good use of spatter, a technique which adds another dimension to poster art: here, for example, it effectively separates the solid black of Jane’s dress from the less important dark mass of the bar and the orchestra” (Wine Spectator, 42).
“This official poster for La Revue Blanche is considered by many to be Lautrec’s strongest individual work. In it, using a combination of economical line and implied movement, large flat areas of color and carefully observed detail, he shows Misia Natanson, wife of the magazine’s editor, Thadée Natanson, ice-skating at the Palais de Glace, an ice rink opened at the Rond-Point des Champs Elysses by Jules Roques in 1894. The entire poster is like a little joke, as if Lautrec were amusing himself by proving that he could show an ice-skater without ever showing her skates” (Frey, p. 408).